Manmohan Singh: Another Shot to Implement his 'Idea of India'
Exactly five years after he first took over as India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh gets another shot at running the country for a second term Friday, vindicated by the faith reposed in him by millions who voted for his personal integrity, good governance and policies that promised economic progress with equity and inclusiveness.
In the process, he confounded opposition critics who dismissed him as a weak and pliable prime minister, skeptics within his own party who thought he lacked the political wisdom to win the national polls and even perhaps his own officials who held farewell parties on the eve of the Congress party's stunning electoral victory May 16.
The 76-year-old economist-turned-politician now faces heightened expectations from a nation that saw in him a rare exemplar of a leader who combined what Britain's Lord Meghnad Desai said was an economist's expertise with a politician's ability to execute ideas.
Manmohan Singh's politics always stood out in stark contrast to not only other political leaders but leaders in his own party as well. The Cambridge and Oxford-educated economist, who has held practically every important position in the government dealing with the nation's economy and financial management, always had a clear vision for India, which he was able to execute into policy for the first time when P.V. Narasimha Rao inducted him as finance minister in his government in 1991.
In the years that are seen as a turning point for the Indian economy, he ushered in a comprehensive policy of economic reforms that set the country of a billion people on the path of financial modernization, market liberalization and growing prosperity.
When the Congress lost the 1996 election, Manmohan Singh was inducted into the Congress Working Committee, the party's highest decision making body, by then Congress president Sitaram Kesri. From then on, Manmohan Singh remained in the party's highest decision-making circles, was named the leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, parliament's upper house, in 1998, before being the surprise choice as the prime minister by Congress president Sonia Gandhi in May 2004.
The late J.N. Dixit, the foreign policy strategist who became his national security adviser in 2004, used to say that he rated Manmohan Singh as the most cerebral prime minister of India since Jawaharlal Nehru. A man whose thinking behind his solutions to India's economic problems were shaped at Cambridge - like perhaps Nehru - by the theories of John Maynard Keynes, Manmohan Singh would say that he became conscious of the "creative role of politics in changing human affairs" and owed it to his teachers who led him to believe that "the state has to play more of a role if you really want to combine development with social equity".
For a man who was at best a reluctant politician, and who refused to sacrifice his vision at the altar of realpolitik, the election result was not just a triumph of principles over political expediency but a belief in his "idea of India".
Speaking at the HT Leadership Summit in New Delhi Nov 21, Manmohan Singh said: "The message of the economic and social crisis gripping the world is that extremist ideologies, political or economic, have harmful consequences. The idea of India, based on the rejection of extremes, respect for diversity and pluralism and the acceptance of the Middle Path, offers new pathways to progress for humanity in distress."
He saw "India's success in transforming the lives of its people as a liberal and plural democracy, a free society and a free economy" as a beacon for nations around the world. The world has a stake in the success of the Indian experiment, Manmohan Singh believed.
In the 1960s, Manmohan Singh worked for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in New York but got so restless that he resigned. "The secretary-general was very angry because I'd just been promoted," he mused later in an interview to the Cambridge University Alumnus Magazine.
"I said I felt that my place was in my own country. He said, 'Well, maybe you are right. Sometimes the wisest thing to do is to act very foolishly'."
Manmohan Singh was also accused by many even in his own party of acting foolishly when he sacrificed Left support to his minority government on the altar of the India-US nuclear deal which he feels will bring long-term benefits to the country.
But in the end his principles prevailed over political expediency and Manmohan Singh led his party to an electoral triumph - only the second prime minister after Nehru to do so after serving a full five-year term in office - and to a place in history.
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