The Economist Statesman: Dr. Manmohan Singh

Khushwant Singh

Dr. Manmohan Singh

A Purposeful Path
For many, Dr. Singh’s career is nothing short of a dream, but for him, it unfolded as a series of steps, each leading him further along his path. He has had the privilege of working in the world’s most prestigious organizations, alongside brilliant minds. From academia to the United Nations, from a dedicated bureaucrat to a respected statesman, and ultimately to the highest position of governance in India as the Prime Minister, Dr. Singh reflects on his journey with a humble smile that seems to whisper, ‘Waheguru!’ – expressing gratitude and humility.

To outline his career chronologically, he joined the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) from 1966 to 1969. In 1972, he assumed the role of chief economic adviser in the Ministry of Finance, followed by serving as the secretary in the Finance Ministry in 1976. From 1980 to 1982, he made valuable contributions as a member of the Planning Commission, and in 1982, he was appointed as the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, working alongside the then Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, and held the esteemed position until 1985. Subsequently, he assumed the role of deputy chairman of the Planning Commission (India) from 1985 to 1987. Following his tenure at the Planning Commission, he served as the secretary-general of the South Commission, an independent economic policy think tank based in Geneva, Switzerland, from 1987 to November 1990. During the tenure of Chandra Shekhar, he became the advisor to the Prime Minister on economic affairs. In March 1991, he took on the responsibility of chairing the University Grants Commission.

As mentioned earlier, Dr. Singh firmly believes that “Economics is the key to the future.” He has not only shaped policies that have had a profound impact but has also contributed numerous papers to research journals and served as a distinguished guest speaker at conferences and universities. His first article, titled “International Investment and Economic Development,” was published in the Indian Economic Journal in 1957. Since then, his insightful contributions continued to grace the pages of various publications, demonstrating his commitment to advancing economic knowledge and understanding.

By 1959, Manmohan had fulfilled the two-year requirement set by Panjab University, and he was selected by Cambridge for the Laski Scholarship, awarded to distinguished students in the field of economics for the year 1960-61. However, this offer was not sufficient for the couple, especially with a baby on the way. Manmohan reached out to Nuffield College at Oxford, inquiring about the possibility of reviving his previous application for a studentship that he had withdrawn two years earlier. His request was granted, and the reinstatement of his 1957 scholarship was approved, providing him with an annual stipend of 659 pounds. Manmohan planned to spend his first year at Oxford alone, and then take his wife and daughter to Oxford.

After a year, Manmohan returned to India for a three-month period, during which he conducted research in Delhi and Kolkata. Balancing family responsibilities and academic pursuits proved to be challenging for him. He received a sum of Rs 1,000 for contributing two chapters to Dr. Dewett’s new book, but he found himself needing to borrow money from his father for the last time.

Gursharan and Upinder enjoyed their sea travel experience aboard the SS Chusan. In Oxford, despite Dr. Singh’s suggestion that Gursharan wear something different, she remained true to herself and chose to wear a simple salwar kameez, even attending a ball at Nuffield College in a green sari. At the ball, she made friends with Dr. Singh’s own companions, some of whom would become lifelong friends.

It took Dr. Singh two years to complete his research on ‘India’s Export Trends and the Prospect for Self-Sustained Growth,’ and his dissertation was well-received. Sir John Hicks, the esteemed Drummond Professor of Political Economy at Oxford, even remarked that it was worth publishing.

After completing his studies, Dr. Singh and his family returned to Panjab University, where he became the youngest professor at the age of just 30. His dissertation was published as a book by Clarendon Publishing in 1964 and received favorable reviews in six international journals.

Despite receiving offers from other universities and even from the government, Dr. Singh remained determined to pursue his career in academics. He was invited to design courses for the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade in Delhi in 1963, and he also served on various committees, including those involved in trade negotiations with GATT during the Kennedy round of 1964. He even proposed a plan for the industrial transformation of Punjab to Chief Minister Pratap Singh Kairon, although the political circumstances at the time prevented its realization.

Dr. Singh firmly believed in adopting the middle path and advocated for the construction of bridges to mitigate hostility. He even supported the stance of karamacharis who went on strike at Panjab University.

The United Nations once again approached Dr. Singh, this time offering him a position at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in New York. Panjab University granted him three years of leave, and the family embarked on their journey to the United States.

Although UNCTAD didn’t fully align with Dr. Singh’s expectations for a shift in relations between developed and developing countries, it was a subject he was deeply passionate about. He firmly believed that the global system could be reformed to overcome the barriers of underdevelopment if rich and poor nations worked together. Dr. Singh joined UNCTAD as an economic affairs officer and even received a promotion before eventually deciding to return to India.

The Singh family was provided housing at Parkway Village in Queens, where other UN families also resided. Gursharan quickly made Indian friends and transitioned to wearing slacks and sweaters. Despite not owning a car, the Singhs had the opportunity to visit several cities, including Montreal, Washington, and Boston, accompanied by their friends.

However, as the girls grew up and their third daughter Amrit was born in the US in April 1969, Dr. Singh realized that it was time to return home. He didn’t feel a sense of belonging; he felt like an outsider.

During their time in the US, the Singhs developed a friendship with Sydney Dell and his wife, whom they later invited to Bombay during Dr. Singh’s tenure as the governor of the Reserve Bank of India.

Dr. Singh credits his experience at UNCTAD for teaching him how to reconcile differences, achieve compromises, and gain profound insights into the negotiating process within the international economic system. It exposed him to the wider world, an opportunity he wouldn’t have had at the university. In 1987, as the Secretary-General of the South Commission in Geneva, he spoke about these experiences.

Upon returning to India, Dr. Singh joined the Delhi School of Economics. He acquired a white Fiat and learned how to drive. The family also acquired a TV and a telephone. Dr. Singh found himself surrounded by more intellectually stimulating friends. He interacted with prominent individuals at the neighboring Institute of Economic Growth, forged relationships with government officials and economists, taught classes on international trade, and established rapport with the Ministry of Foreign Trade.

Even at this stage, he was not inclined to join the civil services. He kept abreast of all the affairs as an “informed citizen.” His interest lay in ‘applied work.’ As an observer, he was in favor of devaluing the rupee, nationalizing the banks. “Economics does not function in a vacuum. The emerging politics of the country was also influencing economists. I was convinced early enough that too much control was hurting the economy, that import liberalization and industrial liberalization were necessary for India to realize its growth potential. I was convinced of this by the end of 1971. After the Congress party won the elections, I wrote a paper called “What to do with it victory,” in which I said that there should be a shift in economic policy towards greater import liberalization…”

With his heavy emphasis on following government rules, the family moved to their own house in Ashok Vihar. This architectural piece had attracted great admiration and was eventually sold off after the 1984 anti-Sikh communal riots in Delhi. While he traveled extensively, he would not get time to shop for his family. Only Daman benefited, as her coin collection grew. The academician turned government officer started enjoying policy-making and learned many vital lessons. For instance, dissent could be viewed differently. There were always clashes of ideas, but people with good ideas found listeners. However, ideas had to be pushed with élan and by building a consensus. He found support from several intellectuals outside the government also. He discussed his ideas with his ex-colleagues from the Delhi School of Economics, fellow academicians at the Institute of Economic Growth and Bombay School of Economics. “I have become more and more humble about the limits of our knowledge. Economics is a highly valuable discipline, yet there exist layers of rationality beyond those found in textbooks, as Dr. Singh has come to realize.

Although he loved teaching, but when he was invited to join the Ministry of Finance in 1972, he took it up. The then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, wanted policy changes, and he knew many economists in the ministry. He was an authority on foreign trade, and his book was well-known. Dr Singh soon became the Chief Economic Advisor, a first in the ministry, finally biding goodbye to his teaching career by resigning from Delhi School of Economics.

Due to his strong adherence to government regulations, the family moved to their own house in Ashok Vihar. This architectural gem received great admiration but was later sold after the 1984 anti-Sikh communal riots in Delhi.

Although Dr. Singh traveled extensively, he rarely found time for shopping for his family. Only Daman, his daughter, benefited from his travels as her coin collection grew. The transition from an academician to a government officer allowed him to enjoy the process of policy-making and learn valuable lessons. He discovered that dissent could be seen from different perspectives. While clashes of ideas were common, those with good ideas found receptive ears. However, presenting ideas required enthusiasm and building a consensus. He received support from intellectuals outside the government as well. He discussed his ideas with his former colleagues from Delhi School of Economics, fellow academicians at the Institute of Economic Growth and Bombay School of Economics. Over time, Dr. Singh developed humility regarding the limits of our knowledge. He realized that while economics is a highly valuable discipline, there are layers of rationality beyond what can be found in textbooks.

During his first nine years in the civil service, Dr. Singh witnessed the country being governed by three prime ministers and two bitterly opposed parties. Despite the disruptions, he persevered on his journey.

When it came to corruption within the government, Dr. Singh found the senior bureaucrats to be honest. However, he acknowledged the existence of petty corruption at lower levels.

In 1980, he completed four years as Secretary of Economic Affairs. At the age of 48, he still had another 10 years of service remaining and didn’t want to join the Planning Commission, as it would result in the loss of his pension. However, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi found a way to include him without affecting his pension by appointing him as the member secretary of the Planning Commission. Dr. Singh recognized the importance of fiscal constraints in planning and emphasized the need for responsible decision-making.

With his reputation as an expert in foreign trade spreading far and wide, Dr. Singh was invited to speak at numerous institutes, including the Indian Institute of Management-Calcutta and the National Productivity Council. He addressed topics such as poverty, self-reliance, growth, state control instruments, agriculture, and industry, always advocating for a cautious approach to foreign capital. He consistently spoke about the need for reforms.

In 1982, he became the youngest Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, serving in that role until 1985.

Life in Bombay (now Mumbai) was enjoyable for the Singhs. They resided in a beautiful heritage bungalow on Carmichael Road, Dr. Singh had a sea-facing office, and Gursharan would host performances by many artists. Despite ongoing disruptions at work, Dr. Singh remained committed to his moderate approach. Resolving a conflict with a union and reinstating its leader, he emphasized the importance of considering the human side of problems in industrial relations. While he always expressed his views, they weren’t always accepted by the Central Government, and he had to compromise on numerous occasions.

Eventually, Dr. Singh became the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission and returned to Delhi. However, following Indira Gandhi’s death, the Commission lost its significance as her successor, Rajiv Gandhi, didn’t prioritize it.

During the 1984 riots that ensued after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Dr. Singh also faced the wrath of the mobs. He was compelled to sell his house in Ashok Vihar, and he expressed sadness over the bloodshed that occurred in Delhi and at the holy Golden Temple. However, he believed that no country could turn a blind eye to secessionist activities. Dr. Singh regarded Indira Gandhi as a good listener and shared his account of her leadership in economic matters in the book “Indira Gandhi: Statesman, Scholars, Scientist, and Friends Remember.”

As a non-active politician, he learned through experience that it was necessary to embrace diversity and complexity. He consistently advocated for reforms, modernization, the dismantling of industrial controls and the license raj, and the promotion of exports. In 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Finance Minister VP. Singh unveiled a package of economic measures that were celebrated by industry circles. Unfortunately, Rajiv Gandhi’s untimely death abruptly halted many initiatives.


At the South Commission, Geneva, 1988 At the South Commission, Geneva, 1988


In (1987-1990), Dr. Singh accepted the offer to work with the South Commission in Geneva, chaired by Julius Nyerere. Upon his return, he served as the economic adviser to the government and chairman of the University Grants Commission. It was during this time that Prime Minister PV Narsimha Rao invited him to join the cabinet as Finance Minister in June 1991. Initially, he didn’t take the message seriously, but a stern phone call informed him that he would be sworn in the next day.

Khushwant Singh