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Manmohan and the hand of destiny

BS Political Bureau in New Delhi | May 20, 2004

Twice in the last 13 years, the helping hand of destiny has picked out Manmohan Singh when it could have been someone else. 
It happened first in 1991, when he became the country's finance minister, though Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had settled for I G Patel. 
It happened again on Wednesday, when Sonia Gandhi decided to step aside and nominate Singh as the Congress candidate for prime minister.

With hindsight, political pundits say Singh was always Gandhi's candidate and she had no choice but to show her hand only after all the alliances were tied up. 
Singh, they add, was deliberately kept away from the limelight during the Congress campaign for the recently concluded general elections, lest he got positioned as the finance minister. That he was the only leader to accompany Gandhi for her meeting with President Kalam was also taken note of. 
In the last few days, Singh never gave any indication that he was in the running for the prime minister's job. He chose to spend his time reading statements to calm the frayed nerves of the stock market and calling the Communists in the United Progressive Alliance as patriotic as anybody else. 
Humble and self-deprecating to the core, Singh is known to underplay the achievements of his illustrious career. 
Born to Gurmukh Singh and Gursharan Kaur at a place called Gah (now in Pakistan) in Punjab on September 26, 1932, Singh suffered the Partition, being temporarily separated from his family in the mayhem of the times. 
He showed signs of brilliance early in life. After topping the MA (Economics) exam from Punjab University, Chandigarh, in 1954, he won a scholarship to study at Cambridge. There, apart from the Wright's Prize for distinguished performance, he also bagged the coveted Adam Smith Prize. 
In 1957, he was back in India to take up a teaching assignment with the Punjab University. In 1966, he went to work for Unctad. After three years, he returned to India, this time to teach at the Delhi School of Economics. 
Though he has never been the most fluent of speakers, his students from the time remember him making an impact, though the school had economists like Amartya Sen, Arjun Sengupta, K.N. Raj and K.L. Nagar on its rolls. 
He also stood out at the time for not sharing the tribe of economists' pessimism on exports, believing that India could compete successfully in world markets -- something that he was to prove decades later. 
In 1971, Singh joined the government as an economic advisor to the ministry of foreign trade, moving on to become chief economic adviser in the finance ministry. 
By the end of the decade, he became secretary, ministry of finance before becoming member secretary of the Planning Commission in 1980. In 1982, Singh was appointed governor of the Reserve Bank of India. 
Continuing on a career that would take him to every significant official position dealing with economic administration, he then became deputy chairman of the Planning Commission before being picked by Kenneth Kaunda to be the member-secretary of the South Commission. 
That experience of studying the economic performance of different countries convinced him that India had been going down the wrong road, and he returned in 1990 convinced that India had to change direction. 
The big moment came in 1991. When PV Narasimha Rao came into power, the country was faced with a severe economic crisis and external bankruptcy. 
Rao started scouting for somebody who was an economist as well as a bureaucrat. An economist because he would have to steer clear of political compulsions and a bureaucrat because he would have to know how to work his way round the system. 
After screening several candidates for the job, Rao called Singh and asked him to take the reins of the economy in his hands. In return, he was promised a free hand. Singh knew he had to knock at the doors of the IMF to tide over the forex crisis. 
Though Singh had made a scathing attack on Fund-Bank policies in his book India's Export Trends and Prospects for Self-Sustained Growth, (Oxford University Press, 1964), amongst the first things Singh did was 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. 
But his first Budget also gave him his first lesson in realpolitik. He had cut government subsidies in the Budget to rein in the deficit. Immediately, there was a hue and cry from all quarters. 
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. 
During his Independence Day speech, Rao announced a Rs 1,500 crore (Rs 15 billion) package to restore the socialist image of the Congress without even consulting his finance minister. The message was clear: Singh's reformist days were over. 
Yet, his image continued to shine. When he devalued the rupee, his savings from his South Commission stint were still abroad. The rupee gains he made personally from the devaluation, he donated to the Prime Minister's Relief Fund. 
He won the Euromoney finance minister of the year award in 1993 and the Asiamoney finance minister of the year award twice, in 1993 and 1994. He became the undisputed father of economic reforms in India. 
In the last few years, Singh emerged as a close advisor to Gandhi and the shadow finance minister of the country. His spotless reputation always lifted him above other politicians. 
Though he lives in a spacious bungalow in Lutyens' Delhi, the house is spartan. The entrance has a huge picture of the Golden Temple. 
Inside, books are neatly stored in racks and the furniture has seen better times. Unlike other politicians of the city, he has kept his family away from the limelight. No one knows what his two daughters do. 
Most people feel Singh is sure to succeed in his new assignment, thanks to his ability to listen to all. "This comes from his humility," says CII director general-designate N Srinivasan. 
Another person, who has served on the governing board of the Delhi-based India Habitat centre, discloses that Singh would often turn to him in meetings and say you understand business best. Coming from somebody who has handled the country's finances, the person found it an education in humility. 
Those who have interacted with him say that Singh has been doing a great deal of soul searching in the last few months about the future of reforms. 
"He feels reforms should reach the common people. Reforms are not taking place in the rural sector and employment-elastic industries," Ficci secretary general Amit Mitra says. 
But nothing can prepare you for the prime ministership. What Singh has as an advantage is a spotless reputation, a deep understanding of the economy, more than a decade's close observance of the rough and tumble of politics, and universal respect for his human qualities. 
Most importantly, he has Sonia Gandhi's trust. Few people can claim to bring so many assets to the most difficult job in the country.

India Votes 2004

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Number of User Comments: 9

Sub: Great job Sonia!!

Sonia has done first and last good thing in her life by making Manmohan Singh as Prime minister.

Posted by Sunil

Sub: Congrats

Congrats to Dr. Singh, our new PM-designate. Thats all I would say. I will not jump the gun here to say that he is the ...

Posted by Niket


I wish Dr.Manmohan Singh all success as the new Prime Minister of India. My hearty congratulations. At last, India comes in the hands of the ...

Posted by Ramdas Kochuparampil

Sub: Dr. Manmohan sing and real politic

We salute Dr. Manmohan singh for what he had done thirteen years back by turing around our bakrupt economy. Will he be able to do ...

Posted by Ajithprasad

Sub: Sonia's step down

Sir, I really dont find any renunciation in sonia's steping down from the post of PM.She is not prepared psylogically to be the PM of ...

Posted by vikas


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