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Manmohan Singh won friends abroad, but can he influence people at home?

Fresh from earning plaudits from global leaders, PM Manmohan Singh has plunged into a taxing election campaign that will test if his political acumen matches his economic insights that were much sought after and acted upon at last week's G20 summit in London.

delhi Updated: Apr 07, 2009 16:23 IST

Fresh from earning plaudits from global leaders, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has plunged into a taxing election campaign that will test if his political acumen matches his economic insights that were much sought after and acted upon at last week's G20 summit in London.

After kicking off the campaign in Assam, a state he represents in parliament, Manmohan Singh will criss-cross the country in the next four weeks as he seeks to disprove rival BJP's prime ministerial nominee LK Advani's contention that he has been a "weak prime minister".

But the bane of Manmohan Singh, who is a member of the upper house Rajya Sabha, has been his or his party's inability to translate his 'wise man' image into votes for the party beyond a limited knowledgeable-middle class support base.

That the Oxford and Cambridge-educated academic-turned-politician is universally acknowledged for his economic wisdom whose views were keenly listened to by world leaders - from US President Barack Obama to Chinese President Hu Jintao - was evident at the April 2 London conclave. The Indian prime minister was extended the distinction of being among just two of the 19 heads of state or government to deliver a lecture on global economic management at the dinner at Buckingham Palace.

"If you look objectively, our prime minister was the only leader, so to speak, who has been at the helm of economic policy, both domestic and global, since the late 1990s," said Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who was Manmohan Singh's key aide at the London summit.

"He was also a member of the 20-member group of the International Monetary Fund in the 1970s, headed by Paul Volcker, that eventually led to the dismantling of fixed exchange rates," Ahluwalia, who has worked closely with Manmohan Singh for over two decades, told IANS in London.

For Obama, the youngest leader at the summit, the praise for Manmohan Singh came not just during their bilateral meeting, but also at a press conference he addressed later, attended by more than 2,500 reporters from across the globe.

"I think he is a very wise and decent man," he said, responding to a question from an Indian reporter.

"He's done a wonderful job of guiding India, even prior to being prime minister, along a path of extraordinary economic growth that is a marvel, I think, for all the world," he said, referring to the annual growth of 8.6 percent achieved by India during the five years of Manmohan Singh's rule.

During the summit, Manmohan Singh was the only leader whose full-page interview was published by the Financial Times that traced his education at Oxford and Cambridge as also the four-decade stint with policy making in India and abroad.

"The economist, who leads the world's biggest democracy, will be in demand at the G20, but back home in India, Manmohan Singh faces a hard fight," said the newspaper, adding that he got to practice what he preached when he, as finance minister in the 1990s, presided over the opening of the Indian economy with free-market reforms.

According to another senior official, the prime minister's international stature was evident with several leaders, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

"Apart from the FT interview and three interactions with President Obama, our prime minister's suggestions were noted and acted upon even during the G20 plenary, even though he did not speak," added the official, who was part of the Indian delegation.

"He has such a presence, and he is so widely respected," said British Secretary of State for Business Lord Peter Mandelson. "He is quiet and understated, which makes him all the more powerful," Mandelson told IANS.

Back home, however, many have been quite uncharitable to Manmohan Singh, with Advani calling him the weakest ever prime minister. Privately, his own party colleagues have been sceptical of his ability to be a vote-puller.

The woman who catapulted him to the high office, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, feels otherwise.

"A leader becomes strong by his work. Our prime minister has got his strength from the development work he has done," she told a recent election rally Sunday. "There could be several claimants for prime minister's post but none can match the calibre of Manmohan Singh."

"He can influence a section of the prople," said veteran political commentator Inder Malhotra, asked if the prime minister can turn into a crowd-puller and win votes for his Congress party. "He has a sterling integrity, rare ability and above all, in a charged atmosphere like that in India today, he has been able to restore collective calm."

First Published: Apr 07, 2009 16:18 IST