Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh just announced that he will retire from politics next year, even if his incumbent Congress Party wins national elections. "In a few months’ time I will hand the baton over," said Singh, 81, who has served as leader of the world’s most populous democracy from nearly 10 years through two terms. Trained as an economist, Singh was one of India’s longest-serving prime ministers. Interestingly, Friday’s press conference was only the third such event in his nearly decade in office.
As for his likely successor, Singh touted Congress deputy leader Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru political dynasty that has dominated Indian politics since the country’s formation more than 65 years ago. Rahul has not yet been officially been anointed, but Singh said he had "outstanding credentials” to be nominated as the Congress candidate in the election. Singh also expressed his confidence that Congress would remain in power after the elections, which are due next May. "The new generation of our leaders will also guide this great nation successfully through the uncharted and uncertain waters of global change," he said.
The prime minister also blasted the head of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, Narendra Modi, claiming a BJP victory would be "disastrous for the country." (BJP could very well win, given that the party defeated Congress in four key local assembly elections last month). Referring explicitly to the Hindu-Muslim communal violence that scarred Modi’s native Gujarat state in 2002, which killed more than 1,000 people, Singh sneered: "Someone who presided over the massacre of innocent people should not be the prime minister. … I do not believe that kind of strength this country needs, least of all in its prime minister.” Modi, as the chief minister of Gujarat, has long been blamed for fanning the flames of hatred against Muslims by not preventing the deadly disturbances. He has denied any culpability.
BJP officials condemned Singh’s comments, countering that Modi’s policies have made Gujarat "a model of [economic] development for the country."
Sanjoy Majumder, a BBC correspondent in Delhi, wrote that Singh’s resignation was “widely expected” and that the prime minister acknowledged some of his failings, including his inability to clamp down on corruption, rein in inflation and create sufficient jobs. But Singh defended some of his policies while in office, asserting that his Congress-led coalition government was "deeply committed to the objective of combating corruption. An array of historical legislations has been enacted to make the work of the government transparent and accountable."
Singh also insisted that he had “never used my office to enrich or reward my friends or relatives.” Press Trust of India reported that Singh conceded inflation was probably the largest reason behind some of the Indian public’s disenchantment with Congress. “Price rise was a factor in the people turning against Congress,” he told the press conference. “The reasons for it were beyond our control as the prices of international commodities were rising making it difficult for us to control prices. But we have taken enough measures to protect the weaker sections. That should not be lost.”
Further, Singh praised the efforts his administration made on behalf of India’s rural poor and farmers, the heart of the country, citing that he had "transformed the education landscape of the country." But it is likely that rampant corruption in government will scar a large part of Singh’s legacy. "Since [Singh’s] government is perceived to be extremely corrupt, where does he feel he went wrong in not asserting himself when the situation so demanded?" senior BJP party official Arun Jaitley rhetorically asked.
Jonah Blank, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp., commented that Singh’s greatest triumphs actually occurred prior to his tenure as prime minister. “More than any other individual, he shaped the economic reforms of the early 1990s, which made life better for the vast majority of India's citizens," Blank said in an interview. "Manmohan Singh should be seen as one of modern India's great leaders -- but more for his reforms as finance minister in the 1990s than in his role as prime minister."
Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said he thinks Singh’s greatest feat was simply political survival. “He [Singh] presided over two terms filled with unpopular policies (such as the nuclear accord with the U.S.) and damaging corruption scandals,” Kugelman said in an interview. “Until the last year or so, he managed to insulate himself from all these problems. It all caught up to him only recently. He is a true political survivor--an ironic label for an economist who never seemed comfortable as a politician.”
Regarding Singh’s biggest failures in office, Blank said he failed to maintain the pace of economic reforms he launched prior to his tenure as prime minister; he failed to reinvigorate the Congress Party; and he failed to bring a lasting peace settlement in Kashmir with Pakistan. But Blank noted that these unfortunate events were not strictly Singh’s fault. “Singh tried hard to achieve each of these worthy goals -- but was foiled by forces beyond his control," he added.
Kugelman declared that Singh’s greatest failure lied with his personality – that is, failing to assert himself, and not standing up to his various detractors, who faulted him for a range of things--failing to condemn corruption, failing to talk tougher to Pakistan, failing to pass good policies. “His reticence became so strong that it was seen as a sign of weakness, not serenity or level-headedness.” Kugelman added.
Majumder of the BBC commented that ironically Singh’s power and prestige has been undermined by the increasing influence of the very man he is pushing as the new Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, the son of current Congress President Sonia Gandhi and the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Blank asserted that Rahul Gandhi, 43, is the clear front-runner as next Congress party leader, despite his “ambivalence” about the role. “No other leader can step forward unless Rahul definitively rules himself out," Blank said. Rahul is part of one of the world’s greatest political dynasties – his grandmother was Indira Gandhi, his great-grandfather was Jawaharlal Nehru.
But Kugelman noted that Rahul faces some hurdles, despite his glittering lineage. “[The] Congress [party] is mindful of its great unpopularity, and Rahul Gandhi is certainly not a politician who inspires tremendous support.” Kugelman said. “If he's not the next Congress leader, it's only because the party decides to make a more politically expedient choice. But that's a choice I don't expect Congress to make.”
However, the real powerbroker in contemporary India remains Rahul’s mother, Sonia, the president of Congress Party. “Manmohan Singh spent his career in loyal service not only to the nation, but also to a party he never controlled, even as prime minister," Blank added.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.