Manmohan Singh’s appointment as India’s finance minister in 1991 was as much a surprise to him as it was to others.
Singh did not believe PC Alexander when told that Prime Minister Narasimha Rao wanted him (Singh) to take over as the finance minister in 1991 to steer the crisis-ridden Indian economy.
“When Narasimha Rao ji was elected as the leader of the Congress Legislative Party (CLP), he sent Dr PC Alexander to talk to me to explore the possibility of I being offered the post of the finance minister in the cabinet,” Singh told HT in an exclusive interview.
“I didn’t take him seriously,” Singh said.
Alexander was the principal secretary to former Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and later became the governor of Maharashtra in 1993.
Singh, who as finance minister piloted India’s economic reforms programme in a famous budget 25 years ago, said the news sunk in only when Rao himself called the next day to persuade to him to take over as the finance minister.
“Next morning I went to the University Grants Commission (UGC), where I was the chairman, and here was Narsimha Rao ji looking for me on the telephone. He traced me to the UGC and said: Where are you? What are you doing? Hasn’t Alexander told you about my intentions to use your services?’ I said: `He did mention it to me sir, but I didn’t believe him,’” he said.
“I had only a few hours to think through,” he said.
Singh’s family and friends discouraged him to take up the assignment arguing that he would be made the scapegoat if policies did not work out as anticipated.
“When I talked to my family they said I had just undergone a bypass surgery in London, and that the finance minister’s job is a killing job. Politicians will never allow you to do the right thing and you will become the scapegoat,” he said.
“They said: `The (previous) Chandra Shekhar government fell because it was not able to grapple with the economic situation. The Congress government is a minority government. There is no reason to believe that it will do better.’ I said that it is true that I have had a bypass surgery, but that should not be a concern that should stop me from making an effort to deal with the severe economic crisis India faced,” Singh said recounting the days leading up to his appointment as the finance minister.