(This article was first published on 17 October 2017. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives on former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s birthday.)
While commenting on the ten years of the Manmohan Singh government, London School of Economics professor Maitreesh Ghatak and two others had written about the remarkable growth of India’s economy under the UPA regime, from 2004-2013.
“A period witnessing remarkable gains for the privileged and some for even the not-so-privileged has been confidently declared a disaster zone. The obvious leadership gap has played a role here, but nonetheless, this manufactured reality will no doubt marvel future historians when they look at the actual records.”‘Myths & Reality: Growth in the Time of UPA’, Economic & Political Weekly, 19 April 2014
The three professors did a lot of data crunching and came to the conclusion that the ten years with Manmohan Singh at the helm happened to be “the strongest decade of growth since Independence”.
While growth accelerated, rural wages also witnessed unprecedented rise, suggesting that the benefits of high growth percolated down as well. While the salary growth was unsustainably high in the organised sector, and the share market saw a record bull run, minimum support prices (MSPs) of most agricultural items registered very healthy uptick.
With such an impressive stint as the prime minister of the country, should questions be raised about Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s decision to pick Manmohan Singh for the post, overlooking other contenders? Incidentally, the former prime minister himself made a statement last week to that effect, saying that Pranab Mukherjee was more suitable for the top executive job.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, we can say that Manmohan Singh was the right choice for the top job. And the kind of traits he seemingly lacked – charisma, mass base, a strong leader image, political acumen, among others – worked to his advantage. Such has been the nature of the country that regimes helmed by seemingly weak leaders have taken some of the most enduring decisions.
Weak Governments Have Taken Far-Reaching Decisions
The fragile VP Singh government is credited to have taken one of the toughest decisions of implementing the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, ensuring reservation for other backward classes (OBCs) in government jobs.
The HD Deve Gowda-led United Front government is known for starting the process of disinvestment, and for the dream budget which slashed personal income tax rates considerably. And one of the weakest of the Congress governments of the era, the one led by PV Narasimha Rao, is credited to have brought a paradigm shift by launching a slew of path-breaking economic reforms.
The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, supported by more than two dozen allies, and hence not considered strong enough to take bold decisions, is known to have launched the golden quadrilateral project and the Pokhran nuclear test.
The Manmohan Singh government, the first part of it, will be known for the Right to Information Act (RTI) and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS), besides stellar performance on the economic front.
Strong Governments Have Disappointed
The record of so-called strong governments, on the contrary, has not been very impressive. The Indira Gandhi regime of the 1970s is remembered for imposing Emergency and all that it entailed, more than anything else.
The Rajiv Gandhi regime has come to be associated with the now infamous Shah Bano case, and the unlocking of the disputed structure at Ayodhya. There have been other examples of strong governments not living up to expectations.
Manmohan Singh therefore had a legacy – of a weak leader surprising on the upside – to take forward. Being part of the government for years, in different capacities, he knew more than anyone else that what works most effectively in a democratic set up is the art of consensus building.
The polite, non-threatening demeanour that he possessed is best suited for that. You don’t need charisma to bring others on board. What is required is a polite nudge, the capacity to take criticism in your stride, and the inclination to share power and responsibility. He had plenty of these qualities.
Manmohan Singh: The Consummate Consensus Builder
He could be firm when required (the nuclear deal with the US was one such example), he could be receptive at times (he perhaps gave in to the demands of repeated MSP hikes despite knowing fully well their inflationary implications), and he could be flexible when the situation demanded it (his insistence on welfare schemes like MNREGS despite being wedded to the idea of free market economy is a case in point).
This is not to suggest that the Manmohan Singh regime stayed unblemished throughout, or that his premiership remained effective for all ten years.
His regime has been accused of presiding over some of the worst scams Independent India has seen. While no one has doubted his personal integrity till date, the former prime minister is accused of not taking decisive action against the corrupt. At least that has been the perception burned into public memory.
But is it fair to remember the Manmohan Singh years for all the wrong reasons? It would be very unfair to the man who delivered so much, not too long ago.
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