OPN Manmohan Singh
Former Prime Minister of India Dr Manmohan Singh Image Credit: ANI

He came from a very humble background; his mother died when he was still a young child. The family faced untold hardships when they crossed over to India during the partition from Gah village, now in Pakistan.

Yet the quiet man — Manmohan Singh — stood first in every exam at all levels. His academic career was so shining that he managed to go to Oxford and Cambridge universities where he majored in economics and secured his doctorate.

Singh spent a long career in international institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and was also the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).

As Dr Manmohan Singh, India’s 13th Prime Minister bows out of public life at the age of 91, SWAT ANALYSIS examines the legacy of the first Sikh and undoubtedly the most well-qualified Indian to have been PM.

Sincere as always, Singh came to attend the final session of the Rajya Sabha in a wheelchair even as he let it be known that he was now keen to walk off into the sunset because of ill health. Singh is a rare Indian and a rarer leader who simply didn’t like talking about himself.

Get exclusive content with Gulf News WhatsApp channel

An idea whose time has come

Self-effacing and modest to a fault, he was always self-deprecatory with the press. Indian journalists used to the bombast and arrogance of other Indian leaders didn’t quite know what to make of Singh.

Yet it would have been a mistake to write off the unassuming man who partnered with the late P V Narasimha Rao to liberalise the Indian economy in 1991. As India faced a severe economic crisis with bankruptcy looming on the back of a balance of payments crisis, Rao as Prime Minister inducted the apolitical Singh into his Cabinet as Finance Minister.

Despite facing headwinds from his own party and a very strong opposition, Singh carried out deep structural reforms which opened up the Indian economy and took the government back from the license quota permit Raj that was flourishing. The rare time Singh got emotional was when while presenting the 1991 reform budget he quoted Victor Hugo with a flourish, saying “no power on Earth can stop an idea whose time has come”.

Singh was not set in dogmatic academic beliefs; when he was in the Planning Commission, he was happy to pursue a statist economy yet he changed 180 degrees to become the main champion of the reform economy.

Read more by Swati Chaturvedi

A simple, unpretentious man

Just as Rao picked Singh to be his FM, Sonia Gandhi, the then Congress President’s pick to be Prime Minister of India in 2004 when the Congress won a surprise election. While the entire Congress party buzzed and Singh’s rivals wanted to stage coups, Singh quietly got to work and further opened up the economy, particularly the banking sector.

In 2009, Singh introduced the Right to Education Act. The National Rural Employment Act (NREGA) in 2005 was an important legislation. The landmark legislation, however, was the passage of the Right to Information Act (RTI), which is an important tool to combat corruption for every citizen.

Singh and Gandhi made a formidable combine. Despite the legendary durbari culture in the Congress, Gandhi always ensured that Singh was never publicly disrespected. In turn, Singh was clear he was there to run the executive, the government while the political side was completely handled by Gandhi.

It is debatable whether this complex arrangement worked and Singh’s determinedly apolitical avatar allowed corruption in the government allies to flourish. It is also debatable how India viewed the quiet self-effacing “accidental PM” but, on balance, the delicate high-wire walk worked.

When Singh became PM for the second time, headlines such as “Singh is King” in broadsheet dailies worked against him with the coterie around Gandhi who disliked a rival centre of power.

Singh twice in his political career offered to resign once as Rao’s FM and once as the PM when the US nuclear deal was threatened. Singh’s political smarts can be judged by the fact that what he thought of as the landmark deal has faded away to nothing. Yet Gandhi backed him and it can be said that “buying backing from allies” led to the corruption scandals that scarred Singh’s second term.

I observed Singh at close quarters and he is a genuinely self-effacing man, extremely comfortable with his wife and daughters none of whom are in politics. I still remember Singh at the wheel of the tiny blue Maruti when I was a schoolchild. He was truly a simple, unpretentious man, attacked on every side from his allies, own ministers, and a savage media.

Addressing his last press conference as PM, Singh said, “history will judge me more kindly”. Perhaps it will.