The blue-turbaned gentleman with a pleasant demeanour and impeccable credentials as an economist was an unlikely candidate to lead a shaky coalition government in New Delhi. But Manmohan Singh, the low profile and famously reticent Prime Minister that India got in 2004, not only lead the coalition to a successful first five-year term, but also repeated the feat in the next, successfully navigating the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) through the rough and tumble of coalition politics. And thereby, he became only the second Indian Prime Minister to complete 10 straight years at the top post (2004-2014).
rnSingh, indeed, was an accidental prime minister, as his former press advisor titled a biography on him later (The Accidental Prime Minister by Sanjaya Baru). That’s how history is going to largely remember him, as the Prime Minister of India who was at the helm at one of the most seminal times in the country’s history since Independence, when its polity underwent a paradigm change in a clear break from the past.
rnHis biggest contribution to the making of a new India came not in his capacity as the PM, but much earlier when he was a Union Finance Minister. With the blessings of the then prime minister, PV Narasimha Rao, Singh carried out structural reforms liberalising the country’s economy. The reforms that he rolled out in 1991 not only saved India from an immediate economic crisis but completely changed the face of the nation. Economic, social and political history of India had undergone a clean break from the past, and would forever be studied in two different eras of pre- and post-liberalisation.
rnBorn on 26 September, 1932 in a part of Punjab that is now in Pakistan, his family crossed over to India at the time of the Partition. Known to be a good student, he went on to obtain his doctorate in economics from the Oxford University and then worked for the United Nations between 1966 and 1969. Destined for a long innings with the government and the Congress party — in early 1970s, Lalit Narayan Mishra, a senior Congress minister in the then government, appointed him as an advisor in his Ministry of Foreign Trade (later Ministry of Commerce) after a chance meeting.
rnSingh went on to hold several key positions within the government — Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India (1972-1976), governor of the Reserve Bank of India (1982-1985) and head of the Planning Commission (1985-1987).
rnMuch bigger innings, however, were in store for Singh, which, on hindsight appear incongruous with his apolitical credentials — he was not a career politician, had never contested a Lok Sabha election, and was not even a traditional Congress party worker that he would become a part of eventually.
rnWhen India was on the brink of an economic crisis, PM Narasimha Rao appointed Singh as his Finance Minister that surprised all political pundits. Despite strong opposition, but with full support of Rao, Singh scripted history with his economic reforms. Later in 2008, when the world underwent an economic meltdown, Singh’s pragmatic economic policies were credited for cushioning India from the impact of global recession.
rnAs a result of his successes as an economist-politician, his service to the Congress party often gets overshadowed. By keeping the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre for 10 years, Singh succeeded in pumping in oxygen to the party that was collapsing under its own weight.
rnHe definitely delayed the crisis that the Congress eventually faced in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections after a serious drubbing by the BJP, but Singh's public image got tarnished with his coalition government having been accused of various corruption scandals since the start of its second term in 2009. The Opposition had demanded Singh’s resignation for his alleged inaction and indecisiveness in various scams like 2G Spectrum, Coal allocation, etc.
rnThe Congress party continues to look up to him for guidance though he has never contested a Lok Sabha election under its banner. The party did elect him to the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, from Assam for 28 years; the term ended only on 14 June, 2019.
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