Debating India

Man who brought a new economic era


Thursday 20 May 2004, by SENGUPTA*Arindam

NEW DELHI : In his first path-breaking budget, Singh announced partial convertibility of the rupee and slashed import duty. A new economic era had arrived; India was transiting from a state-controlled to a market economy.

The jargon too was different: In his first press meet, Singh came up with the memorable line, "There are no free lunches." In fact, the man was changing - the socialist had turned into a reformer.

Of course, it was not a smooth ride. In fact, things got so rough that Singh resigned twice. One resignation was publicised, one wasn’t. The first time he put in his papers was in 1991 itself. Fertiliser prices had been hiked and there was an outcry. After a long meeting, Rao sent word through his principal secretary A N Verma to Singh: the hike would have to be rolled back partially. Instead, Singh sent in his resignation. Rao is understood to have dissuaded him, explaining that this was statecraft. Things rarely moved in a straight line. In any case, a partial rollback was a partial hike. Singh took the point and withdrew his resignation. This story remains, by and large, untold.

The second time he threatened to quit became a big media story. The JPC draft report on the Harshad Mehta scam had been leaked and it spoke about indicting Singh for "sleeping" through the scam. Singh put in his papers, left office and stayed at home until his alleged culpability had been diluted in the report and Rao gave him a clean chit in Parliament.

Even before the JPC outcry, Manmohan was showing unmistakable signs of learning politics. When asked what would be his first task as FM, Singh said to bring back the gold mortgaged to Swiss and English banks by the Chandra Shekhar government. The pink papers had then attacked this "useless enterprise" but Singh recognised the importance of bringing back the gold for popular reasons.

At the same time, he was open to taking decisions that wouldn’t pass a strict morality test. Like his forex immunity scheme under which you could bring in money stashed away abroad, no questions asked. He was roundly criticised but Singh was pragmatic enough to see the money brought back would only bolster the economy.

Like every leader, Singh also had his favourites - the trusted ones, if you like.

For having two Singhs as his key men, Montek and N K, Manmohan Singh earned a sobriquet for his team - it was called the Singh Parivar.

See online : The Times of India


in The Times of India, Thursday, May 20, 2004.

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