Singh swims with civil society tide - Anna to Wall Street protest, PM soft

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By MANINI CHATTERJEE
  • Published 20.10.11
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On board the PM’s special aircraft, Oct. 19: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today reached out to India’s civil society and sought to be in sync with the restive public mood worldwide.

Singh warmly appreciated “Anna Hazareji’s movement”, condemning the physical attacks on Team Anna members in recent days, sympathised with the sentiments of the Occupy Wall Street protests and praised the role of the judiciary as central to India’s democracy.

In a wide-ranging interaction with journalists on his flight home after a successful Ibsa summit in South Africa, the Prime Minister seemed almost ebullient and — unmindful of his minders — happily took every question that came his way.

Although he mostly spoke in generalities, the Prime Minister’s mien and tone were in marked contrast to the hostile attitude adopted by many of his ministerial and party colleagues towards civil society and judicial “activism”.

Perhaps aware that he had lost much of the goodwill that the middle class once had for him, Singh went out of his way to adopt a conciliatory tone towards critics of his government and was unusually mild even towards his bête noire L.K. Advani.

Asked to comment on Advani’s ongoing yatra and whether the BJP veteran would be the right leader for the country, he said: “Well, it is for the people of India to decide and, on foreign soil, I am not going to criticise any national leader. I wish Mr Advani a successful yatra.”

But making it clear that he did not like Advani’s constant jibes, the Prime Minister added: “I would hope that he would not use language which, at times, appears to be intemperate. I think in politics it is better to avoid harsh words.”

Singh then proceeded to practise what he preached. Asked whether Team Anna had been unfair by singling him and the Congress in their anti-corruption crusade, he said: “I would not like to use this opportunity to criticise any one individual.”

Far from criticising the Anna movement, he went on to pay a fulsome tribute by saying: “I think Anna Hazareji’s movement has served its purpose. I think we are all working to ensure that we have in place before long an effective Lokpal bill in Parliament and that it is our expectation that Parliament will move for an effective bill, which will be assurance to the people at large that corruption cannot flourish as a way of life in our country.”

The Prime Minister acknowledged the role of the anti-corruption movement more than once. Referring to the corruption scams bedevilling all three Ibsa nations, he was asked whether corruption could be an inevitable fallout of rapid economic growth in developing countries — a view often advocated by the “growth” lobby in third world countries.

Singh strongly rebuffed this view, saying: “I don’t think it is an inevitable fallout. We cannot take that view — that would be a very complacent viewpoint.”

Sounding almost like a civil society activist, he went on to say: “I think corruption hurts the development process, corruption hurts the poor and corruption affects quality of governance and for all these reasons we cannot say that corruption is something which is inevitable in our society.”

Then, doffing his hat as it were to the Hazare-led movement, the Prime Minister said: “I think the recent debate over corruption has served its purpose. It has awakened our country to the harmful consequences of corruption which is eating into the political, economic and social fabric of our society and our government is committed to all that is necessary to clean up the system.”

The Prime Minister, despite his image of being a neo-liberal, was equally sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street sentiment that has engulfed large parts of the world and might spill over to India.

In reply to a question, he said: “There are reasons why people are protesting. People are protesting in Wall Street, in Europe about the fat salaries that the bankers are getting when people are being asked to tighten their belts. There is problem of growing unemployment in the United States. There is also worry in Europe. So there are problems which the system must have credible answers to take them on board.”

Once again alluding to the positive fallout of the street protests that engulfed India, too, he added: “I think democracy that way provides an outlet for people’s frustrations, which I think is a very timely warning for all those who are in charge of the processes of governance.”

On the attacks on Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal, the Prime Minister said: “There is no place for violence in our democracy. Therefore, any act of violence is to be condemned, on that point I am absolutely clear…. howsoever anyone may feel there are more civilised ways of expressing one’s anger and frustration.”

If the Prime Minister’s appreciation of Hazare was completely at odds with the attacks launched against him by Digvijaya Singh & Co, he was equally careful to distance himself from law minister Salman Khurshid’s controversial comments about investment being affected because businessmen were locked up.

Asked about Khurshid’s remarks, the Prime Minister said: “It would not be proper for me to comment on the stray thoughts of what my minister has said.”

But indicating that he did not quite agree with the pro-businessmen sentiment in the 2G case, Singh said: “There are legal remedies available in our system… whenever anybody gets on the wrong side of the law, and he or she is put behind bars, there are legal ways to get redress.”

On ministers criticising judicial intervention in policy making, the Prime Minister side-stepped the controversy and said: “We are a functioning democracy and, therefore, ministers sometimes take advantage of that to express opinions. But as a government, we have high respect and high regard for the judiciary and it is my sincere belief that the Constitution has laid down the path which the executive, the legislature, the judiciary should follow. And if all of us follow the constitutional dharma, I think things would turn out to be all right.”

He sidestepped queries about Sharad Pawar’s recent criticism of the UPA II and trouble with other allies, including with Mamata Banerjee on the Teesta issue. In a coalition government, there were “bound to be differences” but the “real test is that we see that these differences do not undermine the cohesiveness of the government”, he said.

Singh added: “You can have my assurance that despite different perspectives…, managing the UPA cabinet has never been a difficult task.”

He refused to get drawn into the controversy over the finance minister’s note on 2G that rocked his government some weeks ago. “Well, I think that is a closed chapter. The finance minister and the home minister have already spoken on that matter….”

Despite the financial crisis in the US and Europe showing no signs of ending, the Prime Minister said he was confident that “just as in the year 2008 when we showed to the world that we can swim against the wind blowing from abroad, it is still possible for India to maintain a healthy growth rate about 8 to 8.5 per cent.”