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Politics

Singh faces political hardship as 80th approaches

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was once celebrated as the founder of modern India, is considered by many to be unable to handle the problems the country is facing. On September 26 he will turn 80.

When Manmohan Singh took up office in 2004, it was just a makeshift solution. It was supposed to be Sonia Gandhi, the current Congress party leader, who was supposed to become prime minister after the landslide win in the elections. But the opposition protested because of her Italian background and nearly brought the country to a still stand. In the end, Sonia Gandhi gave up the fight and Manmohan Singh became the country's 14th prime minister since it won independence from Britain in 1947.

Thoughout Indian media, opinions circulated that Singh would never survive his five-year term. But the tough politician, who is often underestimated because of his quiet voice and slow movements, proved that he packed a better punch than most expected - he has now been in office for almost 10 years. Only two other prime ministers have been in office that long before him.

"Successful premier"

Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, right, and prime minister in waiting Manmohan Singh, left, pose for the media after Singh was elected as parliamentary chief, outside the Parliament building in New Delhi in May, 2004Photo:Manish Swarup/AP

Manmohan Singh became prime minister in 2004

Indian expert Christian Wagner of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin told DW it is because of his qualifications that Singh came to power and not because of any connections with powerful political families as a member of a powerful family dynasty: "It certainly speaks for him that he is not connected with India's political dynasties." Yet this also made him somewhat of an outsider, which could also be a political handicap for him, as he "thus cannot control the party apparatus."

Nonetheless, Singh will go down as the most successful prime minister in the history of India.

He created a string of foreign policy initiatives, for example for the improvement of Indo-Pakistani relations and on the US-Indian civil nuclear agreement. Wagner also pointed out his achievements in India's liberalization as finance minister at the beginning of the 1990s - "many see him as the initiator of India's rapid economic growth."

Growing criticism

But his image as India's economic hero is changing. India's economy is slowing down. Confidence among foreign investors is diminishing - a reform package recently passed comes too late in their eyes. To add to that, high-ranking members of his government have been involved in a string of seemingly endless corruption scandals. Former Telecommunications Minister A. Raja is now in jail for his involvement in a licensing scandal. An even larger scandal involving the distribution of access to coal mines, dubbed "coalgate" has just recently surfaced. Domestic as well as international criticism for Manmohan Singh continues to grow.

The American newspaper, the Washington Post recently referred to him as a "dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat presiding over a deeply corrupt government."

The people adored him as a humble prime minister and whose ambitions only surrounded on the good of India. He was considered an honest and virtuous person and someone who, through his unobtrusive and peaceful manner, was close to the people. But people now have started to change their minds about him. Many people are of the opinion that he has ignored problems too often - trying to ride them out instead of tackling them.

"It was surely wrong to depict Manmohan Singh as a kind of super hero in the 1990s," economist at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University Praveen Jha told DW. "But now it is the other extreme." Jha said both were wrong: "Singh himself has also been a victim of the world economic crisis and quibbles within the party in the last few years."

Extensive experience

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 in July Photo: EPA/ANINDITO MUKHERJEE +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Anti-corruption protests have been gathering momentum in India

Singh's amount of experience, it must be said, is impressive. He was born in the year 1932, in Gah village, in present day Pakistan and experienced first hand the hardships and suffering the partition of India caused the people in 1947. As a teenager, he sought asylum in Amritsar, Punjab. He studied economics and due to his outstanding performance received a scholarship at Oxford and Cambridge. In 1962 he finished his PhD. Singh worked for the United Nations, taught at the University of Delhi, and then went to the Indian Ministry of Commerce. As head of the Reserve Bank of India and working for the International Monetary Fund, he gained a name for himself outside of India.

In 1991, he became finance minister, liberalized the markets and thus created the foundation for India's rise to a regional power, which today wishes to have a permanent seat in the World Security Council. In the year 2004, Singh became the first Sikh to become prime minister, thus bolstering India's image as a multi-cultural and multireligious state. He has been married since 1958 and has three daughters.

Political legacy

Singh famously referred to himself in a 2006 interview as a small person in a big chair but pledged nonetheless to accomplish all of the duties assigned to him. The past few years seem to have worn him out - he seems now almost as if he were just waiting out his term as prime minister. The name "Manmohan" means "winner of hearts." But with his opposition growing stronger by the day, he will need more than that to solve India's problems. Singh will have to act counter to his nature and fight to secure his political legacy.

DW.DE