Dr. Manmohan Singh is the fourteenth, and current, Prime Minister of India. He was born on 26 September, 1932, Gah, West Punjab (now in Pakistan) and is member of the left-of-centre Indian National Congress party. A Sikh by faith, Singh was sworn in on May 22, 2004.
A rather low-key politician, Manmohan Singh enjoys a “squeaky clean” image and was advisor to opposition chief Sonia Gandhi throughout the election campaign in 2004 and their time in the
opposition. He was awarded the Outstanding Parliamentarian Award in 2002. Singh’s elevation to the most important national office came when Sonia Gandhi herself refused to take the top job, in view of the massive opposition she could have faced on account of her Italian antecedents. Although many critics and opposition leaders routinely criticize Gandhi as being the real power, or indeed a de-facto ruler, Singh is held in high esteem, and regard, all over the country and the world.
Singh has been married since 1958; he and his wife have three daughters.
Singh is regarded as the architect of India’s original economic reform programme. His policies of economic liberalization, serving in his capacity as Finance Minister under the government of Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s, brought the country back from a looming economic bankruptcy. Now the country is enjoying record economic growth on the foundations laid by him. Singh is an economist by training, and has formerly served in the International Monetary Fund. He was educated at Nuffield College, Oxford, St John’s College, Cambridge and Punjab University; he holds a doctorate in economics from Oxford.
Although his economic policies – which included the reduction of several redundant socialist policies – were widely popular, especially among the middle class, Singh lost his seat to the Lok
Sabha from South Delhi in 1999. He was also a member of the Rajya Sabha from Assam since 1991 and the upper house leader of the opposition from 1998 – 2004 when India was governed by the right-of-center Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP.
Although an economic modernization plan presented by Singh was rejected by the Congress Party, which avowed itself to socialism, the reforms he introduced are regarded as primarily responsible for the present economic boom the country enjoys, and considered irreversible in face of the real progress achieved.
Ascent to Power
Dr. Manmohan Singh, an economic bureaucrat, was the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India in the late 1980s. In 1991, he was asked to head the Finance Ministry by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, who was aware of an acute economic crisis due to decades of stagnant socialist policies and a government riddled by fractious alliances, corruption and imcompetence. The crisis was so bad that the Government was about to mortgage its gold reserves to the Bank of England to obtain the cash reserves to run the country. All this while more than 400 million people starved and struggled in poverty and miserable living conditions.
Achieving an economic turn-around in two years, Dr. Singh was hailed as a hero, although the Rao
administration was unpopular thanks to scandals, its parliamentary status as a minority government, and religious violence all over the country. Although its dissolution in 1996 marked the end of Rao’s political career, Dr. Singh exited without bruises.
Dr. Singh stayed with the Congress Party despite continuous marginalization and defeats in the elections of 1996, 1998 and 1999. He did not join the rebels in a major split which occurred in 1999, when many major Congress leaders objected to Sonia Gandhi’s rise as Congress President and Leader of the Opposition. Being touted as the Congress choice for the PM’s job, she became a target for nationalists who objected to her Italian birth. It seemed that a party which turned to old links to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and a foreigner for political leadership had no future or potential to look forward to. But Singh continued as a prominent leader, rising in confidence and helping to revamp the party’s platform and organization.
The Congress alliance won a surprisingly high number of seats in the Parliamentary elections of 2004, owing to a nationwide disenchantment of millions of poorer citizens with the BJP’s focus on the surging middle-class, and also its dismal record in handling religious tensions. The Left Front decided to support a Congress alliance government from outside in order to keep the “communal forces” out of power. Sonia Gandhi was elected leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party and was expected to become the Prime Minister but in a surprise move, declined to accept the post and instead nominated Dr. Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. There were protests within the Congress about her refusal but eventually people accepted her decision and the allies too accepted her choice. Singh secured the nomination for prime minister on May 19, 2004 when President of India President Abdul Kalam. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam officially asked him to form a government. Although most expected him to head the Finance Ministry himself, he did not do so. His political mentor Sonia Gandhi retains absolute control over the MPs and organization of the Congress Party.
His appointment is notable as it comes 20 years after India witnessed significant tensions between
the Indian central government and the Punjabi Sikh community. After Congress Party Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the mother-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, ordered central government troops to storm the Golden Temple (the holiest site in Sikhism) in Amritsar, Punjab to quell a separatist movement, she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. The result was a tremendous nationwide crisis in which many innocent Sikhs were murdered in riots.
Tenure as Prime Minister
Singh has been Prime Minister for little over a year, and his remains a fairly popular government. His image is of an intellectual, a political leader of integrity (a common public perception denounces virtually every other as corrupt and tainted), compassionate and attentive to common people. Although legislative achievements have been few and the Congress-led alliance is routinely hampered by conflicts and scandals, Singh’s administration has focused on reducing the fiscal deficit, providing debt-relief to poor farmers, extending social programs and advancing the pro-industry economic and tax policies that have launched the country on its major economic expansion course since 2002. Being a Sikh from a secular-socialist party, Singh has been the image of the Congress campaign to defuse religious tensions and conflicts and bolster political support from minorities like Muslims, Christians, and of course, Sikhs.
The Prime Minister’s foreign policy has been to continue the new peace process with Pakistan initiated by his predecessor, Atal Behari Vajpayee. Exchange visits by top leaders from both countries have highlighted this year, as has reduced terrorism and increased prosperity in the
state of Kashmir. The peace process has also been used by the government to build stronger relations with the United States, China and European nations.
But the Government suffered a setback when it lost the support of a key ally, Russia, for its bid for a permanent membership to the U.N. Security Council with veto privileges. Plans to expand the Council and reform the U.N. did not empower the nation’s role as an Asian leader, although foreign leaders and its own hail it as the next Asian economic and strategic giant.
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