Which Manmohan Singh Will History Remember? A Return to His Early Triumphs

12 March 2015
Singh as finance minister in his office in 1995

Yesterday, a Special Court summoned Manmohan Singh on accusations of corruption and criminal conspiracy with regard to the allotment of a coal mine in Odisha to Hindalco Industries Ltd. This morning the Indian Express reported that the court found that Singh, when holding the Ministry of Coal portfolio in 2005 to 2009, gave his approval to Hindalco "in violation of established procedure." This is the latest setback for the former prime minister, who has also been accused of impropriety in the 2G case by Vinod Rai, former Comptroller and Auditor General, and others and was examined by the CBI in January this year with regard to the same coal block allocations for which he now faces the court summons.

In our October 2011 issue, Vinod Jose profiled Singh in "Falling Man.” In this excerpt from that story, Singh is called on by then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao to take the reins of the finance ministry, marking the beginning of his steep rise in politics.

Facing an economic catastrophe, PV Narasimha Rao knew he needed to reach beyond the ranks of khadi-clad senior Congress leaders to select a finance minister, for three separate reasons: first, he would need a skilled economist to conduct negotiations with the international financial institutions; second, in the event of a backlash against the radical policy changes, an ‘outsider’ would be easier to dismiss from the cabinet; and third, if the new finance minister was successful, he still wouldn’t pose any threat to Rao’s own position in the party. To some extent, the blueprint for liberalisation had already taken shape, given India’s desperate need for huge loans; what remained to be determined were the details of its execution.

PC Alexander, a close friend of Rao who had been an influential principal secretary to Indira Gandhi, helped with the search. “Alexander would sit with PV, make calls, write names, try combinations, strike them out, and then write again,” recalled the former Union Cabinet minister. After Alexander’s first choice, the former RBI governor IG Patel, declined the offer, he called Manmohan Singh, Patel’s successor at the RBI. Singh was delighted and said he would eagerly accept the job, the former cabinet minister told me, but two days passed without any follow-up from Alexander.

On the morning of 22 June, a Saturday, Singh got a call in his office at the University Grants Commission, where he had been appointed chairman three months earlier. It was Rao, who was scheduled to take his oath as prime minister that afternoon. “PV asked Manmohan, ‘What are you doing there? Go home and change, and come straight to Rashtrapati Bhavan,’” the former cabinet minister said.

Vinod K Jose is the Executive Editor of The Caravan.