A recent US president said of the opposition: "They misunderestimated me." Manmohan Singh could well have said the same, only in correct English.
In 1991, this soft-spoken gentleman, who had been both an academic and a bureaucrat, was invited by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao to be finance minister in his cabinet. He embarked on a programme of economic liberalisation that sparked a boom, which continued through several administrations until the global meltdown of the past year. Nonetheless, liberalisation was not politically popular; Rao lost the next election, in 1996.
In 2004, he was sprung on the public at the last minute, after Sonia Gandhi declined prime ministership despite having led the Congress-led coalition to an unexpected victory. She did not want to court controversy over her citizenship; she believed Singh to be a capable leader; and, very likely, she thought he would be the better prime minister.
In 2009, he was promoted from the start of the Congress campaign as their candidate for prime minister. The public was asked, effectively, to choose between him and L. K. Advani. This is no longer 1996. The public chose Singh, overwhelmingly.
Because of his soft-spoken nature he has attracted charges of being weak, a puppet of Sonia Gandhi, and a temporary substitute for Rahul Gandhi. L K Advani attacked him viciously during the 2009 campaign, but it seems to have backfired. In fact, during his tenure, Singh pushed through the Right to Information Act, which he saw as one of the most important ways to improve transparency; he broke ranks with the Left to push through the nuclear cooperation deal with the US, and personally intervened with other parties (including some quite unsavoury politicians) to ensure that his government continued to have the support to last its full term; and, meanwhile, he let the Gandhis, Sonia and Rahul, focus on rebuilding the Congress party from the grassroots.
Here's a recent article by his former media advisor Sanjaya Baru, who reveals how often Manmohan Singh quietly got his way and how rarely he took credit for it: even in the case of the nuclear deal, he was willing to let the Left take credit for amendments if they supported it! As things turned out, Prakash Karat was obdurate and Singh (with the party's support) decided that the Left's support was dispensable.
The strategy of letting Singh govern the country and Sonia and Rahul Gandhi govern the party has paid off handsomely. Rahul's go-it-alone strategy has revitalised the Congress party in the north; troublesome allies and opponents have been marginalised, the Left is in tatters, and the BJP is on the back foot and unsure of what ideology to present the public. A new youthful generation of Congress leaders seems to be emerging to take over from the next election. And the public has marked their approval of the Congress's governance over the past five years.
Now that the ruling coalition has earned this "political capital", as the Americans call it, they must spend it wisely. Much needs to be reformed, in our economy, our bureaucracy, our educational system, and especially our judiciary. I don't expect miracles but I do expect an effort, especially now that the obstructionist Left are sidelined. And the rewards, for the Congress, could well be an even greater mandate in 2014.