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Manmohan's swansong springs a few surprises!

Last updated on: January 03, 2014 22:31 IST

For all purposes, Dr Singh today sounded the bugle for the 2014 electoral battle for the Lok Sabha, says Anita Katyal

In his much-hyped swansong, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proved that though he is months away from retirement, he still has quite a bit of fight left in him.  

Launching a rare and concerted attack on Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi at his much-awaited press conference on Friday, January 3, a combative PM provided a sneak preview into the bitter political fight that is bound to erupt in the months before the Lok Sabha elections. 

It had been widely anticipated by the media that Dr Singh would use this opportunity to list out the achievements of the United Progressive Alliance government and pave the way for Congress Vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s projection as the party’s prime ministerial candidate.

But the PM’s acerbic remarks about Modi were a definite departure from the expected script.

It is now clear that the political discourse by the Congress will get sharper and more acrimonious against its bete noire Modi as the general election draws closer.

His press conference sent out a clear signal that the Congress – after shedding its earlier ambivalence about responding to Modi’s continuing diatribe against it -- has decided to take the Gujarat strongman head-on.

In fact, Dr Singh set the proverbial cat among the pigeons when he declared, “Without going into the credentials of anyone, I think it will be disastrous for the country to have Narendra Modi as the PM.” 

Such an attack on an elected chief minister by the country’s prime minister would have been construed as “poor form” at any other time, but in the season of elections, it was brushed aside as fair game.  

Perhaps in this very spirit, while reacting to allegations of being a weak leader, the prime minister followed up his initial statement with a far harsher comment on Modi.  

“A strong leader does not mean that you preside over the mass massacre of people on the streets of Ahmedabad. The country does not want this kind of strength,” the usually mild-mannered PM remarked.

He emphatically declared that Modi’s ongoing campaign for a “Congress-free” country “will not materialise”.

But this is not the first time Dr Singh has taken on the BJP in such a no-holds barred manner.

In the past, the PM has hit back at BJP leaders, especially party patriarch L K Advani.

In fact, Dr Singh is at his aggressive best when he targets the principal opposition party.

Faced with Advani’s relentless attack for allegedly being a weak and ineffective leader, Dr Singh had famously retorted, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I have not done anything to deserve such epithets. I should be judged not by what Mr Advani says but what I do.”

Manmohan Singh’s remarks on Modi today were not totally off-the-cuff. These were part of a carefully-crafted strategy to change the political narrative which has, so far, been far from favourable to the prime minister specifically and to the Congress generally.

And if the reaction of the BJP leaders is any indication, the PM appears to have succeeded in his mission.

Debates and discussions in the wake of the press conference have focused on Dr Singh’s attack against Modi while crucial issues like price rise and corruption have been relegated to the background.

The Congress is hoping that its aggressive stand will help it win brownie points from non-BJP parties which had written off the grand old party as a losing proposition after its humiliating defeat in the recent assembly elections.  

It was obvious that the PM had come well prepared for the press conference.

He pre-empted controversial queries from the media and kept his answers handy.

As per the script, the Prime Minister’s Office distributed a booklet listing the achievements of the United Progressive Alliance government even before the media interaction started.

Predictably, Dr Singh ruled himself out of the race for the PM’s post after the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections and underlined that Rahul Gandhi was eminently suitable to take over.

He also clarified that he had no intention of stepping down immediately.

“I am not going to resign. I will continue till the Lok Sabha elections. After that I will hand over the baton to another person," said Dr Singh. 

Well aware of the fact that he would be grilled over the UPA government’s inability to contain inflation and combat corruption, the PM admitted to his government’s failures beforehand. 

Dr Singh admitted that his government had not been very successful in generating employment, especially in the manufacturing sector, and it had not been able to control prices of food items.

The PM glossed over charges of corruption, saying his government is committed to combating graft and it has taken a series of measures for the transparent allocation of natural resources to prevent such problems. 

The premier had to experience something akin to a tightrope walk when he was questioned on the niggling issue of corruption. While he admitted that there had been several corruption cases during the UPA’s regime, he was quick to distance himself from them.

With his personal integrity being questioned by his detractors, Dr Singh put it on record that he had insisted that 2G spectrum and coal blocks should be allocated in a transparent and equitable manner.

“These facts are often forgotten by the Opposition which has its own agenda,” he pointed out, adding that he would emerge unscathed from such allegations.

Visibly hurt at the personal attacks targeted at him, Dr Singh underlined that he had served the country with nothing but the utmost dedication.

“I have not used my office to enrich my friends or relatives,” he said.

Dr Singh refused to respond to queries about his performance as the prime minister of India or how history would judge him.

He had done his best, the PM repeatedly stressed, adding that it was now up to political historians to judge him and his performance.

“I am sure history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media is,” he remarked, in an obvious dig at the poor press he has been receiving over the past few years.

Dr Singh refused to be bogged down by the oft-repeated criticism -- that he was not free to take crucial decisions concerning his government despite being in the PM's post for nearly 10 years as the views of Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Rahul had to be factored in.  

Unapologetic on this score, the PM maintained this was not a disadvantage, loyally stating that the views of Sonia and Rahul ought to be reflected in government policy.

The PM struck the right note while talking about his relationship with the Congress president.

Dr Singh reiterated that Sonia had been a source of constant strength for him and the Congress has, despite popular perception, backed him on more than one occasion.

Stating that he could not have completed ten years in office without Sonia Gandhi’s support, Dr Singh clarified, “Her support has been an enormous help in dealing with complex issues; she has facilitated my work”.  

Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi at an event in Ahmedabad ' Photograph: Reuters

Anita Katyal in New Delhi