Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday declared that he would bow out of office after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and strongly backed Rahul Gandhi for the job while warning that Narendra Modi would be “disastrous” for the country.
“I will hand over the baton to a new Prime Minister,” Dr. Singh said in an opening statement at a rare press conference, making it clear that he would no longer be in the running for the job when he completes his 10-year tenure in May after the Lok Sabha polls.
A number of questions at the 75-minute press conference in New Delhi pertained to his record in office which he deflected by repeatedly saying that it was his belief that history would be kinder to him than the contemporary media or the opposition.
But a question on his being perceived as a “weak” Prime Minister, brought forth an uncharacteristically strong attack on Mr. Modi when he accused him of “presiding” over the “massacre” of innocent people during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
“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 kind of strength this country needs, least of all in its Prime Minister,” he said.
At another point while answering a question on a potential contest between Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Modi, Dr. Singh said, “I sincerely believe that it will be disastrous for the country to have Narendra Modi as Prime Minister.”
He ridiculed Mr. Modi’s campaign for a “Congress-free” India saying that was not going to materialise.
The press conference, only the third held by Singh in nearly 10 years in office, covered a wide range of subjects, mostly political, some pertaining to the state of the economy and a few on foreign policy. Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari conducted it and promised another interaction.
Voicing the hope that his successor would be from UPA, the Prime Minister endorsed Mr. Gandhi by stating that the Congress vice-president “has outstanding credentials to be the PM candidate”. The Congress party would announce the candidate at the appropriate time, he added.
While clearly declaring that he would not hold office after the elections, Dr. Singh was vague on his future plans thereafter. He had not thought this through.
Dr. Singh put up a weak defence of the government’s record on corruption by arguing that coal scam and 2G spectrum licences allegations pertained to his first tenure 2004-09 after which people had voted back UPA to power in 2009.
“They (voters) do not seem to have paid heed to all charges of corruption,” he contended, ignoring the fact that these scams had been unearthed after 2009 elections.
He, however, conceded that there had been irregularities in these allocations. But the dimensions of these irregularities had been overstated by the media, CAG and other entities.
To a query whether “dual centres of power” in Congress had affected his functioning, the Prime Minister said “I sincerely believe that the arrangement where the Congress President and the Prime Minister did not happen to be same person has under the circumstances worked exceedingly well.
“For me it was a remarkable achievement that I have been able to complete 10 years without any hiccups between the prime minister and Congress President. Sonia Gandhi’s support has been enormous. She was there to back me which facilitated my task in more than one way.”
Asked about the perception that the decisions were taken in 10, Janpath, a reference to Ms. Sonia Gandhi’s house, he said, “It is not a question of Congress president or the vice-president. If they have any view it ought to be reflected in the government to the extent possible. It is not a disadvantage or a drawback in our system. This has enabled us to deal with many issues.
“If the government recognised issues, I don’t think it is right to say that this is wrong or it is disadvantage to make corrections if the party leadership says it is required in national interest.”
At the outset, the Prime Minister conceded that price rise could have been one of the factors in the defeat of Congress in the recent Assembly elections.
“Price rise was a factor in the people turning against Congress. The reasons for it were beyond our control as the prices of international commoditiess were rising making it difficult for us to control prices. But we have taken enough measures to protect the weaker sections. That should not be lost.”
“We will reflect on what the results tell us for the future and learn lessons,” he said.
Asked what he plans to do in future having ruled out yet another term, Dr. Singh, “I have not thought through it. It is too early. I have still five months to complete my present term. When I reach that stage, I will cross the bridge.”
When asked what were the best and lowest moments in his career as Prime Minister, he said, “Well, I will need time to reflect on this. Certainly I think the best moment was when we were able to strike a nuclear deal with the U.S.”
To a question whether the thought of resigning crossed his mind against the backdrop of scams and difficulties,”I never felt like resigning at any time. I enjoyed my work and did my job without fear or favour.”
But asked whether anyone in the Congress asked him to resign, Dr. Singh said, “Nobody had asked him to step down because of any inadequacies as Prime Minister.”
Answering questions on his image being tainted by corruption allegations against the government, he said, “I have never used my office to enrich or reward my friends or relatives.”
'Scope for doing more for minorities exists'
Dr. Singh regretted that the government’s initiatives to improve the lot of the minorities could not be communicated to the people while stressing that the scope of doing more exists.
Noting that the UPA government has worked a lot towards implementing the recommendations of Sachar Committee, he said, “I have to say with sadness that this could not reach the people.”
He was responding to a question as to why the benefits of the schemes intended for minorities were not reaching them.
At a time when issues like reservation for minorities as well as that of granting SC/ST status to Muslims were pending before courts, Dr. Singh said, “This is also true that there are some measures which are yet to be taken up.
“Some issues are pending before courts. Some problems have cropped up due to which certain measures could not be implemented...”
Dr. Singh, however, listed measures like scholarships to minority students and special development schemes for them undertaking by the UPA government under the Prime Minister’s new 15-point programme.
“Scholarships for minorities have gone up tremendously, Maulana Azad Fellowship has increased substantially and the programme for multi-disciplinary approaches in 90 minority-concentrated districts of our country have been put in place. So enough has been done but I would be the last person to say there is no scope for doing more,” the Prime Minister told the press conference.