India’s mild-mannered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is known to be measured in his public utterances. This is perhaps why his combative response on August 30 to attacks made by the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Rajya Sabha, India’s Upper House of Parliament, made headlines. In recent weeks, the BJP has accused Singh of presiding over a government battered by a slew of corruption scandals and failing to take steps to revive the Indian economy, which has seen a sharp deceleration in growth.
Data released on August 30 showed that GDP in the April-June quarter slowed to 4.4 percent, down from 5 percent a year ago, the slowest pace of growth since the 2008 global financial crisis. The figure will add to growing fears about the health of Asia’s third-largest economy, exacerbated by a ballooning current account deficit and a falling rupee, which has depreciated 20 percent since May 2013.
However, in one curious remark intended to rebut the opposition’s attack, Singh said, "Whatever some members of the House may say about me as the prime minister, I command certain status, certain prestige and certain respect in the Council of the Group of 20."
The remark assumes significance coming as it does days ahead of the G20 Summit in Russia, which the Indian prime minister is due to attend, along with leaders of 19 other major economies. In previous meetings of the grouping, Singh’s reputation as an eminent economist ensured that fellow world leaders solicited his views on the global economy after the 2008 financial crisis. U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed this in 2010 during a meeting with the Indian leader on the sidelines of the G20 Summit.
"I can tell you that here at G20, when the Prime Minister speaks, people listen," said Obama, who added that this was because of Singh's deep knowledge of economic issues. Underlining this remark was the fact that the Indian economy grew by 8 percent in 2009-2010, bolstering his economic credentials.
Singh’s contention that he commands a “certain prestige and respect” among world leaders is also confirmed by an August 2010 Newsweek article that hailed the Indian prime minister as the “leader other leaders love.”
“Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a sophisticated former economist, has played a key role in the country's emergence as one of the rising powers of the 21st century, engineering the transition from stagnant socialism to a spectacular takeoff in the global economy,” the U.S. magazine noted.
It added that it was his unassuming personal style that “really inspires awe among his fellow global luminaries, who praise him for being modest, humble, and incorruptible.”
In an interview with Fareed Zakaria in January 2012, Obama named Singh among five world leaders he considered to be among his closest friends. Others in the list included Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
Yet, all that was three years ago. Today the Indian economy is foundering under the leadership of the very economist who as finance minister was widely credited for bringing in sweeping economic reforms in 1991. The raft of corruption scandals under his government’s watch – while leaving his personal reputation for probity intact – has severely undermined his tenure as prime minister.
Although there is still broad respect for the Cambridge and Oxford-educated economist-prime minister born into a poor Sikh family, there is little doubt that when the Indian prime minister meets his G20 counterparts in St. Petersburg next week and President Obama in Washington on September 27, he will find the respect and prestige he once commanded vastly diminished. Describing the Indian PM as a “tragic figure,” The Washington Post in September 2012 said, “The irony is that Singh’s greatest selling points — his incorruptibility and economic experience — are the mirror image of his government’s greatest failings.”
Internationally, the steady tarnishing of Singh’s reputation will be seen alongside India’s slowing economy under his watch, which will raise severe doubts over the country’s supposedly destined emergence as a global powerhouse. Indeed, when Manmohan Singh sits down with Barack Obama at the White House on September 27, expect the U.S. president to present a laundry list of grievances ranging from unnecessary regulatory restrictions on market access for U.S. companies to unpredictable changes in regulation on their Indian investments. For Singh, his trips to the G20 Summit in Russia and to the U.S. in September will come as a reality-check, one that will in all probability result in him eating the words he uttered in parliament.