The Mail Today report on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's national press conference of May 24, 2010
Even his most ardent admirers will concede
that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a colourless person. So should we be surprised that in a mammoth press conference to mark the first year of the second term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Dr Singh failed to shine? To switch metaphors, he blocked every ball thrown at him through the innings and ended up scoring no runs.
Sadly, the passion and the expectation that marked his advent in government, so visible in his press conference of September 2004, were absent here.
His negative achievement was that no question flustered him, and neither did he make any gaffe. On the other hand, he positively failed to sound convincing on his government’s achievements, or to reassure his countrymen that their troubles — whether with Pakistan or with inflation — would, or even could, be tackled by his government. He failed, too, to provide convincing excuses for the sins of omission and commission of his government and his ministers.
The one issue that is bothering all Indians — food inflation, which is currently hovering at 16.49 per cent—was dismissed casually by the economist PM who could have authoritatively explained to what his government planned to do to bring down prices. He merely declared that general inflation would be down to 5-6 per cent by December. This was just one piece in the 75-minute press conference where platitudes and evasion seemed to be the rule of the day.
The accompanying phalanx of PMO officials and select ministers sat somewhat bored and expressionless in a block of reserved seats at the government’s chosen venue — Vigyan Bhavan. The PM alone on the dais was meant to signal his supreme authority in the government. Instead, it made him appear to be the lone target in a government where the buck stops nowhere.
“I am accountable as PM,” he declared when asked as to who was accountable for Dantewada and other failures.
The most striking aspect of the old Prime Minister of the new government was the extent to which he, a man of undoubted probity, was willing to justify the questionable conduct of a colleague because he belongs to a powerful coalition ally.
For the record, the PM declared he would not pass judgment on the 2G spectrum allocation issue, yet his detailed response to the question as to why there was such a difference between the 3G auction (almost Rs 70,000 crore) and the 2G sale (around Rs 11,000 crore), seemed to buy telecom minister A. Raja’s argument lock, stock and barrel.
Equally disturbing was the Prime Minister’s insistence that the government had not misused the Central Bureau of Investigation for the simple reason that the CBI was an autonomous body under the purview of the Central Vigilance Commissioner. If the PM seriously believes that to be true, then there are serious questions to be asked about his grasp on government.
At one level a defensive tenor became inevitable when questions pitted Rahul and Sonia Gandhi against him. He was, of course, quick to deny any difference of opinion with the Congress chief who he said gave him the benefit of her “advice and guidance” regularly.
Questions about Rahul Gandhi as the prime minister-in-waiting inevitably raised the issue of Manmohan Singh’s tenure. In response to a question on whether he would make way for the young Gandhi, the PM let his guard down to declare that he would be willing to make place for anyone whom the Congress party decides on. He later corrected himself to declare that he had been given this task as Prime Minister and “till I finish the tasks, there is no question of retirement.”
To be sure, there was nothing new or original in what the PM said. The young Gandhi has made his disdain for high office clear to everyone, and few can doubt that the 77-year old Singh is in office till as long as Sonia Gandhi and the party will it.
In this sense the issue that has seized the headlines is a distraction from the substance of the press conference, which actually reveals the extent to which the UPA-II government headed by Manmohan Singh has allowed allies to run riot and permitted a growing incoherence on issues such as the creation of Telangana, combating Maoism, and inflation.
For example, the Prime Minister declared, “There is no agreement as of now on creation of new states. There was a proposal for a Telangana state… that matter has been referred to a committee.”
This bald statement fails to capture the mayhem that was unleashed when the Union home minister declared last December that the Centre would start the process of forming a separate Telangana state.
The Prime Minister does not seem to realise that merely expressing disapproval of ministers expressing “their views in public” is not enough to get them into line. The fact is that ministers such as Mamata Banerjee (railway) have visibly disagreed with the government’s policy on Maoists, and she has not been disciplined.
We all know that the first anniversary of the UPA-II government was the occasion for the national press conference. But there is no clarity on its purpose.
If it was to celebrate its achievements, well, they were put out in a four-page opening statement “deemed as read”, and remained largely unread and unarticulated.
If it was to provide excuses for the failings of the government, then the tenor of the PM’s responses was unconvincing.
This appeared as the cover story on Mail Today May 25, 2010