| NEW DELHI
NEW DELHI May 18 When it was clear that he was
set for a stunning election victory last week, India's Narendra
Modi sent a message that read simply "India has won": It
instantly set a record as the country's most retweeted Twitter
And yet two days earlier the top trend on Twitter India had
been #ThankYouDrManMohanSingh, a popular tribute to Manmohan
Singh, who bows out after 10 years as prime minister with deep
respect even if voters thrashed his party in the polls.
Singh will be remembered for the reforms he drove through as
finance minister in 1991 that prised open a state-stifled
economy. In his budget speech that year, he quoted Victor Hugo,
saying "No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come".
Those reforms snapped India out of a shuffling rate of
growth of that time, lifted millions out of poverty and
propelled the country into the league of dynamic emerging
In a blizzard of commentaries examining 81-year-old Singh's
legacy in recent weeks, the Oxbridge-educated economist has been
praised for his intellect and personal integrity, and world
leaders have reached out to wish him well in retirement.
And yet Singh's stock tumbled during his second five-year
term as economic growth skidded, inflation ballooned and
spectacular corruption scandals clattered like skeletons out of
a cupboard. His public silence on many matters became the butt
of jokes, including one which said movie theatre patrons were
being asked to put their mobile phones in "Manmohan mode".
Singh struggled to fend off the perception that the real
power in his government was Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress
party and widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, whose
family has ruled India for most of the time since independence
from Britain in 1947.
In a book published during the election campaign, "The
Accidental Prime Minister", a former media adviser said that
Singh allowed his authority to be undermined by Gandhi.
"You must understand one thing. I have come to terms with
this," the author, Sanjaya Baru, recalled the prime minister
telling him in 2009. "There cannot be two centres of power. That
creates confusion. I have to accept that the party president is
the centre of power. The government is answerable to the party."
Singh's spokesman dismissed the book as an incorrect
interpretation of the prime minister's decade in power, but the
memoirs only served to reinforce a popular perception that an
extra-constitutional authority had called the shots for years.
FATHER OF REFORMS
The only prime minister since independent India's first
leader to serve two full five-year terms and the first Sikh to
have held the office, Singh told his final news conference that
history would in the end be kind to him.
Swaminathan Aiyar, a prominent Indian journalist, said that
Singh's achievements would indeed become his story.
"People will forget Manmohan Singh's failings, and remember
him as the father of economic reform and superfast growth,"
Aiyar wrote in a Times of India commentary.
Born into a poor Sikh family in a part of British-ruled
India now in Pakistan, Singh studied by candlelight to win
scholarships to Cambridge and Oxford, earning a doctorate with a
thesis on the role of exports and free trade in India's economy.
He held the top finance and economic planning posts in
India's bureaucracy for decades and was also head of the central
bank before joining the cabinet in 1991. He became prime
minister in 2004 when Sonia Gandhi, who led the Congress party
to a surprise victory, declined the job fearing her Italian
birth would be used by Hindu nationalist opponents to attack the
As prime minister, Singh sought to liberalise the economy
further. However, he often ran into resistance from wayward
allies in his coalition government and from his own left-leaning
party, which prioritised welfare schemes such as a jobs
programme for the rural poor.
In 2008, he stood up to his party's one-time communist
allies over a civilian nuclear energy deal with the United
States that took his country out of decades of diplomatic
isolation over its atomic weapons programme.
Singh saw India's growth story wobble in the last years of
his premiership as global economic turbulence combined with a
policy paralysis at home battered the investment climate.
His second term was also overshadowed by mass protests
against corruption, and he was widely criticised for apparently
turning a blind eye to the graft raging around him.
Harish Khare, who served as the prime minister's media
adviser from 2009 to 2012, described Singh in an article for the
weekly magazine Outlook as "spectacularly unflamboyant", but
credited him for making historic course corrections that brought
India more social harmony, equity and regional peace.
A leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which routed
Congress in the election, praised the outgoing prime minister
for his "dignity and grace" but like many voiced doubt about his
"It was the inability to speak up within his own party that
may compel the historians to take a different view of the man,"
Arun Jaitley said in an article sent to media last week. "Only
if he had stood up at the right time and disagreed he would have
been regarded with still a greater honour."
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)