By: S.R Nair, Mentor Director, MentorGuru Professional Services Pvt. Ltd.
15 May 2014

Sardar Manmohan Sigh became the 13th Prime minister of India in the year 2004 (not chronologically but people wise) when his party leader Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, an Italian turned Indian and also the wife of slain former Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, refused to adorn the PM Chair after the Congress winning the election that year by deposing the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). For a family that ruled India for 65 % of the independent era till 2004, the sacrifice of giving away the hot seat was done by ensuring a crony PM in the seat and Manmohan Singh fitted the bill very well, for he was part of no group within congress and his loyalty to the family was absolutely TOTAL. Also, having no political base of his own (he represented the upper house of parliament as a nominated member of Assam State), he would be in no position to usurp the so called “first family” of the country. In comparison with other PM aspirants like Pranab Mukherji, AK Antony, Arjun Singh etc., the family knew that with Singh on the chair, it would have perfect control of everything; power, position and money.

Academically brilliant, Dr Singh did his doctorate in Economics from Oxford University. After having worked in UNCTAD for two years, he came back to India to become a professor of International trade in Delhi School of Economics. Later he became a bureaucrat as an advisor to Central Minister of Trade & Commerce and thereafter, ascended to prestigious positions as the Chief Economic advisor to the Country’s Finance Minister, Governor of Reserve Bank of India and the coveted post of Deputy Chairman of Indian Planning Commission! When Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister of India in the year 1991, he handpicked Manmohan Singh as his finance minister. The peculiarity of India’s economic position then demanded a forward thinking economist to change the financial fortunes of the country and as finance minister of India, Singh truly did wonders by opening up Indian economy and also by ensuring fastest economic growth for the nation from then on. One could easily give him full credit of bringing financial independence to Indians who otherwise languished so poorly in a closed up economy dictated by socialistic democratic (!) norms.

All the while as a minister, he was always very calm, never was part of group politics in Congress Party (for which the party is very famous) and he never blew his own trumpet. He was completely obedient to his political masters. And his integrity was unquestionable. Lo and behold, Madam Gandhi gave the hot seat away by gifting it to Manmohan Singh, knowing fully well that he would completely be loyal to the family, come what may! This consistent, dogged loyalty gave him 10 years as the Prime Minister of India. While he allowed the back seat driving pleasures to Sonia Gandhi, in his own way, he tried to grow the country. In his first term, the nation grew very well and as a result, the people rewarded the Congress to return to power after the elections for another five years. Nobody would ever refute that it is only thanks to the good governance delivered to the country that Manmohan Singh was returned to power for another term, a feat other than Nehru, no PMs could achieve, in independent India.

However, nothing went well in his second term. It is not that he became complacent but many elements worked against him. The power of coalition politics was at its best wherein the regional parties such as DMK, TMC etc. made merry. Within his own party, a level of political polarization took place in favour of Rahul Gandhi, the son of the Congress President and he had to live with two masters than one. The Rahul Gandhi factor led to many embarrassments and humiliations to Mr Singh. The cancer of corruption, both within Congress and the various ministries, destroyed the credibility of his rule during the second term. His own health was not at its best. The multitudes of scams never allowed the smooth functioning of the Parliament and governance went into disarray. Everything in the country needed a judicial intervention. The people’s movements led by Anna Hazare and Kejariwal added to his agony. Practically his second term saw complete policy paralysis within the country. Its’ growth suffered, inflation grew, Rupee failed and CAD went astray.

In the last year, the Prince in waiting took control of the party and tried to fight the election with a different perspective. But the damage was already done. While writing this, the Election results are yet to be announced but it is expected that the Congress would get the worst drubbing of its existence and the NDA led by BJP is expected to ascend to power. That is where things lay as of now.

How would posterity remember Manmohan Singh ? A weak Prime Minister or someone for whom the circumstances didn’t help to emerge as a great PM?

On the plus side, his contributions to the economic growth of the country both as FM and later as PM, will ever be remembered. As PM, he also looked at welfare of the downtrodden with great concern. Several programs such as MNREGS, Food Security Bill etc. were carved out to help the rural, unemployed, poverty stricken countrymen. He took India to higher levels in world order (e.g. G20). His integrity and character were impeccable (something we can seldom speak about all those great personalities of the country).

On the minus side, he was tied down by the party boss and the coalition polity. There were only a few instances of him putting his foot down on policy making (e.g. Nuclear Bill). He never could wade thru the quagmire, byzantine, ever-shifting political currents around him and many times suffered in the process. His communication, bodily and orally, was never inspiring.

His is a case of a well-meaning, straight forward, brilliant academician and bureaucrat of high integrity turning out as a Destiny’s child. As a professor in DSE, he would never have thought adorning the PM’s hot seat, ever in his life. There were several provocations on him during his PM ship that would have resulted in a man of high self-esteem throw away and walk out. He was forced to eat humble pie many times. But he swallowed all of it and held on to his chair. Why, you may ask.

For an Economics professor who had come to enjoy all those frills associated with power (PM’s perquisites, foreign sojourns, position and equation with global statesmen), Manmohan Singh would have thought to give them higher weightage than the pricking ego bashings that he had endured. I am sure, he would have taken it as occupational hazard!

Time will tell about him, wait and see………………………