“No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come” – Victor Hugo
Seventy-one year old Gurmukh Singh Manmohan Singh, the gentleSikh from Punjab has become the first non-Hindu Prime Minister of predominantly Hindu India.
His appointment as Premier of the world’s largest democracy has proven wrong the saying about nice guys finish last!
Except perhaps for Lal Bahadoor Shastri, the Indian prime ministerial mantle has never fallen on the shouldersof a more humble and simple man. This unassuming, self-effacing Sardarji is the most qualified Indian Prime Minister to attain that office. “Doctor Saheb” as he is known among Congress Party members is a self-made man with a string of qualifications behind his name.
Educated at the Universities of Punjab and Cambridge, this economist with a flair for administration and politics has an MA and PhD plus a long list of honorary doctorates including D-Litts, LLD, Dsc, and Doctor of Social Science.
Manmohan, the son of Gurmukh Singh and Amrit Kaur, was born on September 26, 1932. His birthplace Gah in West Punjab, after the 1947 partition, is now part of Pakistan. Interestingly the current Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf was born in pre-partition India and migrated to Karachchi later.
Likewise Manmohan’s family moved to Amritsar. Former Indian Premier, Inder Kumar Gujral too is from the same district as Manmohan and moved to ‘India’ after partition. Singh suffered partition pangs as he was separated from his family for several months during the dark days of relocation.
A brilliant student
Gurmukh Singhwas a small time trader in grain. Young Manmohan was a brilliant student and with the aid of educational scholarships made his way through secondary and tertiary education. He got his MA in Economics from Punjab University in Chandigargh topping his class and then went to Cambridge in 1954for his PhD again on scholarship. There he won the Wright’s Prize for distinguished performance at St. Johns College and also the prestigious Adam Smith Prize of Cambridge.
Returning to India in 1957 he joined his alma mater Punjab University and served as senior lecturer , reader and professor of economics there till 1966. Manmohan joined UNCTAD as economic officer and worked in New York till 1969. He was in charge of the financing of trade section.
Upon his return to India, Singh resumed teaching at the Delhi School of Economics. Among his contemporaries were renowned economists like Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, Arjun Sen Gupta, K.W. Raj andK.L. Nagar.
Departing from academia, Singh joined the Transport Ministry as financial adviser in 1971. From 1972 to 1976, he was chief economic adviser at the Finance Ministry. He then did several stints, serving in different capacities like director, Reserve Bank of India and later governor, secretary and later deputy chief of Planning Commission,secretary, Finance Ministry, joint chairman, Indo-Japan Joint Study Committee and on the South Commission as secretary general.
Manmohan Singh’s political involvement began with former Indian PM Chandrashekhar who nominated the former Reserve Bank governor and ex-finance secretary as his adviser on finance. Singh was also made UGC chairman. Chandrashekhar’s tenure was very brief, not exceeding six months.
After Rajiv Gandhi’s demise, a new Congress government under P.V. Narasimha Rao emerged. Full fledged political involvement for Singh was through Rao. The new prime minister was looking for a technocrat with fresh insight plus knowledge of how Indian bureaucracy works to be finance minister. The sick economy needed a physician. Singh fitted the bill.
No political experience
Manmohan however had no political experience or standing. He was brought into parliament through the Upper House or Rajya Sabha. The Punjabi Sikh based in New Delhi had to be elected through North Eastern Assam as Rajya Sabha member in 1991.
Former Assamese Chief Minister, Hiteswar Saikia allowed Singh to use his residence, 3989, Nandan Nagar in Guwahati as his residential address to be eligible. Singh promptly began paying rent and does so even today to Saikia’s widow and State Minister Hemaprova Saikia.
Though Singh resides in Safdarjung Road in New Delhi, the Assamese address is still retained officially. He was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Assam in 1991, 1996 and 2001. In 1999 he contested the Lok Sabha from a New Delhi constituency and lost.
India was economically on the wane when Singh took over as finance minister. There was an unsustainable fiscal deficit of close to 8.5 percent of the gross domestic product – almost double of what it is currently. There was also a huge balance of payments deficit.
The current account deficit was close to 3.5 percent of GDP and there were no foreign lenderswilling to finance it. Also, India had barely a billion dollars in terms of foreign exchange reserves – roughly equal to two weeks’ imports (today forex reserves stand at over $118 billion).
Upon taking office Singh had been forthright with Rao. “I said to him it is possible that we will still collapse, but there is a chance that if we take bold measures we may turn around, and that, I said, is an opportunity. We must convert this crisis into an opportunity to build a new India, to do things which many people before us have thought and said should be done, but somehow were never done,” recalled Singh in an interview to the media in 2001.
Under Singh that year the government of India entered into an understanding with the Reserve Bank of India to deny itself the right to ‘draw’ on the RBI to fund its deficit. This put paid to the unlimited monetisation of fiscal deficit, and was a historic step.
Policy of ‘thinking big’
Looking back, Singh says that when he stood up in parliament stating the case for reforms his argument was that in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, it was time to think big rather than ‘tighten the belt.’
“We could, in a traditional way, tighten our belt, and we did that, tighten and tighten. But persistence on that path would have led to more misery, more unemployment, and I said there is an alternative path. Stabilisation plus a credible structural adjustment programme would shorten the period of misery.
“It would release the innovative spirit, [the] entrepreneurial spirits which were always there in India in [such] a manner that our economy would grow at a much faster pace, sooner than most people believed. That’s exactly what happened,” said Singh in that interview.
After Rao promisedSingh a free hand to clear up the augean stables, the latter knew he had to go with the begging bowl to the IMF to tide over the forex crisis. Ironically Singh had made a scathing attack on IMF-WB policies in his book India’s Export Trends And Prospects For Self-Sustained Growth of 1964. Yet Singh had to take a $5 billion loan from the IMF.
In return, he agreed to implement the IMF’s 3D therapy – deflate, devalue and deregulate. The reforms process had begun and India was on a new track.Even as the new minister went about his task of economic surgery there was a political backlash. He had cut government subsidies in the budget to rein in the deficit resulting in a tremendous outcry.
Congress leaders were quick to point out that this would not go down well with the party’s rural vote bank. The cuts were rolled back and Singh sent his resignation to Rao, though it was turned down. Singh’s journey as a politician had begun.
By 1993, the Congress leadership had realised that the economic crisis had blown over and populist measures could once again be resorted to. Soon Rao was announcing subsidies without consulting his finance minister. The reforms process had run its course.
The Narasinha Rao government was booted out in 1996. Singh reverted to the opposition. Soon he became Congress leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha. In typical technocratic manner he avoided controversy and limelight seldom speakingout on issues. He also refrained from criticising opponents and lent a patient ear to other points of view.
This trait benefited him greatly as Singh cultivated over the years an amicable persona acceptable to all and trusted by many. With Congress fortunes on the rise on the one hand and bitter opposition building up against the idea of Sonia Gandhi becoming prime minister on the other, many started thinking of possible alternatives.
Manmohan Singh with his moderation and simplicity seemed the best possible person to be PM till another member of the Gandhi clan wore the crown. After Sonia took over Congress leadership, Manmohan Singh had grown in her esteem and was no longer seen as a creature of Rao.
Realising that he had no political ambition and was a trustworthy adviser Sonia Gandhi began relying on him more than other Congress seniors and political veterans. Presumed to be shadow finance minister, Singh was also consulted by Sonia on a number of issues.
Certain aspects of his personality like his integrity, humility and simplicity were his strong points. When Singh devalued the rupee for example he himself enjoyed a windfall because the money he had earned as South Commission secretary general was still abroad. This money Singh donated to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund.
His residence is simply furnished. His family too avoids publicity. Singh married Gursharan Gaur on September 14, 1958. They have three daughters. Two are in India, both married to Hindus. The third is overseas pursuing higher education.
With these qualities Singh earned Sonia’s confidence and trust. She respects him and always refers to him as “doctor” or “sir” He in turn calls her “madam” or “Soniaji.” Along with this personal equation was the fact that he was acceptable to both Congress allies and opponents. Few complaints can be raised against him.
Once Sonia decided not to become prime minister her choice as alternative was naturally Manmohan Singh. So came Manmohan Singh’s unexpected tryst with destiny. Interestingly the stock market that plummeted when the advent of Sonia Gandhi as prime minister was heralded recovered in three days when Singh took over.
During his speech in parliament while presenting the budget in 1994-95, Singh quoted Victor Hugo: “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.” Manmohan Singh as Indian Prime Minister was an idea whose time had come.
Thus India now has its first Sikh or non-Hindu Prime Minister. Nehru (1947) Shastri (1964), Indira (1966 ), Morarji (1977), Charan Singh (1979), Rajiv (1984), V.P. Singh (1989), Chandrashekhar (1990), Narasimha Rao (1991), Vajpayee (1996), Deve Gowda (1996), Gujral (1997) and even Nanda who was twice acting PM in 1964 and 1966 were all Hindus. Some however only ‘nominal’ Hindus.
The man who ushered in economic reforms, removed the permit licence system and launched ‘capitalist’ India on a winning spree realises now that what India requires now is ‘economic reforms with a human element.’
Most important lesson
The most important lesson from the last election is that blooming prosperity has not sunk down to the poor masses or rural India. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “India lives in her villages.”
The agrarian revolt influenced the electoral verdict considerably. Singh’s announcement that farmers will get their power subsidy indicates the direction Prime Minister Singh will be going. He has also said cautionary measures will be adopted in privatisation to prevent loss of jobs on a mass scale.
Thus, the very same man whose economic reforms set India on a new course will now be altering its direction to some extent. His emphasis will be on helping the poor and downtrodden. There was a time when the Congress was seen as a party of the underprivileged people.
The Congress then will be returning to its roots and this augurs well for the people of India. What then of India’s future? As Sonia herself said, “The future of India, I think, is safe in the hands of Dr. Manmohan Singh.”
May 23rd, 2004