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Analysis: What the PM said
Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi | February 02, 2006 02:00 IST
Last Updated: February 07, 2006 17:48 IST
Watching Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh talking to over 300 journalists for 90 minutes in his second national press conference at the Vigyan Bhavan, one could not help marveling at Congress president Sonia Gandhi's political masterstroke in stepping aside and allowing Dr Singh to assume the country's top political post.
Singh meticulously and gracefully, and as, seemingly, required by his party, sticks to his limited political role and opens up only on two subjects: the economy and international relations.
Today, he coined a new phrase to explain the focus behind most of his actions – 'enlightened national interest'.
'He is honest and boring,' most political scribes had bluntly said after his first press conference in 2004. Today, one could see that nothing had changed the conditional political course Sonia Gandhi picked for him.
This time too, he was confident about the Indian economy but boringly cautious.
For veterans on the beat, Dr Singh played out as expected. He spoke as a highly-focused economist. His language was bureaucratic and his responses were, obviously, like the academician he is.
He spoke on a range of issues but didn't reveal much. He said his government will last the full five years and that he does not think the time has come for a fresh mandate.
There were not too many questions on the forthcoming Budget so the Sensex is unlikely to be adversely influenced by any of his remarks tomorrow.
On Kashmir, he made it clear that his government would stick to India's 50-year-old stand while allowing bolder and wider people-to-people contact between India and Pakistan.
While he said India is committed to a practical solution, he also added, "I can't do certain things like the transfer of Indian territory."
His stand on the Iran nuclear issue and Indo-US relations were predictable.
Luckily, for Dr Singh there were not many uncomfortable questions that confronted him or forced him to reveal his mind.
But it was clear that he expects the Left parties to create more pressure when he said, 'some tension can be expected' during the coming elections in Kerala and West Bengal where the Congress will be in a straight fight with the Left parties.
Only twice were his remarks straight, aggressive and political. Once, when speaking on the developments in Bihar and next when he hit back at Bharatiya Janata Party leader Lal Kishenchand Advani.
When a scribe asked him about Advani's statement that he is the weakest prime minister, he retorted, "I leave it for the people of India to judge. Advani was presenting himself as the BJP strongman but what happened after he went to the Mazaar (memorial) of Mohammad Ali Jinnah in Karachi and made some remarks? The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh did not like it and where is he now?"
When asked to explain his take on the Supreme Court's judgment regarding Bihar, Dr Singh didn't do well.
In his first public statement on the judgment -- which led to the resignation of Governor Buta Singh -- the prime minister said, "Our own view is that we did the right thing on the basis of material available at that point of time."
This part of his argument is understandable. But then he pointed out that even in the Supreme Court, there was a difference of perception and opinion on the subject 'that has to be taken into account'.
Does that mean someone can break the law because a minority in Parliament voted against it? His remarks stunned his well-wishers and critics alike.
He returned to his cautious self when asked if Sonia Gandhi was more powerful than him, and said, "She is a source of strength for me."
He approved of her powerful status within government saying she had "legitimate influence". He said the current system of her being the United Progressive Alliance chairperson and he being the prime minister had had a 'positive' impact on the functioning of the government.
He also revealed that, "Without her being there, it would not have been possible me to achieve some things."
If anything, the press conference proved that Dr Singh had been Sonia Gandhi's best bet and continues to be so.
Dr Singh certainly looked cautious and sensitive about the growing criticism about his handling of the Indo-US relations and the lack of transparency. He promised he would speak his mind in Parliament. One wonders why he is waiting? The entire gamut of the Indian media was here and he could have explained himself.
Dr Singh's special feelings for Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz was quite evident when he said it was the first time the King had signed a joint communique with any other head of state. "It was a unique honour for me," he said.
They had met in the early 90s in Saudi Arabia when Dr Singh was finance minister. Their friendship has obviously survived and that helped during the King's latest visit.
Dr Singh also had no qualms about governors coming back to politics from the Raj Bhavans.
When he was asked about his achievements he spoke about Employment Guarantee Scheme and Right to Information Act, successes of both of which are credited more to Sonia Gandhi's efforts by his partymen.
On the unlocking of Bofors accused Ottavio Quattrocchi accounts he played safe again, saying that the decision was not taken at the behest of the government and that it was 'a functional decision of the Central Bureau of Investigation'.
However, he was kind enough to add that, "The decision was taken as per the legal advice given to the CBI."
That defence will have few takers.
One also got the feeling that Dr Singh has some kind of disconnect with the people who are yet to taste the fruits of a 'resurgent India' symbolised in the growing Sensex. He hardly spoke about issues concerning the have nots.
However, the best part of the evening was when he accepted full responsibility for all his government's actions.
Recently, in an article in a business daily, he was described as an honest man and a Teflon of the UPA government on whom no charge sticks.
Dr Singh bravely said, "No, I don't want to stand apart. I take responsibility. I am not running away from the actions of my government."
Many thanks, Mr Prime Minister.