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'The Congress is not the first choice'
Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi | July 05, 2007 23:22 IST
Last Updated: July 06, 2007 15:41 IST
"I think the politics of the country has taken a turn and the caste-based regional parties have gathered momentum of their own. We (mainstream political parties) are at a disadvantage. The Congress is not the first choice but there is the profound image of the main parties and once the regional politics plays itself out, we will be the preferred choice of the people."
These are the words of political wisdom that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] parted with when asked to comment on the perception of the Congress workers that though the prime minister is incorruptible, what he is doing is not helping them to improve the party's electoral prospects in any state.
He was speaking at a tea party arranged at his 7, Race Course Road, residence with New Delhi-based Indian women journalists.
During the course of the evening, it showed that Dr Singh has been in power for three years and how!
He was unusually confident, never hesitating to take answer awkward questions and sometime he was even uncharacteristically aggressive.
It was as though he was acutely aware that he has only two years left to leave a mark on the pages of history.
As the meeting began, Dr Singh in quite a bureaucratic manner dished out the usual statistics and details of the achievement of his government. But, once the interaction started, he dropped his babu image. Three years in power seemed to have changed him, at last. Unlike in the past, there was no hesitation to open up or share.
About the alleged involvement of Indians in the recent terror plot that has been detected in the United Kingdom, Dr Singh said he had spoken to his British counterpart Gordon Brown. He said India has offered cooperation in the terror probe.
He said when he saw crying mothers (of the arrested Indian accused) on television he could not sleep. Dr Singh made special attempts to make the media women understand that racial profiling of the accused should be avoided.
He said "Labeling Indians and Pakistanis as terrorists is avoidable. No hasty conclusions should be drawn on whether the arrested Indians are guilty."
On some issues, particularly related to industry and growth prospects, he spoke like a man in a hurry. With a smile on his face, he was revealing whatever he has done sitting in prime minister's chair.
His formal and informal talks of more than 60 minutes gave the impression that he is trying to inject inside the mammoth Indian administrative infrastructure some kind of sense and urgency (not necessarily successfully) with his technical intellect of finance and management and his experience as a government servant.
He said his government is seriously investing in health and education and the thrust of his remaining two years will be on agriculture.
He added that very soon, the national policy on food security will be formed and he assured that he is aware of the issues related to food imports.
One could read that he is well aware about his own shortcomings and his government's failures. But he didn't give any idea how he will overcome those serious shortcomings in the coming two years.
When asked about the lack of coordination between his government and the Congress he responded, "Yes, we require the introspection. The division between the party and government has not been worked out."
But, he also said that the so-called differences between his office and Sonia Gandhi's office are just media hype. For the last three years, the two meet every week and there are no serious issues pending between them, he said.
When asked about the amount of money the government will have to pay to the accused of Bofors case Ottavio Quattrocchi he said, "Whatever the Court has asked (India will pay.) What option do we have?"
He also gave lots of newsy insights into the current affairs.
Like; when asked about the controversy related to the United States' nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, he said he was unaware of its arrival and he came to know only when he read it in the newspapers. He said such ships have been visiting our ports from many other countries including China and France [Images].
It was quite a surprise when he subtly and not-so-subtly criticised the leader of the opposition L K Advani, Vice President and presidential Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and even indirectly took a dig at President Abdul Kalam.
In a reply to a question he said, "Look what he says about me! The kind of language Advani is using is not healthy for democracy."
In reply to a question regarding the controversy related to Presidential candidate Pratibha Patil, not only did he strongly defend her, but also said that this tea-party at his invitation should be considered as a celebration for having the first woman president in the country!
For those who think Dr Singh is an apolitical man, this is the time to have a rethink.
He defended Patil as only a seasoned Congressman could.
He said that the Opposition was talking about the suicide note by an employee against some member of Patil's family but in Gujarat after Haren Pandya's murder his wife and father had issued much more serious allegations when L K Advani was the Home Minister. What was the action taken, he asked?
About the other allegations of financial irregularities against Patil, he said with conviction that in Maharashtra almost all politicians open a co-operative bank, higher education institutes and Sugar mills to enter politics and get established. "Otherwise they can't make any headway," he said.
His debatable remarks suggested that almost all the political leaders in Maharashtra have these institutes. He also said that these are commercial institutions.
Probably, Dr Singh implied that since these are commercial ventures its failures should not be morally binding to politicians.
One of his most aggressive comments was reserved for Vice President Shekhawat.
While defending Patil he quipped: "All his life Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was in the BJP, but now he is an independent candidate."
He argued that in the political spectrum more parties are supporting the Congress than the BJP and that the Congress has learnt its lessons of managing coalition politics.
He implied that Shekhawat was contesting as an independent just to get more support and that it showed the BJP was isolated in Indian politics.
He said the Congress is a newcomer in managing coalition government but it has done well, so far.
About the relation between the Congress and the Left parties, he said that both have been coexisting and cohabiting together for the past three years and out of that experience we will approach the coming years.
When asked about some files that have been returned by President Kalam related to the appointment of judges, he said, "I need a publicist too."
There is a perception that the news of the return of the files have been leaked from the Rashtrapati Bhavan [Images].
He, however, confirmed that he had sent some files to the law ministry and added, "I am also working."
About the Indo-Pak dialogue process he reiterated his stand.
He said the peace process has slowed down because of the situation in Pakistan.
"The dialogue has slowed down, not because of us, but because of the situation in Pakistan," he said.
Without mentioning the events of Islamabad's Lal Masjid, he said, "The dangers of fundamentalism are now being realised in that country. Fundamentalism is dangerous to any society. Pakistan is seeing terrorism for the first time. What is happening in Pakistan, thinking people have realised fundamentalism is perverse and dangerous to society," he said.
Describing terrorism as a "scourge", Dr Singh said, "Terrorism is a common enemy. It is a menace. We are dealing with it. It is a difficult situation. I understand what is happening (in Pakistan)," he said.
Twice, he said the Indo-Pak talks have never been so wide-ranging, serious and intensive in the history of the two countries. "We can't say we have a solution but we have made progress on all aspects of relations (with Pakistan)," he informed.