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Architect of a New India


As an undergraduate at St. John's in the 1950s, Manmohan Singh used to rise at a very early hour, often at 4 a.m. It wasn't that he was desperate to go rowing or buckle down to another economics essay, but rather that he wanted to get across the Bridge of Sighs to New Court to have a bath.

As a Sikh who wears a turban to cover his unshorn hair, he needed to get to the bathroom unseen to wash in privacy before retying his turban. There was nothing sybaritic about his bathing, either. When he first came to Cambridge, he got a lot of colds, "until a friend of mine told me that if you really want to fight colds, you had better take cold baths. And it worked."

Fifty years later, Singh leads the world's largest democracy as India's first non-Hindu prime minister. Born in the western Punjab, he remains proud of being a Sikh, but there is no religiosity about him. India today is a secular republic and he is very much the technocrat, widely admired for his probity and ability, less than comfortable when obliged to play the glad-handing politician.

He admits to being "not a great orator - though I am learning to do better." Above all, he is widely regarded as the architect of India's economic reforms, a process he set in train in the early 1990s, when he became finance minister in the midst of a balance of payments crisis. As prime minister, he continues that reform process today.

The thinking behind his solutions to India's financial problems was first shaped at Cambridge by the theories of John Maynard Keynes. The great man had died almost ten years before Manmohan Singh arrived, but his legacy was still very much alive.

"At university, I first became conscious of the creative role of politics in shaping human affairs, and I owe that mostly to my teachers, Joan Robinson and Nicholas Kaldor. Joan Robinson was a brilliant teacher, but she also sought to awaken the inner conscience of her students in a manner that very few others were able to achieve. She questioned me a great deal, and made me think the unthinkable. She propounded the leftwing interpretation of Keynes, maintaining that the state has to play more of a role if you really want to combine development and social equity."

He adds: "Kaldor influenced me even more; I found him pragmatic, scintillating, stimulating. Joan Robinson was a great admirer of what was going on in China, but Kaldor used the Keynesian analysis to demonstrate that capitalism could be made to work. So I was exposed to two alternative schools of thought. I was very close to both teachers, so the clash of thinking sometimes got me into difficulties. But that made me think independently."

Singh was a brilliant student. After getting a first in his prelims (an achievement he repeated at finals), he was invited by the then Marshall Professor, Sir Dennis Robertson, to join the legendary Political Economy Club that Keynes himself set up back in 1909. A select group of academics and students, it met on Mondays after dinner.

"A subject was chosen and you had to comment on events or matters which arose for discussion, literally thinking on your feet. It was a great intellectual experience for a young student and moulded my thinking in a major way."

At St. John's, he settled in fast and was soon intensely busy. "My years in Cambridge were in some ways the happiest time of my life, and the period when I learned the most. I needed to conserve my energy because I had to finish the course in less than two years, but I still managed to take part in many activities outside college."

He joined the Majlis (now the Indian Society) and the University Labour Club, where he relished the discussions on federalism and the future of Europe.

Although there was no Gurdwara in Cambridge, "there was so much to learn and so much was going on around me that I didn't feel the lack of a place to worship. One of my good friends was Swaranjit Singh, a cricket Blue who later played for Warwickshire, and there were also a large number of Punjabis from Pakistan, with whom I got on famously. The physicist Abdus Salaam was a fellow of my college, a Pakistani who became a Nobel Laureate. Dr. Salaam was very kind, very affectionate to me. We used often to meet to discuss life on both sides of the Punjab. One day, he introduced me to Sir Mohammed Zafar Agha Khan, then Pakistan's foreign minister, who was visiting him and spotted me as I walked into college. He said some of his ancestors had been Sikhs ..."

This heady period was already a long way from the early expectations of Manmohan Singh, who comes from a farming family that was, he says, "very, very poor." His father had decamped to Peshawar in order to feed his wife and children by working for a company in the dried fruit trade. Dr. Singh started his education at the school in the village in which he was born, but from the age of twelve studied in Peshawar. He still remembers his father "telling him fanciful stories about Kabul and other places in Afghanistan."

Little did he know that in later life he would find himself representing India in negotiations with the Afghan leader Hamid Karzai.

In March 1947, he took his exams to matriculate at the Punjab University in Chandigarh, but "the results never came through because of Partition." Most of the Singh family managed to make it to India by train, a journey he now recalls as "very unsafe, though nothing fortunately happened to the train we were in."

Given the communal massacres on many trains at the time, the family was lucky. But in the chaos of that mass migration his father lost contact with the family. "We had no trace of him until January 1948, when we found he had been taken to a camp."

After re-sitting his matriculation exams later that year, he finally reached the Punjab University, from where he got his scholarship to Cambridge. But with one condition attached: that he return to the university to teach for three years after he graduated.

At Cambridge, Manmohan Singh's potential was soon spotted. After his finals, Nicky Kaldor wrote to his friend T.T. Krishnamachari, then the Indian finance minister, suggesting that he was ''ideally suited for the Treasury." A research post was offered, but the vice-chancellor of Punjab University, Cambridge alumnus Diwan Anand Kumar, had other ideas and promptly reclaimed him.

After the allotted three years back in Chandigarh, he returned to Britain as a research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford. As an intellectual adventure it didn't match Cambridge, he says, perhaps because "research students are rather a lonely lot; it's only as an undergraduate that you mix with a large number of people."

His heart remained very much in India. "Staying in Britain after completing my D.Phil. never occurred to me. I grew up at a time when there was great optimism, great enthusiasm for remaking India as a developed economy, inspired by what was happening in the Soviet Union. There was also the belief that hard work and sustained investment can transform a country in a generation."

In the 60s, Singh worked for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (U.N.C.T.A.D.) in New York, but after three years found himself so restless that he resigned. "The Secretary-General was very angry because I'd just been promoted. I said I felt that my place was in my own country." He said: "Well, maybe you are right. Sometimes the wisest thing to do is to act very foolishly!"

Returning to India in 1969 as professor of economics at Delhi University, he could so easily have settled down permanently to the academic life. So how did he end up in government? He's still not entirely sure. His research on India's trade came to the attention of P.N. Haksar, the head of Indira Gandhi's secretariat, who after the election in 1971, insisted Singh should write a paper for him called "What to do with the victory". After that, it became a slippery slope. He joined the ministry of foreign trade as an economic advisor, but wasn't happy there. "After a year I had some differences of opinion with the minister and wanted to go back to academia. Instead, they kicked me upstairs to be the chief economic advisor of the ministry of finance."

It wasn't the only time Singh tried to leave government. In the 70s and 80s, he held a succession of top economic jobs, including two stints as governor of the Reserve Bank of India, during a period of tension between the Indian government and Sikhs that culminated in the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. Six years later came the assassination (at the hands of some Tamil Hindus) of her son, Rajiv [Trinity 1962], while campaigning in the 1991 general election. P.V. Narasimha Rao, who Singh has always held in great regard, became prime minister.

"On the day he was formulating his cabinet, he sent his principal secretary to me saying the P.M. would like you to become the minister of finance. I didn't take it seriously. He eventually tracked me down the next morning, rather angry, and demanded that I get dressed up and come to Rashtrapati Bhavan (presidential palace) for the swearing-in. So that's how I started in politics."

By any standards, it was a baptism of fire. The Indian economy was in meltdown, with a fiscal deficit running unchecked at 8.5 percent and foreign exchange reserves dropping off the bottom of the chart. Over five years, Singh instituted an unprecedented programme of economic liberalisation: rationalising the tax system, attacking red tape and removing layer upon layer of regulation. Business thrived, inflation fell and for most of the 1990s, the economy grew at a steady 7 percent.

At the time he returned to India from Cambridge in 1957, Singh felt entirely in tune with its centralised, "command economy" policies. "The 1950s and 1960s were days of optimism inspired by Jawaharlal Nehru [Trinity 1907] and his colleagues. Cambridge economists endorsed what we were doing. However, by the mid-1960s, it became obvious that being an underdeveloped country with underdeveloped administrative capability, we had taken on too many things and overestimated what the government could deliver. We had also underemphasised the role of private initiative in human affairs. We should have taken advantage of the opportunities that the international economy offered and been more outward-looking than we were."

Looking back now, he sees the 1991 crisis as a blessing in disguise. "It helped us liberalise the economy. There would have been difficulties in making changes without a crisis." Before that, most people would have taken the American view: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Unusually for a prime minister, Singh has never won an election. When he stood for the lower house of parliament as the Congress Party's candidate for South Delhi in 1999, he lost. From 1998 until the election of 2004 when the Congress party returned to power under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv's widow, he therefore led the opposition to the governing B.J.P. (Bharatiya Janata Party) coalition from the upper house, the Rajya Sabha.

Sonia Gandhi herself has Cambridge connections. Italian-born, the Catholic daughter of a Piedmont house builder, she met her husband in Cambridge aged 18 while studying at the Bell School of Languages and working evenings as a waitress at the Greek Varsity Restaurant opposite Emmanuel College. Here in 1965, at "the only place in Cambridge that you could have something close to home food," she encountered Rajiv, at that time an engineering student at Trinity. "It was love at first sight," she confessed later. "I had a vague idea that India existed somewhere in the world with its snakes, elephants and jungles, but exactly where it was and what it was really all about, I was not sure." Despite opposition from their families, the couple married three years later.

In May 2004, when the Congress returned to power, Sonia Gandhi was expected to become prime minister, but to universal surprise declined to accept the post, nominating her chief adviser Manmohan Singh instead. The opposition and media immediately made efforts to portray Gandhi as the power behind the throne, but this has not rattled Singh in the least. He has grown in stature since taking office, visiting Washington to address a joint meeting of Congress and finalising a controversial deal under which the United States will supply India with civilian nuclear technology. Relations with Pakistan have also been strengthened.

The sight of him, not too long ago, sitting next to President (Pervez) Musharraf to watch their respective countries slog it out on the cricket pitch - and smiling while they did so - would have been unthinkable just a few years back.

Manmohan Singh remains an academic by temperament. He is a reluctant, low-decibel politician, an intellectual uneasy with personality cults whose quiet self-confidence he attributes in part to his time at Cambridge. He is justly proud of his rise from humble beginnings, but at the personal level has changed very little since becoming Prime Minister. A very private man, he never uses his family for political advantage, although his wife, Gursharan Kaur, who he married the year after he left Cambridge, is often by his side at official engagements. The couple have three daughters. 

One of his chief priorities is to improve the government's system of delivering services. Rajiv Gandhi used to bemoan the fact that if he allocated 100 rupees, only 15 would reach the village for which they were intended. Now Dr. Singh is working to cut what is euphemistically called "leakage of funds" and to improve the quality of health, education and transport. A key priority is to improve the lot of India's poor, in particular through an Employment Guarantee Scheme now being introduced in the face of formidable political opposition.

He still describes himself as a socialist, but is anything but doctrinaire. Many commentators believe that he would like to take his economic reforms further than the reality of the current political situation, with an uneasy alliance with the communists, will allow. At the same time, he is adamant that that "you cannot sustain a democratic polity unless those who are at the lower rung of the social and economic ladder feel that they are partners in the processes of change." There talks the brilliant student, still skillfully juggling Joan Robinson and Nicholas Kaldor's theories of Keynesian economics which he absorbed so enthusiastically at Cambridge in the 1950s.

Photos on this page: Top  -  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addresses the US Congress.

Second from top  -  The US President and First Lady await the arrival of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sardarni Gursharan Kaur outside the White House.

Bottom  -  The US President and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speak to guests at the White House during a reception in the latter's honour.  Sardar Montek Singh is seen on the far right (in bright blue turban).


Conversation about this article

1: Harinder (Pune, India), May 03, 2007, 5:58 AM.

Let us hope that Sardar Navdeep Singh Bains does a repeat in Canada what Sardar Manmohan Singh has done in India. It would be a shining moment for both the nations.

2: Jagdeep Singh (London, England), May 03, 2007, 8:48 AM.

Manmohan Singh and Abdus Salaam were together at Cambridge? Arguably two of the greatest Punjabi minds of the last one hundred years; certainly two of the most distinguished Punjabis of the modern era! I hope that, after he leaves office, Manmohan Singh will write his memoirs: it would make a fascinating read.

3: Gurteg Singh (NY, USA), May 07, 2007, 4:32 AM.

I think we need to face a dose of reality. Manmohan Singh may be the architect of a new India - but it is the same India which, not too long ago, murdered tens of thousands of innocent Sikhs men, women and children, in broad daylight - and continues to be bent upon the obliteration of the unique identity and religion of the Sikhs. Until and unless these issues are fully addressed, where's the cause for celebration?

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