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In praise of Manmohan Singh


Steve Coll offers a paean to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and the surprisingly stable democracy he's helped nurture:

Singh’s low profile is misleading in important respects, however. His counterparts in the rising Hindu-nationalist movement have made more noise and been more proactive in reshaping post-Cold War Indian politics, but Singh has outlasted them all and will be remembered as a seminal figure of India’s transition from socialism and Soviet-leaning nonalignment to managed capitalism and rising power status. He has in many ways been an indispensable figure in India’s recent transitions. As finance minister during the late, sclerotic socialist period, he quietly helped steer the treasury through various close fiscal calls. He defied political convention and called for India to fight off its anti-colonial hangover, recognize the accumulating failure of its state-run economy, and embrace the opportunities of post-Cold War global trade. During the nineteen-nineties, when the Hindu nationalists rose to power, in large part because of their appeal to the country’s emerging urban business classes, Singh helped hold a fragmenting Congress leadership together, in service of Rajiv Gandhi’s Italian-born widow, Sonia, who embraced the Sikh economist as her political partner. When the Hindu nationalists finally ran out of steam, Singh steered Congress back into power, first in unwieldy alliance with leftist parties, and now, finally, in possession of a solid majority.

It was Singh, more than any individual in India, who was prepared to invest his political career in the pursuit of a transformational peace with Pakistan. It was Singh, after the Mumbai attacks, which came on the cusp of national elections, who had the courage to campaign for reelection on a platform of steely restraint -- and who was rewarded by Indian voters. His record may not stand with the great political figures of our age -- Mandela, Gorbachev. In his own country’s history, he certainly does not rank with the Gandhis and Nehrus. Yet he is one of those neglected, careful, seemingly incorruptible, admirable figures that India’s independence movement and democracy have managed to produce regularly.

Photo credit: Molly Reilly/Reuters.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 8, 2009; 11:20 AM ET
Categories:  Foreign Policy  
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Next: Hoyer: Deadlocks make Congress 'less relevant every day'


It's easy to be a genius when GDP is rising like it has in India the past few years. But China's GDP is rising even faster over the same period with no change in leadership. And India's taxation and land rights policies which strongly favor the wealthy are making life more miserable for many poor workers and farmers. GDP isn't everything.

Posted by: bmull | December 8, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, former Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao, who made Manmohan Singh his Finance Minister and stuck to the dictum of "get talented people and get out of their way," deserves a lot more credit than he is usually given. Reforms such as the divestment of the public sector were extremely unpopular, but Narasimha Rao stood by his Finance Minister.

@bmull: It's much harder to introduce changes into a democracy like India, as compared to a dictatorship-by-committee like China's.

Posted by: sreesarma | December 8, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

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