The prime minister’s speech at the press conference last week was uninspired and unnecessary. To start with, the aged Manmohan Singh looked tired and completely bored with the idea of engaging with India through the press. It would have been better not to have had the conference at all, because it only reinforced the fact that the government is in a limbo, unable to defend what appeared to be indefensible. The consequences of the things the prime minister said at the press conference can be very damaging for a political party preparing to go to the polls against the Bharatiya Janata Party and its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi.
For a serving prime minister of a large and complex democracy like India to refer to the possibility of Modi attaining the top job as ‘disastrous’ was in bad taste. Singh, who has been a dignified public figure, belittled himself with such comments. It made him no different from all those politicians who indulge in unwarranted rhetoric about their opponents, thus diminishing the grace and dignity of their positions of power. Coming from Singh, who has been known to be gracious and well mannered, it was unacceptable. The former prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao — who has been Singh’s mentor and colleague — was the Union home minister at the time of the brutal anti-Sikh riots in 1984. Singh, in his speech, referred to the Gujarat pogrom in 2002; he should have also spoken of the killings in the national capital in 1984 and spoken of both men at the helm of affairs in the same breath. After that, he could have spoken of a dream for a different, safe and inclusive India. That would have proved that Singh is a true statesman, and not just a leader of a government.
In his speech, Singh also stated that his finest moment as prime minister was when the nuclear deal was signed. This only reaffirmed the fact that his priorities as a leader were disconnected from the fundamental socio-political and economic problems that plague India. Surely the finest moments for a prime minister leading a coalition government should be the passing of critical bills and acts in Parliament through patient, transparent and non-partisan debate? Problems surrounding public health, education, sanitation and potable water were glossed over with much rhetoric and minimal action. All welfare schemes were initiated and organized by the National Advisory Council, which is led by Sonia Gandhi and not by the government of India. It was this lack of commitment to the real problems faced by India that needed to be addressed. These were the problems for which the people were looking for solutions and corrective mechanisms. Now, Indians know the truth and are, understandably, angry.
Singh also put a large amount of blame for the government’s non-performance on others. Such an action by a leader shows him as being incompetent, unable to get good work out of his team or ensure probity and transparency in matters of policy and governance. There was a failure to deliver a modern infrastructure for a young nation to build upon. The responsibilities of the top job demand that the person occupying that post take the flak for bad performance and not pass the blame onto partners and subordinates. India had expected more from Singh. Moreover, to suggest that the United Progressive Alliance government came back to power for a second term despite charges of graft — thereby implying that corruption is not a major problem — was unbecoming of an honest leader. “History” will surely judge Singh, and the signing of the nuclear deal will be a mere footnote in the judgment.