Nobody in Gah can quite remember when the village's most famous house was torn down. Today, only a canopy of acacia trees and a patch of garbage mark the spot where Manmohan Singh grew up, destined to become Prime Minister of India. His mother died when he was young, and his father was often away from this remote farming village, in a drowsy corner of what is now northeast Pakistan, leaving Singh and his several siblings in the care of grandparents.
Today, things haven't changed much for Gah. After Singh became Prime Minister in 2004, the local government, hoping for his return, scrambled to spruce things up, mending the potholed streets. Singh has yet to make the symbolic trip back to his childhood home, but he has corresponded with former village head Raja Ashiq Hussain, and locals credit Singh with inspiring an Indian nonprofit to outfit Gah with solar power a few years back. "People here love him," says Hussain. "He is a son of the soil of Gah."
Singh could use that kind of support in New Delhi these days. Last quarter, India's GDP growth fell to a nine-year low of 5.3% a steep drop from 9.2% the same period last year and a worrying turn for a country that needs to stay on a high-growth path to pull hundreds of millions out of poverty. With the rupee hitting record lows, a yawning fiscal deficit and a lack of economic direction from the government's top brass, investors at home and abroad are beginning to get cold feet. Voters too are losing confidence, as rising inflation and a litany of scandals chip away at the government's credibility. In a recent national poll, nearly 66% of urbanites said Prime Minister Singh and his coalition had lost the right to govern. In late May, during protests over a steep hike in gasoline prices that erupted across the country, Singh was burned in effigy.
How has India's technocrat in chief fallen so far from grace? In the past 20 years, Singh's avuncular visage and signature powder blue turban were synonymous with India's rising star, a fixture on front pages since the early 1990s, when, as Finance Minister, he played a pivotal role in liberalizing the economy and setting the nation on the path of fast growth. In a capital full of bluster and backroom deals, the quiet economist has long been admired for his restraint and personal integrity, characteristics that played a large part in his being handpicked by Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi for the nation's top job in 2004. During his first term, India's economy reached a clip of 9.6% growth. Singh's coalition passed laws to guarantee the right of rural Indians to work while improving civic rights and political transparency. In 2009, when the government was re-elected, the headlines trumpeted: SINGH IS KING!
The mood could not be more different now. For the past two years, the Congress-led coalition has found itself fending off scandals, most notably the corrupt awarding of 2G spectrum at prices below market value. In May, Team Anna, a group of supporters of antigraft activist Anna Hazare, leveled fresh charges at Singh and more than a dozen of his ministers over the alleged misallocation of coal-mining rights that, if true, could have cost the government billions in lost revenue. The PM has vigorously denied any wrongdoing, and Hazare admits there is no direct proof of Singh's involvement. But Singh's squeaky-clean image has taken a hit. "[Singh] doesn't take money, he doesn't make deals," says Mohan Guruswamy, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi based think tank. "But he doesn't do anything."
Singh's office declined multiple interview requests for this article and did not respond to written questions in time for publication. It's in keeping with an increasing reticence that many find deplorable, whether it's on the subject of graft or matters of economic policy. Today, 550 million Indians are under the age of 25, and the government needs to figure out how to guarantee those millions a future of long, gainful employment. "India can't afford not to grow at 9%," Y.K. Modi, a former president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), said at a recent New Delhi briefing. "Our government has to make policies that every young person gets the job he deserves, and the chance he deserves."
But laws that could help create growth and jobs are stuck in Parliament, sparking concerns that politicians have lost the plot in their focus on shorter-term, populist measures that will win votes. Now that Singh is interim Finance Minister (filling in for Pranab Mukherjee, who stepped down to run for President) as well as PM, he has greater scope and a fresh opportunity to turn things around but it's by no means certain that he can. Swapan Dasgupta, a conservative commentator and analyst, says Singh would like to be remembered as "the person who initiated the process in '91 and took India to become a vibrant economic power." And yet: "While people talk fondly of his impact in '91, they talk less fondly of the legacy he will leave behind in 2014."
When Singh Was King
Few in New Delhi's ministries and secretariats understand the aspirations of those millions of young Indians as well as the Prime Minister himself. Singh's rise from studying by candlelight to becoming leader of the world's largest democracy has been extraordinary and inspiring to a country where most people live a hardscrabble life in dirt-poor villages. Born in 1932, he spent his childhood shuttling between Peshawar, where his father had his fruit-trading business, and Gah, his grandparents' rural home. His sister Gobind Kaur remembers her older brother as a social but serious boy who studied feverishly and whose hero was Bhagat Singh, the freedom fighter. "He's thought about his country since he was a child," says Kaur. When British rule over India ended in 1947 and the subcontinent was carved into the Muslim-majority state of Pakistan and the primarily Hindu state of India, the Singhs fled to Amritsar, on the Indian side. As the family found their feet in the young nation, Singh (or Papaji, to use the term of endearment his siblings still refer to him by) would sometimes entertain his brothers and sisters by singing his favorite independence anthem.