As finance minister in the 1990s, Dr Manmohan Singh rescued India from a balance-of-payments crisis with structural reforms that liberalised the economy.
Indians would be grateful to the self-effacing economist not only for their country’s economic turnaround but also because the reforms drew liberalisation into mainstream political discourse, out from the wild ideological fringes where it had signified selling out the nation to predatory foreign interests.
Although the pace and the result of India’s economic reforms have lagged behind China’s, it would not be an exaggeration to compare the Indian leader in some ways with China’s Deng Xiaoping, who changed the way the Chinese viewed their economic self-interest in a globalising world.
Singh’s premiership over the past decade has been less successful than his tenure as finance minister. Corruption and law-and-order issues have overshadowed many of the achievements of Congress rule, particularly in India’s rural heartland.
He was blamed for a lack of decisive leadership. However, his personal integrity, intellectual breadth and absence of political vindictiveness gave him a special place in Indian hearts. Globally, he was the face of a rising India.
His successor may have a hard time matching him. Congress scion Rahul Gandhi has unmatched political pedigree – his father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers – but no ministerial experience.
Administering a large and populous country like India requires skills that take time to develop. His attempts to reach out to the common man are sincere but his privileged background does not help him.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, a commoner who rose through the political ranks, is a leader many Indians might be able to identify with. His extraordinary leadership of Gujarat state, which has made it a showpiece of India’s economic successes, is founded on an uncanny ability to get things done.
But his inability to stop the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 continues to bedevil his ambitions. The newly launched Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party’s fight against corruption and call for accountability have brought it to power in Delhi, but taking office at the national level would require it to become an all-India presence on par with the Congress and the BJP.
Whoever succeeds Dr Singh should concentrate on the economy as the engine of India’s great-power aspirations. He will have to pursue relations with countries such as the United States and China in a way that increases India’s diplomatic options and maintains its strategic autonomy. He will have big shoes to fill, but a country of India’s size and potential demands no less.