India's "accidental" premier bows out

India's "accidental" premier bows out
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee (R) greets outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi.

NEW DELHI - When it was clear that he was set for a stunning election victory last week, India's Narendra Modi sent a message that read simply "India has won": It instantly set a record as the country's most retweeted Twitter post.

And yet two days earlier the top trend on Twitter India had been #ThankYouDrManMohanSingh, a popular tribute to Manmohan Singh, who bows out after 10 years as prime minister with deep respect even if voters thrashed his party in the polls.

Singh will be remembered for the reforms he drove through as finance minister in 1991 that prised open a state-stifled economy. In his budget speech that year, he quoted Victor Hugo, saying "No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come".

Those reforms snapped India out of a shuffling rate of growth of that time, lifted millions out of poverty and propelled the country into the league of dynamic emerging economies.

In a blizzard of commentaries examining 81-year-old Singh's legacy in recent weeks, the Oxbridge-educated economist has been praised for his intellect and personal integrity, and world leaders have reached out to wish him well in retirement.

And yet Singh's stock tumbled during his second five-year term as economic growth skidded, inflation ballooned and spectacular corruption scandals clattered like skeletons out of a cupboard. His public silence on many matters became the butt of jokes, including one which said movie theatre patrons were being asked to put their mobile phones in "Manmohan mode".

Singh struggled to fend off the perception that the real power in his government was Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress party and widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, whose family has ruled India for most of the time since independence from Britain in 1947.

In a book published during the election campaign, "The Accidental Prime Minister", a former media adviser said that Singh allowed his authority to be undermined by Gandhi.

"You must understand one thing. I have come to terms with this," the author, Sanjaya Baru, recalled the prime minister telling him in 2009. "There cannot be two centres of power. That creates confusion. I have to accept that the party president is the centre of power. The government is answerable to the party."

Singh's spokesman dismissed the book as an incorrect interpretation of the prime minister's decade in power, but the memoirs only served to reinforce a popular perception that an extra-constitutional authority had called the shots for years.

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