06/18/2014 02:29 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2014

The Enigmatic Legacy of Manmohan Singh


The Bharatiya Janata Party ("BJP")'s landslide victory in India's historic elections last month constituted a clear repudiation of the governing Congress Party and its leader, Dr. Manmohan Singh. With Narendra Modi firmly installed as India's new prime minister, the question that naturally arises is how his mild-mannered predecessor will be remembered. If the Congress Party's crushing electoral defeat is any indication, the answer is not a very encouraging one. Some are calling Singh the country's worst prime minister ever. But is such a harsh indictment fair? A closer examination of Singh's record reveals a combination of both profound failure and accomplishment. Far from being settled, Singh's legacy is likely to remain the subject of vigorous debate for years to come.

On the economic front, Singh's time in office witnessed India's economy more than double in size. With growth rates averaging more than 8 percent annually until roughly two years ago, more than 100 million Indian citizens were lifted out of abject poverty during Singh's two terms in office. Earlier this year, the World Bank announced that India's economy was now the world's third largest, surpassing Japan's for the first time.

In the foreign policy arena, Singh can also point to a handful of successes. He presided over a period of U.S.-India relations that can rightfully be described as transformative. The landmark civilian nuclear deal with Washington -- the centerpiece of the so-called U.S.-India strategic partnership -- effectively ended India's 35 year "nuclear apartheid" and provided the country's nuclear program with much-needed uranium imports. New Delhi skillfully navigated its bilateral ties with the United States, Iran, and Israel while deepening relations with countries throughout the Gulf and Southeast Asia. Despite serious provocations emanating from both of its longest borders, Singh avoided military confrontations with China and Pakistan. His restraint following the devastating 2008 Mumbai terror attacks is especially praiseworthy.

A host of notable legislation was enacted during Singh's 10 years in office as well. In particular, the 2005 Right to Information Act empowered the country's citizens for the first time to obtain information from and about the Indian government. The law fostered greater transparency and accountability in India while playing a critical role in exposing widespread official corruption and graft. The passage of the 2009 Right to Education Act rendered public education in India both free and compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 14. Although its implementation remains controversial, the law has undeniably increased access to the country's public education system, particularly for India's rural poor. Both enactments are historic in their own right, especially considering the political paralysis that has plagued India's Parliament in recent years.

In addition to these achievements, Singh introduced a slew of poverty alleviation programs, rural assistance initiatives, and food subsidy policies for India's poor. On the public health front, the country eradicated polio for the first time in its history and mitigated an unprecedented AIDS epidemic that had ravaged the country for several years.

These achievements are hardly insignificant ones. Any appraisal of Singh's legacy should acknowledge them and their far-reaching impact. Singh's many successes as prime minister, however, may be eclipsed by the many failures that beset his time in office, particularly during his second term. The list is a long one, putting into sharp focus the country's unequivocal rejection of the country's first Sikh prime minister and his Congress Party at the polls.

The sweeping economic growth that characterized Singh's initial years in office stalled during the final years of his tenure. Inflation soared while the value of India's currency plunged. Rising onion and other commodity prices generated unprecedented public anger toward the Oxbridge-educated economist. Singh's unwillingness to prevent his cabinet from pursuing dubious financial policies damaged India's reputation as a safe destination for investment. Failing to implement long overdue reforms in a variety of different sectors left the country particularly vulnerable. The man responsible for saving India's economy as finance minister in 1991 was unable to do so again as prime minister after a decade in office.

Internationally, passage of a strict nuclear liability law by the Indian Parliament in 2010 effectively precluded either country from realizing any meaningful benefits from the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal. Ties between Washington and New Delhi cooled considerably after the controversial arrest of an Indian consular official in New York last year. Both countries continue to confront a growing list of irritants in their bilateral ties, including disagreements over intellectual property rights, pharmaceuticals, and trade. Beyond this, on issues ranging from climate change to the crisis in Syria, Indian foreign policy under Singh was oftentimes too cautious, timid, and anachronistic. New Delhi's unveiling of Non-Alignment 2.0 and its constant invocations of India's so-called "strategic autonomy" were powerful demonstrations of this.

But these shortcomings are dwarfed by Singh's biggest failure as prime minister: his inability to stem the endemic corruption that besieged the government during his ten years in office. Although never implicated himself, Singh stood as a mute witness to the perennial wave of corruption scandals that engulfed his Congress Party. Multibillion-dollar scandals such as Coalgate, the 2G telecom scam, and the Adarsh Housing Society controversy appeared never-ending. The cascade of crises triggered unprecedented protests across the country in 2011 as hundreds of thousands of Indians took to the streets demanding official action against graft. Although enactment of the Lokpal Bill represented an important step toward this end, its deficiencies became quickly apparent. As popular discontent grew and corruption raged unabated, Singh did nothing. Exit polls revealed that public anger over corruption was a key factor behind the Congress Party's historic routing at the polls.

It is far too early to determine whether Singh's accomplishments outweigh his failures. To a certain extent, Singh has unfairly become the scapegoat for the Congress Party's abysmal performance in the polls. Certainly, some of the blame must be apportioned to Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, the Congress Party's president and vice-president, respectively. The mother-son duo were considered the real power center in the Indian government for the past decade, with Singh merely playing the role as their political puppet. This arrangement was ostensibly confirmed by Singh's own former spokesman recently, and this abdication to the Gandhis makes it more difficult to sympathize with the erstwhile prime minister.

Earlier this year, Singh predicted that history will judge him more kindly than his contemporary critics. Perhaps so, but for now, any legitimate debate over his legacy should weigh both his signature achievements and failures in equal measure.