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A Gentle Giant | Indeed, History Will Be Kinder to Manmohan Singh Than the Media

Dr Singh had the ability to confront and respond to all real issues, a trait not very often seen in his successor.

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In remembering a 33-year-old parliamentary term held in the Rajya Sabha, Dr Manmohan Singh’s contributions to nation-building as both finance minister and prime minister (while being a member of the Upper House) go beyond his economic prudence and expertise.

As an epitome of grace and politeness in personal conduct, his presence will be missed in Parliament for his strong, dignified, and astute statesmanship. These are qualities that are rare to be found in today’s polity and in the nature of practised political propriety.

On Tuesday this week, the Indian National Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge wrote a brief letter to Dr Singh on his X (formerly Twitter) account, praising his indelible contribution to nation-building, and to the rise of India’s middle class and aspirational youth.

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Dr Singh, oft known for ushering in several bold reforms in the Indian economy, became a member of the House for the first time in October 1991, four months after he became the Union finance minister in June 1991. He represented Assam for five terms in the Upper House and then shifted to Rajasthan in 2019. 

Proficient in Urdu and English, Singh remained a gentle giant as a leader.

“No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come. I suggest to this august House that the emergence of India as a major economic power in the world happens to be one such idea,” Dr Singh had (famously) said as he presented his first budget in the historic year of 1991.

In a certain sense, Dr Manmohan Singh’s contributions, even if reaped by his successors as Kharge's letter mentions, have a hangover effect on the lives of many Indians.

His contested political legacy may well resonate with the perceived image of other national leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev of Russia, those who took their country to greater economic heights and undertook structural reform that changed the core foundations of its political economy landscape. 

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Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar had also compared Dr Singh to leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa, each of whom took his country on the path of liberalisation. Chandra Shekhar, given his ideological leanings, was more sceptical of the direction in which the country would go at the time and had declared that history would never forgive him (Manmohan) for what he was doing to the country.

But decades down the line, Manmohan Singh’s contributions as first finance minister and then later as two-term prime minister saw India’s economy rise to heights like never seen before in India’s post-independence history.

In a speech delivered at the end of his second term, Dr Singh hoped for history to be kinder (than the media) in remembering his contributions and their impact on the Indian economy. One can probably see what he might have implied, given the structural inconsistencies associated with India’s current state of the economy, otherwise inhibited by asymmetric developmental realities (see here). 

This author had earlier discussed at length the nature of economic growth and developmental performance observed under the leadership of a two-term government of Manmohan Singh (2004-14) as against the two-term government of Narendra Modi (2014-2024).  

While the data on different performance overheads is there for everyone to see, assess and draw inferences upon, what’s critical is one key set of data points highlighted below: the employment landscape of India during Dr Singh and Mr Modi’s respective terms.  

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Dr Singh had the ability to confront and respond to all real issues, a trait not very often seen in his successor.

Employment to population ratio (15+ total %), Manmohan Singh's term (2004-2014).

Data source: World Bank (modelled on ILO estimate)

Dr Singh had the ability to confront and respond to all real issues, a trait not very often seen in his successor.

Employment to population ratio (15+ total %), Narendra Modi's term (2014-2024).

Data source: World Bank (modelled on ILO estimate)

Dr Singh had the ability to confront and respond to all real issues, a trait not very often seen in his successor.

Vulnerable employment (% of total employment), Manmohan Singh's term (2004-2014).

Data source: World Bank (modelled on ILO estimate)

Dr Singh had the ability to confront and respond to all real issues, a trait not very often seen in his successor.

Vulnerable employment (% of total employment), Narendra Modi's term (2004-2014).

Data source: World Bank (modelled on ILO estimate)

Note from the figures that in terms of the overall employment rate progress and in the reduction of vulnerable employment for the working population, Dr Singh’s economic leadership helped the economy do well in creating better middle-class jobs as compared to the decadal term of Mr Modi.

In fact, for vulnerable employment, 74 per cent of the vulnerable employment level (as a percentage of total employment) is still remarkably high compared to any other like-minded developing nation.

During Dr Singh’s tenure as prime minister, this number came down from 83.5 per cent to 77 per cent, due to the growth and security of more organised sector jobs.

See the data below on other indicators (labour force participation rate,  worker population ratio, unemployment rate). 

Dr Singh had the ability to confront and respond to all real issues, a trait not very often seen in his successor.

LFPR, WPR, and UR for the years 2000, 2012, 2019, and 2022.

Source: ILO's India Employment Report (2024).

The recent International Labour Organisation Employment Report (2024) shows how each sub-indicator of employment performance (LFPR, WPR and UR) has hardly seen any improvement, despite a rise in the population and the working age group over the last two decades (pressing the need for more jobs).

The substantial increase in the open unemployment rate between 2012 and 2019 was primarily due to the growth of the labour force without a corresponding increase in employment.

Look at the rise in the number of unemployed people (from 9.2 million in 2000 to 22.9 million in 2022).

Dr Singh had the ability to confront and respond to all real issues, a trait not very often seen in his successor.

Data on labour force, workforce, and the unemployment for the years 2000, 2012, 2019, and 2022. 

Source: ILO's India Employment Report (2024) .

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As Kharge’s letter remarked, Manmohan Singh will always remain a hero to the middle class and the aspirational youth, a leader and guide to the industrialists and entrepreneurs, and a benefactor to all those poor who were able to climb out of poverty due to his economic policies.

Beyond managing the Indian economy and ushering in a new era of middle-class growth in India, while creating economic opportunities for the poor, Dr Singh had the ability to confront and respond to all real issues, a trait not very often seen in his successor.

As recently reported by Saubhadra Chatterji for the Hindustan Times, it is worth recalling how Dr Singh didn’t shy away from saying “I bow my head in shame” in the Upper House on the 1984 anti-Sikh massacre. He was one of the very few Congress party leaders to say so at the time. 

And, when the late Sushma Swaraj resorted to an Urdu shayari to question him, Prime Minister Singh, an ardent fan of poet Iqbal, said, Maana ki teri deed ke kabil nahi hoon main, tu mera shauq dekh mera intizaar dekh (Agreed I am not worthy of your sight, behold my zeal and see how I wait).

[Deepanshu Mohan is Professor of Economics, Dean, IDEAS, Office of InterDisciplinary Studies, and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), OP Jindal Global University. He is a Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics, and a 2024 Fall Academic Visitor to Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Oxford. He has held Visiting Professorships with University of London’s Birkbeck College (UK), University of Ottawa (Canada), Carleton University (Canada), Stellenbosch University (South Africa), FGV (Rio, Brazil) in the past. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.]

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Topics:  Manmohan Singh 

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