With a dubious legacy, the "accidental" premier bows out
NEW DELHI: When it was clear that he was set for a stunning election victory last week, Narendra Modi sent a message that read simply "India has won": It instantly set a record as the country's most retweeted Twitter post.
And yet two days earlier the top trend on Twitter India had been #ThankYouDrManMohanSingh, a popular tribute to Manmohan Singh, who bows out after 10 years as prime minister with deep respect even if voters thrashed his party in the polls.
Singh will be remembered for the reforms he drove through as finance minister in 1991 that prised open a state-stifled economy. In his budget speech that year, he quoted Victor Hugo, saying "No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come".
Those reforms snapped India out of a shuffling rate of growth of that time, lifted millions out of poverty and propelled the country into the league of dynamic emerging economies.
In a blizzard of commentaries examining 81-year-old Singh's legacy in recent weeks, the Oxbridge-educated economist has been praised for his intellect and personal integrity, and world leaders have reached out to wish him well in retirement.
And yet Singh's stock tumbled during his second five-year term as economic growth skidded, inflation ballooned and spectacular corruption scandals clattered like skeletons out of a cupboard. His public silence on many matters became the butt of jokes, including one which said movie theatre patrons were being asked to put their mobile phones in "Manmohan mode".
Singh struggled to fend off the perception that the real power in his government was Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress party and widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, whose family has ruled the country for most of the time since independence from Britain in 1947.
In a book published during the election campaign, "The Accidental Prime Minister", a former media adviser said that Singh allowed his authority to be undermined by Gandhi.
"You must understand one thing. I have come to terms with this," the author, Sanjaya Baru, recalled the prime minister telling him in 2009. "There cannot be two centres of power. That creates confusion. I have to accept that the party president is the centre of power. The government is answerable to the party."
Singh's spokesman dismissed the book as an incorrect interpretation of the prime minister's decade in power, but the memoirs only served to reinforce a popular perception that an extra-constitutional authority had called the shots for years.
Father of reforms
The only prime minister since independent India's first leader to serve two full five-year terms and the first Sikh to have held the office, Singh told his final news conference that history would in the end be kind to him.
Swaminathan Aiyar, a prominent journalist, said that Singh's achievements would indeed become his story.
"People will forget Manmohan Singh's failings, and remember him as the father of economic reform and superfast growth," Aiyar wrote in a Times of India commentary.
Born into a poor Sikh family in a part of British-ruled India now in Pakistan, Singh studied by candlelight to win scholarships to Cambridge and Oxford, earning a doctorate with a thesis on the role of exports and free trade in India's economy.
He held the top finance and economic planning posts in India's bureaucracy for decades and was also head of the central bank before joining the cabinet in 1991. He became prime minister in 2004 when Sonia Gandhi, who led the Congress party to a surprise victory, declined the job fearing her Italian birth would be used by Hindu nationalist opponents to attack the government.
As prime minister, Singh sought to liberalise the economy further. However, he often ran into resistance from wayward allies in his coalition government and from his own left-leaning party, which prioritised welfare schemes such as a jobs programme for the rural poor.
In 2008, he stood up to his party's one-time communist allies over a civilian nuclear energy deal with the United States that took his country out of decades of diplomatic isolation over its atomic weapons programme.
Singh saw India's growth story wobble in the last years of his premiership as global economic turbulence combined with a policy paralysis at home battered the investment climate.
His second term was also overshadowed by mass protests against corruption, and he was widely criticised for apparently turning a blind eye to the graft raging around him.
Harish Khare, who served as the prime minister's media adviser from 2009 to 2012, described Singh in an article for the weekly magazine Outlook as "spectacularly unflamboyant", but credited him for making historic course corrections that brought India more social harmony, equity and regional peace.
A leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which routed Congress in the election, praised the outgoing prime minister for his "dignity and grace" but like many voiced doubt about his overall record.
"It was the inability to speak up within his own party that may compel the historians to take a different view of the man," Arun Jaitley said in an article sent to media last week. "Only if he had stood up at the right time and disagreed he would have been regarded with still a greater honour." – Reuters