India's New Leader: A Market Reformer in Populist Times ; Manmohan Singh Is Expected to Take over as Prime Minister Saturday

By Scott Baldauf writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 21, 2004 | Go to article overview
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India's New Leader: A Market Reformer in Populist Times ; Manmohan Singh Is Expected to Take over as Prime Minister Saturday


Scott Baldauf writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In his sky-blue turban and his white tunic scrupulously buttoned up to his neck, India's new prime minister designate, Manmohan Singh, has always seemed a little out of place in the rough and tumble world of Indian politics.

But in 1991, when Dr. Singh took on the most difficult job in India - finance minister - at a time when the country was weeks away from financial collapse, it became clear that India had found the right man at the right moment.

With calm logic and steely persuasion, Singh put together a slate of economic reforms that wiped away the socialist-style industrial and trade regulations that had stifled the economy for decades. Then came the hard part: Convincing his own Congress party, which still espoused socialism, to pass these reforms.

"There was a lot of opposition in Parliament and quite virulent reaction in the press that made Dr. Singh's work a lot harder," recalls Shankar Acharya, who was Singh's chief economic adviser. "But he didn't make it an ideological issue, he made it clear that we had to do this to get where we wanted to go as a nation."

As prime minister of the world's largest democracy, a nation where nearly 300 million people live on less than a dollar a day, Manmohan Singh may need every inch of his integrity to keep economic reforms moving ahead. Even at the growth rate of 7.4 percent, India is a country where both the foreign investor and the everyday laborer feel uneasy. Balancing the sometimes competing demands of both - particularly given his party's left-wing allies - may prove to be Singh's greatest challenge.

"The left within Congress itself is the much bigger hurdle," says Surjit Bhalla, a friend of Singh's and an economist at the pro- market think tank Oxus Research and Investment in New Delhi. "But if anybody can do it, it's [Singh], because of the kind of person he is, because of the kind of record he has."

Singh is known as a devout Sikh who lives simply. Unlike his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he never drinks. He is an academic with degrees from Cambridge and Oxford, a bureaucrat who worked for the Indian state and for the United Nations, and finally, a politician first elected at the age of 59.

The adjectives that friends and rivals use to describe Singh sound like a Boy Scout code: gentle, humble, honest, committed, sincere, completely unflashy.

Jagdish Bhagwati, a college friend of Singh's and an economist at Columbia University, says that Singh's integrity is so high that he didn't use his connections to get his daughter into college.

"My wife was on the admissions committee, but he never called me once to use influence on [his daughter's] behalf," says Mr. Bhagwati. "In Indian politics, that's unheard of.

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