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Wednesday, Sep 18, 2019

Manmohan Singh turns 85: The economist Prime Minister no one saw coming

Manmohan Singh: The economist who turned 85 on Tuesday headed the Congress-led UPA government as the 14th prime minister of India.

india Updated: Sep 26, 2017 10:01 IST

PTI, New Delhi
File photo of former prime minister Manmohan Singh.
File photo of former prime minister Manmohan Singh.

After the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, few anticipated Manmohan Singh to become the prime minister. Congress president Sonia Gandhi threw a surprise by proposing Singh’s name as the party’s prime ministerial nominee. He was endorsed by party members, as Gandhi was assumed to be the natural claimant for the post.

Born on September 26, 1932 in Gah village of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Singh held several key positions such as economic adviser to the government and deputy chairman of Planning Commission before being catapulted to the position of the Prime Minister in 2004. The first Sikh prime minister of the country was sworn in by then president APJ Abdul Kalam.

The economist, who turned 85 on Tuesday, headed the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government as the 14th Prime Minister and its success probably won him his second term. He demitted the prime minister’s office after 10 years, the longest after the Jawaharlal Nehru’s 17 years in office, and left a mixed legacy of achievements and setbacks.

Singh is credited with playing a key role in ushering in economic reforms in the 1990s, when India liberalised its economy. A celebrated economist, he entered politics during the peak of the 1991 economic crisis when late prime minister PV Narasimha Rao inducted him into the government as a finance minister. Together they lifted the economy out of the balance of payments crisis and paved the way for economic reforms on which no successive government has looked back.

A technocrat who had occupied various positions, including as the Reserve Bank governor and secretary general of the South-South Commission, he had earned a name for probity and integrity that made him the automatic choice for Sonia Gandhi for the PM’s post.

The fruitful five years

Singh’s administration brought in a sense of balance in the communally-charged country. The government led by Singh delivered a robust 8.5% GDP growth for most of his tenure and first five years were marked by initiatives such as MNREGA and RTI.

The highlight of Singh’s first term was also the strong stand taken by the soft-spoken prime minister on the India-US civil nuclear deal despite strong opposition from Congress allies. Putting his foot down on the issue, Singh asserted that he will not go back on the international commitment even if it means the fall of his government. The Left parties did withdraw support to his government but it survived in the confidence vote with the help of the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.

Besides working for stronger ties with the US, Singh’s personal commitment to maintaining peaceful ties with Pakistan helped keep bilateral relations on track.

Problems in second term

The Singh-led government’s second term was tainted by three major scams -- 2G, CWG and coal blocks allocations fraud cases -- whose combined amount was said to be to the tune of Rs 4 lakh crore, prompting the Opposition to allege that there was “unprecedented” corruption. The accusations were followed by government policy paralysis.

Adding to the woes of his government was the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption crusade that acquired widespread dimensions at the cost of the Congress. As predictions of bad performance by the Congress came, party leaders said that the government did not communicate well its achievements. It was seen as a veiled attack on Singh for remaining silent.

Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi at Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi.
Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi at Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi. ( PTI File Photo )

Ironically, a man whose personal honesty was not questioned presided over a government that was marked by a series of scams. The perceived dual power centre in the Congress in the form of power vesting with party chief Sonia Gandhi also haunted him, with critics calling him a “weak prime minister”.


Among the many awards and honours conferred upon Singh in his public career, the most prominent are the Padma Vibhushan (1987); the Jawaharlal Nehru Birth Centenary Award of Indian Science Congress (1995); the Asia Money Award for Finance Minister of the Year (1993 and 1994); the Euro Money Award for Finance Minister of the Year (1993), the Adam Smith Prize of the University of Cambridge (1956); and the Wright’s Prize for Distinguished Performance at St. John’s College in Cambridge (1955).

He is a recipient of honorary degrees from many universities including the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. His initial education took place in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

(A version of this article was published in 2014)

First Published: Sep 26, 2017 10:00 IST