Man for the moment

Print edition : June 18, 2004

THE choice of Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and his endorsement by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the Left and even the Opposition has underlined his impeccable credentials and clean image. When Sonia Gandhi abdicated her claim to the top post, there was no guessing who her nominee would be. Manmohan Singh has been the undisclosed mascot of the Congress at least since 1998, when Sonia Gandhi assumed the post of the party president and invited the wrath of those within the party and outside opposed to her becoming the Prime Minister one day because of her foreign origin. There was no doubt about his status in the party hierarchy and about the fact that he enjoyed the trust and confidence of Sonia Gandhi.

PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

Contrary to other political leaders claiming "closeness" to Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh's rise in the party was not because of loyalty alone. His scholarship, simplicity, frankness and objectivity are the main attributes that endeared him to Sonia Gandhi.

Manmohan Singh's first stint in politics was in June 1991 when he became the Finance Minister in the P.V. Narasimha Rao government, which came to power in the elections held in the background of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Narasimha Rao was looking for an expert, rather than a politician, to be the Finance Minister at a time of deep economic crisis. Manmohan Singh, who had just then taken over as the Chairman of the University Grants Commission, suited Narasimha Rao's requirements perfectly. He was adviser to Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar on Economic Affairs (1990-1991) and before that the Secretary-General and Commissioner, the South Commission, Geneva (1987 to 1990).

Indeed, Manmohan Singh had become part of the economic policy establishment in 1971, as Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Foreign Trade and later as Chief Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Finance (1972 to 1976). He is perhaps the only person to have held every important position in the economic/civil service hierarchy in India including Secretary, Economic Affairs, in the Ministry of Finance; Governor, Reserve Bank of India between 1982 and 1985; and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission.

He was widely known as a voice of sanity, good sense and moderation in a period when Indian planners and policy-makers followed policies of import substitution and public sector domination. He is known for his mild-mannered but firm approach in pushing good ideas, while trying to carry others along and avoiding confrontation.

Experts credit Manmohan Singh with evolving a package of measures in July 1974 to control inflation when the inflation rate had crossed the level of 20 per cent in two successive years, following a sharp acceleration in the international price of oil. The package included, for the first time, measures to restrict disposable incomes directly. The success of this package, experts say, established his reputation both domestically and internationally. He was then Chief Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Finance.

As Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh authored economic reforms, which became linked inseparably with his name. The term "Manmohanomics" gained currency to describe the economic rationale of the new policies. Indeed, his five-year tenure was the longest for a Finance Minister in India in two decades. Although the period witnessed a scandal of enormous proportions in the stock market and the banking system, he remained personally untainted. His critics insisted that his innocence was sustainable more in the technical than in the moral sense. His admirers sought to make a distinction between his personal honesty and his errors of judgment.

When the Joint Parliamentary Committee's inquiry into the securities scandal indicted the Narasimha Rao government's functioning, Manmohan Singh tendered his resignation without delay or fuss. The Congress converted the debate that ensued in Parliament into an occasion to extol his personal integrity and applaud his "visionary" policy of liberalisation. Narasimha Rao had no option but to ask Manmohan Singh to continue as the Finance Minister.

After 1996, when the Congress lost the elections, Manmohan Singh kept a reasonable distance from Narasimha Rao, whose government was accused of being part of many scandals. In a gentle reproach to Narasimha Rao, who was then the Congress president, he said at a meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Party that, like Caesar's wife, the party should not merely be free of taint, but be seen to be so. Narasimha Rao's successor as the Congress president, Sitaram Kesri, nominated Manmohan Singh to the Congress Working Committee in recognition of his growing stature in the party. Manmohan Singh had no compunctions in reiterating his basic commitments as a Congressman and declaring that he would serve only in a government constituted by that party, when there was speculation that the United Front government, supported by the Congress from outside, could induct him as Finance Minister.

Manmohan Singh has been "ordinarily a resident" of Guwahati, Assam, to qualify for the membership of the Rajya Sabha from that State since 1992. He had a brief encounter with direct election when he was the party's candidate for the 1999 Lok Sabha elections from the South Delhi constituency. He lost to the BJP's V.K. Malhotra but it did not undermine his appeal within the party and outside.

BORN in Gah village of Jhelum district (now in Punjab, Pakistan) on September 26, 1932, Manmohan Singh migrated to India during Partition. He did his M.A. in Economics in Punjab University, and followed it up with an Economics Tripos from Cambridge University and D.Phil from Oxford University.

He began as a lecturer in Punjab University in 1957, and in 1969 became a professor of international trade at the Delhi School of Economics. Although he quit academics in 1971, he intended to return to it in 1990, when he was selected for professorship by Punjab University. However, the university syndicate rejected his selection saying "his first love was politics rather than economics".

In hindsight, the university's loss is the nation's gain. As the first Prime Minister to hail from the minority Sikh community, Manmohan Singh is the perfect choice of the UPA to honour the secular mandate of the 2004 elections.

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