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Asia

Manmohan Singh leaves behind a mixed legacy

After ten years at the helm of Indian affairs, Manmohan Singh is set to step down as Prime Minister following the parliamentary elections in April-May. DW takes a look at PM Singh's political legacy.

In the 2004 general elections, the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition won despite all opinion polls predicting the contrary. The party's leader Sonia Gandhi was widely believed to become the country's prime minister. But in a surprise move, Gandhi declined to become Prime Minister and named Manmohan Singh as the UPA's choice for the post of premier. The bespectacled Oxford-educated Singh had only worked as a civil servant and lacked experience of electoral politics until the 81-year-old entered the political foray in 1991, when he was appointed as finance minister in the midst of a severe economic crisis.

Despite strong opposition, Singh ushered path-breaking reforms to open up the South Asian country to foreign investment and liberalized the nation's economy. Following the measures, India's economic growth picked up pulling millions of people out of poverty, thus enhancing Singh's reputation as a reform-oriented economist.

"The Prime Minister will always be remembered by Indians with fondness for having launched the 1991 reforms," Jagdish Bhagwati, an Economics and Law professor at Columbia University, told DW, adding that the reforms transformed India from a poor country into "an economy that grew rapidly and, in turn, managed to reduce poverty significantly." However, the Congress party lost the subsequent general elections in 1996, confining Singh to opposition benches of the Indian parliament until the electoral victory in 2004.

Coalition troubles

Against this backdrop, Singh took over the reins as PM after Gandhi relinquished the post. But doubts have been cast over his authority since his first day in office as he had never won a popular vote and relied on political support of Sonia Gandhi's, who continues to be the leader of the ruling Congress and is widely regarded as the most powerful politician in India.

Sonia Gandhi - Sonia Gandhi, President of India's main ruling party, Congress, delivers a speech during an international Autism conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Monday July 25, 2011. (AP Photo/ Pavel Rahman)

Sonia Gandhi is widely believed to be the most powerful politician in India

Gandhi also heads the ruling UPA coalition that is made up of several political parties, thus enjoying influence over political decisions. The complications of coalition politics have also had a negative impact on Singh's government. Over the past decade, the UPA did not enjoy a majority on its own in the parliament and has depended on the support of other parties to ensure the government's survival.

Analysts say that the reliance on political outfits with vastly different economic ideologies has jolted Singh's ability to initiate much-needed structural reforms to boost the nation's economic growth, which has witnessed a considerable decline in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Economy falters

Despite growing at near double-digit rates during the first few years of Singh's tenure, the South Asian nation's GDP growth has slowed down significantly to less than 5 percent last year - its slowest in a decade.

At the same time, the fall in the value of Indian currency "Rupee," coupled with high consumer prices, has dented the government's popularity.

Although Singh's administration was able to push policies to buy farm produce at guaranteed prices, boost rural wages and distribute cheap food, its attempts to reform the economy and attract foreign investment such as the opening up of India's retail sector to international investors were met with fierce political backlash.

Addressing a business summit in New Delhi recently, Singh conceded the lack of political consensus on implementing reforms. "I often found it tough to deal with these challenges because of a lack of political consensus on the reforms, we need to bring in," Singh said.

Corruption scandals

Besides economic troubles, Singh's government has also been engulfed in corruption scandals, particularly during his second term in office. A string of alleged graft scams implicating some of his ministers have rocked Singh's premiership.

The politicians have been accused of committing large-scale fraud in sectors such as telecommunication and coal, among others. Although corruption was not a new phenomenon in the world's largest democracy, the eye-popping numbers that were reportedly involved in these illegal dealings turned the public focus on the issue of graft. According to a report published by India's national auditor, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the government lost some 30 billion USD in the sale of wireless spectrum frequencies to telecom companies.

Proteste Neu Delhi Indien - epa03319512 Indian supporters cheer and listen as Indian yoga guru Baba Ramdev addresses participants during a visits to Indian veteran social activist and anti-corruption bill activist Anna Hazare on his protest for a stronger Lokpal, or anti-corruption bill, in New Delhi, India, 27 July 2012. (Photo: EPA)

A string of alleged corruption scandals triggered massive protests across the country

Even though the alleged scandals and investigations undermined Singh's reputation, he has been able to maintain his clean image and hasn't been accused of being corrupt. The PM has been surrounded by "corrupt politicians and he has been unable to keep them in check," said economist Bhagwati. Despite this, Singh "will always be remembered as being corruption-free," he added.

Foreign relations

Beset by problems at home, PM Singh has tried to assert his influence on the foreign policy front. India's ties with the US have broadened during the past decade and New Delhi and Washington signed a civilian nuclear agreement ending India's nuclear isolation. Singh described the conclusion of the pact as the “best moment” of his tenure.

"Certainly I think the best moment for me was when we were able to strike a nuclear deal with the United States to end the nuclear apartheid that had sought to stifle the processes of social and economic change and technical progress of our country in many ways," Singh said in a recent press conference.

Tanvi Madan, an expert on Indian politics at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, says that despite the talk these days of a crisis in India-US bilateral ties because of the arrest of an Indian diplomat accused of falsifying documents and mistreating her domestic servant, the last decade under Singh's leadership overall was really "one of an unprecedented broadening and deepening of India's relationship with the US."

Devyani Khobragade Diplomatin aus Indien Archiv 19.06.2013 - India's Deputy Consul General in New York, Devyani Khobragade, attends a Rutgers University event at India's Consulate General in New York in this June 19, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Tensions flared between India and the US after the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York in December 2013

The nuclear deal succeeded "in changing the narrative of the India-US relationship and helped remove an obstacle to cooperation in various other spheres," the expert added.

Beyond the pact with the US, experts say, Singh's era has also seen a marked improvement in relations with East and Southeast Asian nations with India signing free trade agreements with countries such as Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.

In its neighborhood, Analyst Madan said, India has managed to work through its differences with Pakistan and China, despite periods of heightened tension. However, PM Singh "might identify the failure to achieve normalization with Pakistan as perhaps his biggest disappointment," Madan told DW.

At his last press conference as Prime Minister in January, Singh had said: "I honestly believe that history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media, or for that matter, the opposition parties in Parliament."