Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs second term in office has been damaged… (Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty…)
NEW DELHI — India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh helped set his country on the path to modernity, prosperity and power, but critics say the shy, soft-spoken
79-year-old is in danger of going down in history as a failure.
The architect of India’s economic reforms, Singh was a major force behind his country’s rapprochement with the United States and is a respected figure on the world stage. President Obama’s aides used to boast of his tremendous rapport and friendship with Singh.
But the image of the scrupulously honorable, humble and intellectual technocrat has slowly given way to a completely different one: a dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat presiding over a deeply corrupt government.
Every day for the past two weeks, India’s Parliament has been adjourned as the opposition bays for Singh’s resignation over allegations of waste and corruption in the allocation of coal-
The story of Singh’s dramatic fall from grace in his second term in office and the slow but steady tarnishing of his reputation has played out in parallel with his country’s decline on his watch. As India’s economy has slowed and as its reputation for rampant corruption has reasserted itself, the idea that the country was on an inexorable road to becoming a global power has increasingly come into question.
“More and more, he has become a tragic figure in our history,” said political historian Ramachandra Guha. The historian told the Caravan, an Indian magazine, last year that Singh had been fatally handicapped by “timidity, complacency and intellectual dishonesty.’’
The irony is that Singh’s greatest selling points — his incorruptibility and economic experience — are the mirror image of his government’s greatest failings.
Under Singh, economic reforms have stalled, growth has slowed sharply and the rupee has collapsed. But just as damaging to his reputation is the accusation that he looked the other way and remained silent as his cabinet colleagues filled their own pockets.
In the process, he transformed himself from an object of respect to one of ridicule and endured the worst period in his life, Sanjaya Baru, Singh’s media adviser during his first term, said in a 2011 interview with the Caravan. In a telephone conversation, Baru said his sentiments had not changed.
Attendees at meetings and conferences were jokingly urged to put their phones into “Manmohan Singh mode,” while one joke cited a dentist urging the seated prime minister, “At least in my clinic, please open your mouth.”
Singh finally did open his mouth last week, to rebut criticism from the government auditor that the national treasury had been cheated of billions of dollars after coal-mining concessions were granted to private companies for a pittance — including during a five-year period when Singh doubled as coal minister.
Singh denied that there was “any impropriety,” but he was drowned out by catcalls when he attempted to address Parliament on the issue. His brief statement to the media afterward appeared to do little to change the impression of a man whose aloofness from the rough-and-tumble of Indian politics has been transformed from an asset into a liability.
“It has been my general practice not to respond to motivated criticism directed personally at me,” he said. “My general attitude has been, ‘My silence is better than a thousand answers; it keeps intact the honor of innumerable questions.’ ”
Singh probably will survive calls for his resignation, but the scandal represents a new low in a reputation that has been sinking for more than a year.
‘I have to do my duty’
Singh was born in 1932 into a small-time trader’s family in a village in what is now Pakistan, walking miles to school every day and studying by the light of a kerosene lamp. The family moved to India shortly before partition of the subcontinent in 1947, and Singh pleaded with his father to be allowed to continue with his studies rather than join the dry-fruit trade.
A series of scholarships allowed Singh to continue those studies first at Cambridge and then at Oxford, where he completed a PhD. Marriage was arranged with Gursharan Kaur in 1958; they have three daughters.
A successful career in the bureaucracy followed, but it was in 1991 that Singh was thrust into the spotlight as finance minister amid a financial crisis.
With little choice, Singh introduced a series of policies that freed the Indian economy from suffocating state control and unleashed the dynamism of its private sector.
More than a decade later, in 2004, Singh again found himself on center stage, becoming in his own words an “accidental prime minister.”
The Congress party led by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi had surprised many people by winning national elections that year, but she sprang an even bigger surprise by renouncing the top job and handing it to Singh.