April 11, 2024


What will Manmohan Singh’s legacy be?

33 years is a long time to be in electoral politics. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s political innings ended as he retired from the Rajya Sabha with decades of public service under his belt. Not only a former finance minister and head of state, Singh is considered one of the most valued senior Congress leaders.

As he departs the Indian Parliament, no doubt people will look back on his political and public service career. Any politician of his stature and longevity will naturally attract that kind of attention. Will his legacy be one of success amid challenges, or are there more losses than wins politically and policy-wise?


Much of Manmohan Singh’s legacy will most likely begin with his tenure as Finance Minister. But his legacy was that of a self-made man. Not born into wealth or privilege, he attributed his rise to the system of scholarships for poor students. As he rose through the ranks of public service, he gained experience from being a chief economic advisor, Reserve Bank of India Governor, and UGC chairperson.

After holding these key positions, Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao brought in Singh as finance minister in 1991. Before Rao was sworn in, the country faced a severe balance of payment crisis and was on the verge of a default.

The world was in an uncertain place. The Soviet Union collapsed, and there was a US-led unipolar world. Rao decided to take India out of the “license quota raj” system and move toward structural reforms. That included opening up the economy by lowering trade barriers and opening up sectors to foreign investment. It was the era of economic liberalisation. He quoted French writer and politician Victor Hugo, saying, “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come”.

When the incumbent BJP government couldn’t secure a second consecutive term in 2004, the Congress-led UPA came to power with the support of the Left parties. Manmohan Singh was chosen as the Prime Minister. Singh and the government faced constant pressure from allies, especially the Left parties. Despite this, he was able to relatively steady the ship. He even went ahead with the much-debated Indo-US nuclear deal.

Things didn’t go as smoothly as he would’ve liked as scandals began to pile up. The 2G and Commonwealth Games scams, and coal block allocations resulted in something of a policy paralysis. Even after the UPA government returned to power in 2009, they couldn’t shed the blot the scams had on it. Singh was also criticised for being weak, given the perceived dual power centre in the Congress with party chief Sonia Gandhi gaining significant power.

The opposition, particularly the BJP and Modi, saw an opportunity and took it. Painting the Congress as corrupt and garnering significant corporate support, the UPA was defeated quite resoundingly in 2014. As Singh retires, the question now is, what will his legacy be?

VIEW: Mighty contributions

During his latter days as Prime Minister, Singh said in part, “I honestly hope history would be kinder to me than the contemporary media.” That’s probably an accurate assumption to make. Singh’s vision and policies, beginning as Finance Minister, will forever be etched as part of a turning point in India’s story. It was he who helped pave the way for India to become an economic powerhouse.

Being Prime Minister in a coalition government where the allies weren’t always as cooperative as he would’ve liked, it’s remarkable how much he achieved. He presided over a decade of growth and development when India recorded the highest average growth rate of 7.7% to become a nearly $2 trillion economy. For Singh, growth was nothing if it wasn’t inclusive. This was evident in the passage of important legislation like the Right to Food, Right to Education, Right to Work and the Right to Information.

In post-independent India, there aren’t many who can stake claim to help transform a country’s economy to such a large extent. His contributions, even if they’re reaped by his successors, continue to affect the lives of millions of Indians. Many, even those in the opposition, have always described him as a man of integrity with a soft-spoken demeanour. That’s a rarity in this day and age in electoral politics, where the standards of parliamentary conduct have deteriorated.

COUNTERVIEW: Not a very favourable legacy

If Singh’s legacy was deemed successful, it shouldn’t have paved the way for the BJP and Modi to come to power relatively easily, and with a clear majority. Clearly, the electorate wasn’t happy with how he ran the country and the party he was a part of did him no favours. In his second term, some have described him as a “lame duck” prime minister. He wasn’t able to defend himself or the government before the press. In essence, he was a nominated Prime Minister rather than a purely elected leader.

Some have argued that Singh should’ve resigned in 2012 for the good of the country. However, his overt loyalty to the Gandhi family took precedence. Perhaps the only time Singh asserted himself on a significant policy was the Indo-US nuclear deal. In some ways, the first term of the UPA laid the foundation for the scandal-ridden second term. The National Advisory Committee seemed more powerful than the government.

Some of the policies weren’t well thought out. During the UPA’s first term, it increased Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) quite significantly. While this helped it win a second term, later, consumer food prices rocketed. When the second term ended, consumer price inflation was over 8%. Singh’s talk of inclusive growth was in stark contrast as ministers became embroiled in scandals. The political narrative was there for the taking, and Singh didn’t have the will to shape it.

Reference Links:

  • Manmohan Singh: Architect of India’s economic reforms ends Rajya Sabha innings after illustrious career – Frontline
  • Dr Manmohan Singh’s 33 years at Parliament: A look back – The Week
  • Manmohan Singh retires from Rajya Sabha: BJP, Congress spar over his legacy – The Tribune
  • A rare leader with a fine record – Deccan Herald
  • Manmohan Singh’s boring governance is missed – Deccan Herald
  • A Gentle Giant | Indeed, History Will Be Kinder to Manmohan Singh Than the Media – The Quint
  • Manmohan Singh vs Narendra Modi: Who handled the Indian economy better? – Scroll
  • Bharat Ratna for Manmohan Singh? He doesn’t deserve one – The Print
  • The paradox of Manmohan Singh – The Strait Times

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s legacy will be favourable.

b) Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s legacy will be unfavourable.


For the Right:

The scapegoating of India’s ‘elites’

For the Left:

Northern comfort elusive for INDIA