“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
Rightly said by Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest statesmen in history, these words are still relevant in the context of modern democratic values and ideas. Being a leader of any country is one of the toughest jobs ever and facing adversity and crises while being the focus of the opposition makes it even worse. India has seen great leaders and one of them, with no doubt even among his critics, is Dr Manmohan Singh. Born in Gah (now in Pakistan) on 26thSeptember 1932, his family migrated to India during Partition. After obtaining a doctorate from the University of Oxford, he held several important posts in the Indian government such as Chief Economic Advisor (1972–76), Governor of the Reserve Bank (1982–85) and Head of the Planning Commission (1985–87).
Born out of colonial rule, India chose a welfare state and a mixed economy with significant control over the means of production of essential commodities, the license raj, and the five-year plan model. India’s trade grew slowly; Dr Singh a young scholar of Economics then, wrote in the Economic & Political Weekly in 1963, raising concerns over India’s lagging exports and the self-reliance of the Indian economy.
The pegged exchange rate regime which started in 1971 made, in the long run, more negative impacts than positive ones with red tape and fiscal mismanagement following like a devil’s child. The balance of payments crisis reached its peak in 1991 and this economic crisis finally tested the Indian economy in the real sense.
During this time, India was fortunate to have Dr Manmohan Singh as the Finance Minister in the cabinet of then Prime Minister P. V. Narsimha Rao. Dr Singh kicked off economic reforms which reoriented the role of State in the economy, ended the license raj and promoted private sector investment, and liberalised the Indian economy to make sure it integrated with the global economy and benefitted from resource inflows.
These reforms finally led to an increase in forex reserves, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and Foreign Institutional Investors (FIIs), though eventually, they also contributed to rising economic inequality and unemployment. While the fundamentals of the Indian economy as well as the support of the IMF and the World Bank could be given credit for the recovery, it must be recognised and appreciated that the then Indian leadership, of which Dr Manmohan Singh was a part, played a crucial role in steering and stabilising the economy.
A man of action, Dr Manmohan Singh played a significant role in Indian politics. The year 2004 saw him rise as India’s 13th Prime Minister at a time when India was facing new issues such as the side effects of globalisation, terrorism and increasing demands of civil society regarding transparency and accountability of the government and bureaucracy. In 2005, the UPA-I government under him responded with the Right to Information Act(RTI). The objective of the RTI is to empower citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the government, contain corruption, and make our democracy work for people in the real sense. While the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan was instrumental in the passage of the RTI, it was the government under Dr Singh’s leadership that finally got it passed.
UPA-I government also passed the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act(MGNREGA) which guaranteed the basic right to work for 100 days to the adult members of every family, protecting and guaranteeing the security of livelihoods. The World Development Report of 2014 termed it “a stellar example of rural development”.
In 2007, India concluded Free Trade Agreements with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and South Korea as a part of the ‘Asian Economic Community Arc’ which Dr Singh had envisioned in a Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) Partnership Summit in Kolkata in 2005. Dr Manmohan Singh also increased engagement with the Middle East. In 2008, the global economy faced the sub-prime crisis which led to recession and high inflation worldwide. The Indian economy too witnessed a fall in its stock markets as foreign investors pulled out. The UPA-I government pushed for two rounds of fiscal stimulus. They lowered the interest rates, expanded credit and cut excise duties. This gave a direct boost to the domestic sector and sailed it through the crisis.
However, one of India’s greatest diplomatic achievements during Dr Singh’s term was the Civil Nuclear Deal between India and the US. The US Congress passed the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006, also known as the Hyde Act. This was the legal framework for the US to give India access to civil nuclear technology and nuclear fuel in exchange for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on civilian Indian reactors. Thanks to skilful diplomacy, India did not have to compromise its nuclear doctrine and successfully bypassed the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
In his second term, Dr Singh faced several hardships and criticisms. While there were a number of scams, the 2G spectrum scam discovered by the then CAG Vinod Rai marked the downfall of UPA-II government. Few things could be more disastrous than the accusation of corruption of over INR 1.76 lakh crores, which resulted in the prosecution of the then Minister of Telecommunications, A Raja and his former private secretary R.K.Chandolia, among others. This created anti-incumbency sentiment against the government. The large number of scams triggered countrywide anti-corruption campaigns spearheaded by social activist Anna Hazare, who demanded the Lokpal Act. This phase further contributed to the downfall of UPA II government.
Criticised for not speaking up, Dr Singh, in fact, is a down-to-earth person, who at that time was humble enough to accept the mistakes of his own government. In politics where glorification of one’s own achievements plays a vital role, this is rarely seen. Showing his dissatisfaction with the performance of UPA-II, he had said “I would be the first person to admit that we could have done more.”
Despite all the negative aspects of his second term, his dedication and integrity towards the nation is unquestionable. It is rare to find such leaders in our society, but it is equally important to cherish and respect those of them who are already amongst us. Leaders come and go, but the bricks that build a nation are laid through the work done by leaders such as Dr Manmohan Singh, leaving behind a mark and legacy for the generations to remember.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.