Manmohan Singh at 80: An underachiever or defiant reformer?

Last Updated: Wed, Sep 26, 2012 22:24 hrs

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh marked his 80th birthday on Wednesday amid expert views that he has regained his rank as a defiant reformer after earlier being written off as an "underachiever".

India's first Sikh Prime Minister, often accused of being UPA chairman's puppet enforcer and silent politician, is widely expected to stand down at the next elections due to be held in 2014.

Have your say on PM's 80th Birthday

Having earlier gained the reputation of being the man who lit the fuse for India's rapid growth in the 1990s when he was the Finance Minister, Singh's reputation has since taken a battering as PM, especially since his 2009 re-election.

TIME magazine branded him "The Underachiever" earlier this year while the PM's office got into a row with The Washington Post after it said the PM had "transformed himself from an object of respect to one of ridicule".

But a recent row of reforms, all designed to revive a failing economy, saw a slight rise in the PM's image with the Economic Times proclaiming he got his "mojo back".

Lucky blue turban

Having opened the retail, aviation and broadcasting sectors to foreign investment and standing by his reforms amid heavy opposition, the PM established a new-found defiant status and lived up to his old reputation as being the liberal economist.

Singh, who is found always wearing a blue turban, became the PM when Congress took power in 2004, ending a long stint in the political wilderness. His first term was relatively smooth-sailing, with the country's growth almost reaching double digits.

But after success in the 2009 polls, his reputation started to plummet as the UPA was hit by a wave of corruption scandals.
His recent implementation of reforms appears to be a move to regain some lost reputation or possibly a move to end his political legacy on some respectable note.

Born in 1932 in Gah Begal village in what is now Punjab province of present-day Pakistan, Manmohan Singh's birthday falls on September 26 because his parents had given it as his date of birth to get him admitted in school. His family shifted to India during partition.

"September 26 is shown in the school records as my date of birth," Manmohan Singh had said when asked about it.   

His father, a poor vendor with 10 children, had once joked that his son would become the Prime Minister because he studied so hard, and what was a prophesy said in jest actually came true years later.

Free market economist

The reformist zeal Singh went on to display as the Finance Minister -- where he embraced free markets in the socialist-style economy and cut through red tape -- was well received and saw India grow.

He became the surprise choice as PM in 2004 when his chief, Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, decided that she did not want to lead the UPA government following the Congress' election triumph.

One of those expected to spread the good cheer on Manmohan's birthday is another leader expected to take the PM's mantle someday. Observers are keen to see if Rahul Gandhi would accept Singh's offer of a Cabinet berth in a major reshuffle expected soon, after Trinamool pulled out of the government last week.

Since Independence, power in Congress has threaded from Rahul's great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru to his grandmother Indira Gandhi, who was killed by Sikh bodyguards, and in tragedy-studded succession to his father Rajiv Gandhi, who was blown up by a LTTE-listed suicide bomber.

The workaholic

Manmohan is expected to spend Wednesday working as he has done in the past, according to his office.

Described by many as a workaholic, the PM has often shied away from celebrations on his birthday but there have been a few occasions where he has cut a cake on board his special aircraft during foreign trips. The prime minister has celebrated his birthday mid-air on four occasions. He had cut a cake on his 77th birthday while on board Air India One enroute to Pittsburgh from Geneva and had also done so last year on his flight back from Frankfurt.

The PM will on Wednesday give away the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar awards and Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) awards on the organisation's 70th Foundation Day function. The prime minister is the president of CSIR, whose foundation day coincides with his birthday.

Though some political leaders are expected to call on the PM to greet him, the celebrations will be a low key affair, according to official sources.

Following a string of reforms recently, the PM reached out to people in a nationally televised address last Friday and told them that the economic policy decisions had been taken in the country's long term interests.

He compared the vehement opposition to FDI in retail to the situation in 1991 when the government opened the country to foreign investment in manufacturing and said the opposition tactics had failed then and will fail now.

But the Prime Minister Manmohan’s silence is much different than the silence of his ex-boss P V Narasimha Rao, the then PM under whose leadership (1991-1996) he implemented those reforms. Rao was also well-known for his silence but he managed to carry his government for the full five-year term with the support of coalition partners and was much less controversial. Rao's government didn’t get a second term though. Manmohan earned his name largely due to his role in the Rao government.

Experts say Manmohan needs to pull a leaf out of Rao's book and be more of a politician and less of an economist when dealing with the strong opposition from within his own alliances and opposition parties.

In his speech on Friday, the PM admitted for the first time in recent years that the situation is worrisome but he did not admit that the policy paralysis of his government was responsible for the current state of affairs supplemented by the series of corruption scandals. Instead he drew comparisons with the 1991 crisis.

In a similar comparison to the recent Trinamool pullout, Manmohan had also weathered the political storm when the Left parties withdrew support to the government over the India-US nuclear deal during the UPA-I government.

A rank outsider

Manmohan's tale is strange. He was not even a politician in the first 58 years of his life. Narasimha Rao pulled a rabbit out of the hat when he made Manmohan the Finance Minister in 1991. It was seen as an aberration. No one expected that government to last for the full five years, which it did.

In 1999, Manmohan contested for the Lok Sabha elections, but lost. He might as well have retired from politics after that, but he didn't.

In 2004, no-one expected the UPA to win, but win it did. While Sonia was expected to finally become PM, she also, like Rao, pulled a rabbit out of the bag and made Manmohan the PM. The astonishing part is that he became the first ever non Nehru-Gandhi dynasty PM to be re-elected after completing five years in office.

If Manmohan lasts in office till 2014, he will be 81!

Observers are hoping that Manmohan isn't remembered for his scam-tainted government and are hoping he would establish himself more assertively before his term ends and revive the Indian economy.

'Leader other leaders love'

Two years ago, Manmohan was described as ''the leader other leaders love'' after he topped Newsweek Magazine's list of 10 world leaders who have won respect.

The article quotes former International Atomic Energy Agency director-general and Egyptian presidential challenger Mohamed ElBaradei as saying that "the soft-spoken Singh is the model of what a political leader should be."

Besides Singh, British Premier David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud also figured in the list.

Engineer of India's Growth

Manmohan is often credited with revolutionising India's trade with his mantra of globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation.

In an article titled "The Leader Other Leaders Love", Newsweek said the one-time Finance Minister engineered the transition "from stagnant socialism to a spectacular takeoff in the global economy."

It lauded Singh for his "key role in India's emergence as one of the rising powers of the 21st century."

While Manmohan Singh's professional acumen has often been lauded, Newsweek added, ''but it's Singh's unassuming personal style that really inspires awe among his fellow global luminaries, who praise him for being modest, humble, and incorruptible.''

Back home, he is as famous for his old white Maruti 800, which is still parked at Race Course Road, as for not owning a computer.

80-year-old Singh, who is into his eighth year in office, is the third longest-serving prime minister of India. India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru tops the list, while his daughter Indira Gandhi comes second.

Incidentally, Manmohan is the first Prime Minister outside the Nehru-Gandhi clan to win a second term.

A rare breed: The humble politician

Manmohan has by-in-large been a figure that has accepted criticism with honesty. He often points out his own faults before anyone else does.

At a rare news conference to mark the UPA's first year in its second term in office, he said he could do better than he had, and spoke of the first year as a ''record of reasonable achievement.''

Despite his humble manner, the Prime Minister has been adamant about certain decisions. A case in point was the Indo-US nuclear deal. Despite heavy opposition, Manmohan Singh refused to back down.

He faced and won a vote of confidence, though there were allegation of a cash-for-votes scam.

Obama's Tribute

US President Barack Obama has made no secret of his regard for the Indian leader. The first official State Dinner in his tenure was held in honour of Manmohan Singh's visit to the US.

Obama often praised Singh's statesmanship.

"I can tell you that here at G20, when the prime minister speaks, people listen," he said.

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