When in the 1990s India was under an acute economic crisis, the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao asked a seasoned economist to grab the reigns of the country’s finances in his hands. Much to the surprise of Manmohan Singh, who had no background in politics, he was asked to become the finance minister of the country. In the next five years, he set about achieving such reforms in the country’s economic policies that ushered India into a whole new track for achieving monetary success.
Two decades later, Manmohan Singh became the first Sikh Prime Minister of the country and stayed in power for two consecutive terms. Even though he remained the political leader of the country for ten years, it was his economic acumen that defined him.
Born at Gah in West Punjab in 1932, Singh moved to Amritsar along with his family after Partition. He completed schooling and then went on to pursue a Bachelor’s in Economics from Panjab University. Further, he obtained a Masters degree in Economics from Cambridge University, and then a D.Phil from University of Oxford.
Before taking on the role as finance minister, he worked as an expert on economic matters on various fronts including the United Nations, Ministry of Foreign Trade, Ministry of Finance, the planning commission and was governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Singh was also Professor of foreign trade at the Delhi School of Economics.
When Singh was offered the position of Finance Minister, he was the chairman of the university grants commission. In 1991, India was facing its worst economic crisis. Fiscal deficit was nearly 8.5 per cent of the GDP while the current account deficit was about 3.5 per cent. There was practically no foreign direct investment and foreign exchange reserves were at a historic low.
Singh’s solution to the grave economic problems in India was stringent reforms that would open up the economy to foreign competition and foreign direct investment. A strong believer of the inherent strengths of a mixed economy and globalization, Singh’s biggest success lay in pulling out the country from the grips of the nationalist economics.
In the words of Professor Mrinal Dutta Chaudhari, “Where, I think, Manmohan Singh has done a remarkable job is in educating his countrymen about the desirability of pursuing economic progress in an open-economy framework. This is no mean achievement, if one realises that economic nationalism has been the most influential political religion in the country.”
During his tenure as finance minister, India achieved its highest ever Gross Domestic Product growth rate of 8.5 per cent. Despite being called the “father of Indian reform”, he had been criticised on numerous occasions. He submitted his resignation thrice during his tenure and each time it was rejected by PM Narasimha Rao.
When UPA won the general elections in 2004, to everyone’s surprise party president Sonia Gandhi announced Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister. Singh had never been elected to an administrative position by the masses and he was aware of the lack of mass support he had. When he stood for the Lok Sabha elections in 1999, he was defeated. As a Rajya Sabha member he was elected by the Congress party. However, as reported by the BBC, he was still popular among the people for his clean image.
Manmohan Singh as a prime minister has often been criticised for being too soft a personality, and not being vocal and articulate to the extent necessary for running a country. Accusations of Singh being a scapegoat in the hands of Sonia Gandhi were all too common. During both the terms, his government had to face severe charges of corruption. The 2G spectrum allocation scam and the Commonwealth Games scandal hit the image of the Manmohan Singh government hard.
Despite all the criticism though, Singh’s leadership did manage to acquire some huge successes as well, the biggest being the civil nuclear agreement between India and the United States. Reportedly, it was the economic successes brought about by Singh that had convinced American president George Bush to invite India to sign the nuclear deal.
After two successive terms as Prime Minister, Singh resigned from his position at the end of his term on May 17, 2014 and declared that he would not contest in the 2014 elections. Despite the rampant criticism towards the end of the term, he succeeded in exiting office with a dignified, clean image and will always be remembered for the same. At a press conference preceding his exit, Singh said: “I honestly believe that history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media, or for that matter, the opposition parties in the parliament.”