The Pulse

Manmohan Singh’s Tenure: Shades of Gray

Despite PM Singh’s attempts to move India’s diplomacy and economy forward, results have been mixed.

By Tridivesh Singh Maini for

Upon returning from the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg last week, Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh stated that Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi was a suitable candidate for Prime Minister, and that he would be happy to work under the latter. This seems to signal that Singh is out of the race. A senior Congress leader and Minister, Jairam Ramesh, echoed Singh in a televised interview. Of course, there are also many who suggest that Rahul Gandhi would prefer to sit on the sidelines.

Only time will tell whether or not Rahul Gandhi becomes prime minister, even if the Congress returns to power. Nonetheless, Singh’s statement once again brings to the fore his excessive reverence for the first family of Indian politics, which by brazenly pushing vote-garnering policies like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and the Food Security Act, has given precedence to politics over economics. The struggling Indian economy has caused irreparable damage to Singh’s otherwise impeccable reputation and will doubtless shape his legacy.

This is extremely unfortunate for Singh, who was once acclaimed as one of the architects of modern India and who served as Finance Minister during the Narasimha Rao regime, which initiated India’s economic reforms in 1991.

In addition to the current government’s poor performance and Singh’s excessive obedience to the Gandhi family, the prime minister’s poor communication skills have also overshadowed some of his own achievements.

The most important of those achievements is the fact that he has tried hard to give a fresh dimension and gravitas to India’s foreign policy in the context of relations with the U.S., as well as in India’s immediate neighborhood. While there is no doubt that the architects of both of these policies were two of Singh’s predecessors, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the late Inder Kumar Gujral, Singh exhibited conviction in giving a further thrust to both. He pushed ahead with the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, despite skepticism from many of his party colleagues and those within the opposition. This, many analysts argue, played a major role in endearing Singh to large swathes of the urban middle classes, and helped in the re-election of the Congress in 2009.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In India’s more immediate neighborhood, Singh was not as good at making symbolic gestures as his predecessor Vajpayee. Nor will his name go down for initiating a regional policy like Gujral, who is credited with being the architect of the “Gujral doctrine.” Still,  Singh has tried hard to reach out to all of India’s neighbors by making concessions, granting financial assistance and improving connectivity through India’s border states.

It is a different matter of course that the benefits of closer strategic ties with the U.S. are yet to accrue to India. In the context of the neighborhood, the compulsions of domestic politics and red tape have hampered closer integration between India and its neighborhood.

In sum, it would be fair to say that while Singh may have disappointed many of his supporters, especially during his second term in office, he definitely has made sincere attempts to change the discourse on major issues, including foreign policy. It is very easy to adopt a black and white approach towards leaders, especially during election season. But responsible analysts and intellectuals must also strive to find shades of gray. 

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based columnist.