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MANMOHAN STING

- Baton in the air, PM batters Modi

New Delhi, Jan. 3: Manmohan Singh will end his decade-long prime ministerial innings this summer and not seek a third term in office if the UPA were to return to power after the 2014 general election, he declared at a rare media conference this morning.

But far from appearing resigned or defeated, the Prime Minister struck a confident — and occasionally combative — note throughout his over-an-hour-long interaction, the highlight of which was a blistering attack against the BJP’s prime ministerial hopeful, Narendra Modi.

Manmohan also brushed aside the charges of corruption and mismanagement faced by his government over the past few years, insisting — in answer to almost every other question — that “history” would judge him and his government far more kindly than did contemporary public opinion.

He made it clear that he was not fading into the sunset just yet or turning into a lameduck Prime Minister, and would use the remaining four-odd months at 7 Race Course Road to pursue his agenda — including a possible visit to the land of his birth, Pakistan.

Significantly, Manmohan did not unilaterally name the Congress’s prime ministerial nominee. In his official statement, he said: “In a few months’ time, after the general election, I will hand the baton over to a new Prime Minister. I hope it will be a UPA-chosen Prime Minister and our party will work to that end in the campaign for the general election.”

However, in answer to a specific question, the Prime Minister stated — as he has done in the past — that “Rahul Gandhi has outstanding credentials” to take on the top job.

In reply to other questions, he underlined his close, unique rapport with Congress president Sonia Gandhi and felt the “dual centre of power” dispensation over the last decade had worked “exceedingly well”.

The big-bang takeaway from the media conference, though, was not the Prime Minister’s defence of his government but his uncharacteristic no-holds-barred broadside against Modi — not once, not twice, but three times.

When first asked whether Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi was an equal contest, the Prime Minister said: “ I have full confidence that the next Prime Minister will be from the UPA coalition, and that without discussing the merits of Mr Narendra Modi, I sincerely believe that it will be disastrous for the country to have Shri Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister.”

Even before the ripples from that bombshell could die down, the Prime Minister seized another chance to hit out at Modi, this time with greater force.

Asked to comment on the oft-repeated charge that he was a “weak Prime Minister,” Manmohan replied in his usual deadpan fashion: “I do not believe that I have been a weak Prime Minister. That is for historians to judge. The BJP and its associates may say whatever they like.”

Then like a silent fuse that suddenly catches fire, he added: “But if by ‘strong Prime Minister’, you mean that you preside over a mass massacre of innocent citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad, (if) that is the measure of strength, I do not believe that is the sort of strength this country needs, least of all in its Prime Minister.”

His parting shot was also hurled in Modi’s direction. The media conference was declared over but a journalist managed to raise his voice above the din to ask for the Prime Minister’s comment on Modi’s repeated exhortation to make a “Congress-mukt Bharat” (rid India of the Congress).

The Prime Minister was quick to take that question. “I sincerely believe that what Mr Narendra Modi is saying is not going to materialise.”

Apart from his unexpected aggression towards the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and his own decision not to seek a third term, Manmohan’s media conference — possibly his last as Prime Minister — did not reveal anything new or startling. But it was significant, nevertheless, for confirming a few things that have so far been in the realm of speculation.

First, he confirmed that he was keen to visit Pakistan and has not given up hope of making a landmark visit even at the fag end of his term. In a direct reply, he said: “I would very much like to go to Pakistan. I was born in a village which is now part of west Punjab. But as Prime Minister of the country, I should go to visit Pakistan if conditions are appropriate to achieve solid results. I have thought of it many times, but ultimately I felt that circumstances were not appropriate for my visit. I still have not given up hope of going to Pakistan before I complete my tenure as Prime Minister.”

Second, he scotched repeated rumours of a rift between 10 Janpath and 7 Race Course Road. Asserting that the dual system of power had worked exceedingly well, Manmohan said: “For me, it has been a remarkable achievement that I have been able to complete 10 years of my prime ministership without any hiccups in the relationship between the Congress party and the Prime Minister, or for that matter, the government. For me, Mrs Gandhi’s support has been an enormous help in dealing with very complex issues. The fact that she was there to back me up facilitated my task as Prime Minister in more than one way.”

In the party-versus-government context, he admitted that the two were not on the same page all the time.

Manmohan said: “There were, of course, times when they (Sonia and Rahul) differed from what the government had done. The government reconsidered those issues, and I don’t think this is wrong, or a disadvantage, to make corrections if the party leadership feels that such corrections were required in the national interest.”

Third, he revealed what most had guessed — that for him his great moment of glory was signing the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008 which led to great turmoil in his own party and the withdrawal of support by the Left.

Asked what were his best and lowest moments in the past decade, Manmohan candidly said: “I will need time to reflect on this. But certainly, the best moment for me was when we were able to strike a nuclear deal with the United States to end the nuclear apartheid which had sought to stifle the processes of social and economic change, and technical progress of our country in many ways.” That the party had given in to him on the nuclear deal may have contributed to make it his “best moment”.

Although the UPA-II government and he personally have taken a severe beating in terms of popularity and image, Manmohan showed no traces of anger or bitterness or dismay or regret for the “sins of omission and commission” that he has been repeatedly accused of.

On the contrary, he came across as someone pleased — almost smug — with his own record in office, dismissing the corruption charges as “overstated” and the handiwork of “vested interests”. “I have every reason to believe, that when history is written of this period, we will come out unscathed.”

And no, he had never felt like resigning at any time. “ I have enjoyed doing my work. I have tried to do my work with all sense of integrity, without fear or favour….”

Despite all the calumny against his government, Manmohan said his government had “maintained and sustained the momentum of rapid economic growth… the highest rate of growth in the first nine years of our government, highest ever since this country got going as an independent country”.

Iterating, as he has often done before, that external factors, more than domestic ones, were responsible for the slowdown in growth, Manmohan also sought to add a political feather to his cap in addition to his old economic reforms one.

“When I became Prime Minister,” he said, with a certain pride, “the general perception was that the Congress party has never been able to run a coalition government. The Congress ability to run a coalition was to be tested and we showed that the Congress party can successfully manage the coalition to complete not one, but two terms. In the process, there have been some compromises, but I can assure you that those compromises relate to peripheral areas. They do not in any way affect our ability or keenness to deal with national problems with the objectivity that is necessary.”

The Prime Minister also asserted that “nobody has asked me to step down because of any inadequacies that may have characterised my tenure as Prime Minister”.

So would he be around after the 2014 polls — either in the government or the Opposition, or was he retiring from politics altogether to spend time with family and books? Dodging a straight reply, the Prime Minister said: “I haven’t thought through that process, and it is too early. I still have five months to complete my present tenure. And therefore, when I reach that stage, I will cross that bridge….”

what a coincidence!

NEVER TOO LATE FOR A NEW INNINGS

Does the soft-spoken announcement at the beginning of 2014 ring a bell with another at the fag end of 2013? Manmohan Singh, who said he would pass the baton to a new PM after the election, dodged a question on full retirement, which leaves the field open for a lot of tantalising possibilities. Some parallels between the announcements of 2013 and 2014:

Sachin Tendulkar called it a day after whispers of non-performance reached a crescendo
So did Manmohan Singh, only there was a roar, not whispers, about policy paralysis

Sachin sparkled as a gladiator with the bat but stumbled as a general in the skipper’s cap
Manmohan changed the game as Narasimha Rao’s lieutenant but critics call him an ineffectual PM

Sachin’s batting became a lot more defensive in the second half of his career
Manmohan became a lot more defensive in the second half of his career as PM

Matches against Pakistan brought out the best in Sachin
Pakistan ties have always energised Manmohan who still has “not given up hope” of visiting the neighbouring country in which falls his place of birth

Sachin is a Rajya Sabha member
Manmohan is a Rajya Sabha member

Parliamentary life was thrust on Sachin
Parliamentary life was thrust on Manmohan

Many wanted to advise Sachin to retire but few would have dared say so in public because of the popular devotion the cricketer enjoyed
Many Congress leaders wanted to tell Manmohan to make way but did not dare because of Sonia Gandhi’s support for him

Sachin is soft-spoken, polite and dignified
Manmohan is soft-spoken, polite and dignified

Sachin delivered the speech of his life when he retired
Manmohan delivered a parting kick that Narendra Modi will neither forget nor forgive.

If by strong PM, you mean that you preside over mass massacre of innocent citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad, (if) that is the measure of strength, I do not believe that this is the sort of strength this country needs, least of all in its Prime Minister

I sincerely believe that it will be disastrous for the country to have Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh