Manmohan Singh at 80: From 'underachiever' to defiant reformer
Only recently the prestigious Time magazine of the United States called Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh as an ‘underachiever’ and a leader who seemed "unwilling to stick his neck out" on economic reforms.
On the domestic front, he was also written off by many as a leader lacking courage and will to stand up and clear the mess of corruption surrounding his government. He was under constant attack from the Opposition for being a weak leader of absolutely corrupt politicians, who have plundered the nation’s wealth for personal gains.
A few months later, popular perception about the Prime Minister seems to have changed – at least in part - and he is now being hailed as a defiant reformer, who has refused to withdraw the tough policy decisions taken by him, aimed at accelerating the engine of growth, despite extreme political pressure from opposition and allies alike.
Our so-called spineless Prime Minister, who celebrates his 80th birthday on Wednesday, has taken a stand this time defying criticism from peers and political rivals and decided to go ahead with the proposed policy reforms.
The suave politician, who has been praised for his honesty even by his staunchest rivals, has had a roller-coaster ride as Prime Minister ever since the Congress came to power in 2004.
But there remains little doubt that during his two terms as the Prime Minister, Dr Singh has been the only saving grace for the scam-tainted and corruption-ridden UPA government led by the Congress party.
Dr Singh has proven his detractors, especially editors at the Time, wrong that the UPA government is failing to ‘reboot' India’s sluggish economy.
In its assessment, the Time had questioned whether Dr Singh was fit for his job? Tagging Dr Singh as 'A Man in Shadow' the US magazine stated that apart from facing the challenges of economic slowdown, widening fiscal deficit and a weakening rupee, the Congress regime has found itself fending off corruption charges.
Critics of Dr Singh had claimed that an anti-business, negative environment was driving the investors at home and abroad away and voters’ confidence was also eroding fast as rising prices coupled with several scandals were taking a heavy toll on the government's credibility.
It is not surprising why industry stalwarts have long pressed the government to adopt bold reforms, such as an end to expensive subsidies, deregulation of diesel prices and a law to allow multi-brand retailers like Walmart into India.
Singh’s first stint as Prime Minister was extremely satisfying, with the economic growth rate of the country almost touching double digits.
However, his fall from grace started after Congress seized power again in 2009 General Elections. A helpless Prime Minister’s second term was marred by a slew of corruption scandals and ‘policy paralysis’ that provided an opportunity to the Opposition to disrupt work in Parliament.
The country’s economic growth, which touched 9.6 per cent in his first term, plunged to a low of 5.2 percent. And what made things difficult for the UPA regime was the continued mayhem in Parliament and no progress on important legislations, which could have otherwise given a major boost to development if they had seen the light of the day.
Moreover, there were concerns that political parties were directing their energy and attention to short-term populist measures in order to win votes.
Amidst accusations and counter-accusations, Singh slowly lost his charm and his confidence soon vanished. He hardly spoke on policy matters and appeared to be losing grip over the government. He failed to set a good example before his Council of Ministers facing graft charges. He was also accused of working like a political slave to his powerful boss - UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi- who many believed had "tied his hands to take tough decisions”.
He is the same man, who during the 90s, earned praise for opening the Indian market and liberalizing the national economy. His "clean image" suffered another blow with anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare emerging on the national scene and attacking the UPA government for going slow on corruption.
This blue-turbaned man, known for his impeccable integrity, will possibly not be the Congress’s PM face in the 2014 General Elections, but would surely not want to leave on a sticky wicket. Instead, he would like to be remembered as someone who dared all odds and revived the economy again.
The government’s willingness to go ahead on the road to reforms indicates a strong desire of Dr Singh to salvage his reputation before he demits office.
Born in 1932 in what is now Pakistan, Singh moved to India during partition in 1947. His father, a poor vendor with 10 children, often joked that his meritorious son would become Prime Minister but little did he know that his son would grace the PM’s chair not once but twice.
He was picked as premier in 2004 when his boss, Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, decided that she did not want to head the government in the wake of a row over her foreign origin.
The Prime Minister last week justified the hard economic decisions he had taken and asked the common man for support so that he could repeat his 1991 act - rescuing Indian economy from being at the bottom of the heap.
Showing no signs of succumbing under pressure from allies and the Opposition, Singh sought to reach out to the common man on a day the UPA's second largest constituent Trinamool Congress walked out on the government.
Apart from his annual addresses on Independence Day, this was the second time Singh spoke to the nation directly since the November 26, 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
"At times, we need to say 'No' to the easy option and say 'Yes' to the difficult one. This happens to be one such occasion. The time has come for hard decisions," he said.
Truly, the time has really come for the government to do some soul-searching and take hard decisions to keep the engine of growth running. At the same time, it is also important for the political players and the common man not to lose faith in the leadership and vision of a leader who embraced free markets in the socialist-style economy and removed bureaucratic hassles in the governance.
Here’s wishing our Prime Minister taint-free healthy life ahead.