The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Among cats, ‘pigeon’ PM turns peregrine
- Singh fields media bouncers with aplomb

New Delhi, Sept. 4: A self-declared pigeon today set itself among the cats and flew out sporting a feather in its blue cap.

India’s “least-visible” Prime Minister turned the label on its head this evening as he threw himself into the middle of a voracious pack of news hounds -- and chose to remain there well beyond extra time.

Little in Manmohan Singh’s somewhat tense demeanour and self-effacing ice-breaker suggested that he is about to pull off a performance that would rival any of his predecessor’s before the national press corps.

“I recognise there are risks but I am willing to set the pigeon among the cats,” Singh said referring to the pitfalls that lie ahead of a press conference — the first of its kind addressed by a Prime Minister in over a decade.

As the evening progressed and the feline claws came out, Singh proved why not all pigeons are easy meat.

Midway, Singh looked so much at ease that when he was asked to give an “honest” answer to whether he enjoyed being Prime Minister, he smiled and said: “It’s a great honour and privilege to be entrusted with this onerous responsibility. I was not an aspirant but it is great challenge and a great opportunity to be in this seat.”

Whether handling tricky questions on Veer Savarkar, the all-weather dual power centres and the pressures of governance, Singh displayed a quiet confidence and did not beat about the bush.

When a reporter wanted to know what the Prime Minister thought about Mani Shankar Aiyar “abusing” Savarkar, the Prime Minister said: “As far as what Mani Shankar says, these are his personal views and not the views of the government as a whole. Veer Savarkar was a patriot and a freedom fighter but there were also aspects of his life and works that gave rise to controversies. He was associated with a particular ideology, Hindutva, with which we do not agree. He was a co-accused in Mahatma Gandhi’s murder case even though he was acquitted.”

Having said that, he gave a mild putdown to his minister. “I don’t believe any good is achieved by speaking ill of the dead. We are dealing with history and history provides the luxury of interpreting events on which there are more views than one. The views of Mani Shankar Aiyar are his own and not the government’s.”

The Prime Minister could have opted for the safe route — the first choice of most career politicians — of confining himself to washing the government’s hands of the controversy. But he gave both sides of the story, painting the full picture with conviction and without rancour. Singh is believed to have taken a detailed briefing on Savarkar from the minister of state in the PMO, Prithviraj Chavan, who hails from Maharashtra.

Fielding a question on why a parallel Godhra probe had been ordered, the Prime Minister stood by Laloo Prasad Yadav, whose railway ministry has set up the inquiry committee. But Singh made sure that he did not score brownie points against the BJP.

“This particular committee being set up by the railway ministry will deal with matters which exclusively concern the railways, railway safety. There is no contradiction between what the existing committees are doing and what this one will do.”

Singh indicated that his support for the HRD minister’s “detoxification” agenda was not an unqualified one. “I do not want our education system to become a prisoner of any ideology or be the exclusive domain of the bureaucracy. We are in favour of giving maximum autonomy and the freedom to manage affairs which show concern for integrity and truth.”

Until this morning, the buzz in the political establishment, including the AICC headquarters, was that Singh would have a “tough” time parrying questions on his equation with Sonia Gandhi, described by the BJP as the “super PM”. Congress sources said it was a “no-win” situation for him because if he said she was not a “superpower”, he would give a handle to 10 Janpath loyalists and if he said yes, his authority would stand eroded.

When the question was fired, Singh replied: “There is no foundation for such statements. The Congress president is the chairperson of the UPA and as the Congress president, she has every right to be interested in what goes on in government. The insinuation that there are two power centres has no foundation.”

Where an authoritative response was called for, the Prime Minister rose to the occasion. Faced with a rapier thrust that wondered whether he would quit if pushed to the wall, he answered with an emphatic no. “I believe our government is going to last for five years. Let there be no doubt or ambiguity about that. This conception that I can be pressurised into giving in is simply not going to materialise.”

A section of the BJP had been saying that if the coalition partners’ push came to shove, Singh would resign “honourably” rather than be “humiliated”.

Singh said that coalition politics had its imperatives but that did not mean the government would capitulate. Asked if he would roll back the proposal to hike foreign direct investment in insurance and other sectors and the lower interest rate on EPF to placate the Left, he said: “I hope we can persuade the Left. We are engaged in a constructive dialogue with them. I hope at the end of the day, we reach a forward-looking conclusion.”

He also intervened and extended the media conference by 10 minutes after reporters who were not allowed to ask questions objected when the session was declared over. The interaction already had a longer duration because the Prime Minister did away with the ritual of reading out the opening statement. Singh said the statement — copies of which were distributed — would be taken as read so that he could spare more time for questions.

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