A relaxed prime minister believes the Indian economy has the ability to surprise the world. Rediff.com's Nikhil Lakshman listens in to the conversation aboard Air India One.
There was a whiff of frustration during the prime minister's interaction with the media aboard Air India One on Tuesday afternoon.
And some measure of denial.
Sample the former: "If all political parties work together, if government is allowed to function, then it is possible to maintain a growth rate of 9%"... "We would like to appeal to all political parties who have the good of the nation at heart"... "There is a limit to political dissensions, all political parties must forget their differences and concentrate on the legislation that needs to be passed." ...
Taste the latter: Speaking about the reported squabble between his finance and home ministers which have dominated the airwaves in recent days, the prime minister declared," These rifts are only reflected in the media. We are a cohesive government and we will remain a cohesive government. There are no dissensions in the government."
Dr Manmohan Singh sidestepped reporters's persistent inquiries if the home minister had offered to resign, only reiterating his comment made last Thursday that Palaniappan Chidambaram continues to enjoy his confidence as does, he added, Pranab Mukherjee.
"In all Cabinets," the prime minister said, "we differ with an open mind. Ministers can differ with each other, but that does not mean we are not a cohesive government."
There was also an unlikely glimpse of the prime minister as pugilist.
"The Opposition is getting prematurely restless," Dr Singh said, "the Opposition would like to make the weak points of the government the focus of attention and hope to force an election. But that is not going to happen! The Opposition will have to wait for two-and-a-half years. We have a mandate from the people of India to rule for five years, and we will stay the course. And we will do things, when you look back, might well surprise the country."
The prime minister briefly went into conspiratorial mode, insisting, "I suspect other forces are at work to destabilise our polity," even though he refused to elaborate on who these "other forces" were, when pressed to do so, only stating that "Nothing should be done to weaken the self-confidence of India."
Though he complained of a pain in his left ear at the outset, Dr Singh appeared unruffled throughout his 40-minute chat with correspondents accompanying him on the journey back home from the United Nations, discussing animatedly his many hopes for the Indian economy.
The Indian economy, he felt, has the "capacity to weather the storm," even though he added that if the American and European economies were in trouble, "they are bound to have an effect on us."
In 2008 when the American meltdown occurred, India still grew at about 8.5%. If the Indian economy grew between 7.5% to 8.5% in "this troubled year," Dr Singh felt this would be "remarkable."
When one correspondent asked if his faith in gloablisation had been shaken by the economic events of recent years and if he had turned Socialist, Dr Singh, who had spoken earlier in the interaction of how the world economy is an increasingly inter-dependent entity, said, "When the world changes, we have to take note of those changes. We cannot be static."
"Whatever we can do without legislation," he said, "will be done with speed and with efficiency. What requires legislation, of course, requires the collaboration between the government and the Opposition parties. We have made efforts in the past. We will continue and make efforts in the future. But even under the most adverse condition, the growth rate of Indian economy will not fall below 7.5% to 8%. That's my analysis. In a world where the US growth rate is 0.7%, a 7% to 7.5% growth rate is a real marvel which the world still respects India for."
"Inflation has been a problem," Dr Singh conceded, discussing an issue that has bothered some of the government's allies and rallied the Opposition, "but that is because there are factors beyond control. If international prices go up, there is no way in which we can keep domestic prices untouched, unaffected. But I also feel that we have now reached a plateau. Food prices are by and large stable. What are not stable are the prices of vegetables, fish products, cold drink etc. And that is the demand-supply gap which is not a failure of our policies. It is a measure of the success of our policies that the incomes of people are rising in a manner that they want more and more eggs, fruits and vegetables."
The prime minister felt that "vested interests" were behind the continuing agitation against the nuclear plant at Kudankulam in southern Tamil Nadu, but said his government would speak to "all the enlightened leadership of Tamil Nadu to find a practical and pragmatic solution."
Tamil Nadu, the prime minister pointed out, is the fastest growing industrialised state in India, something he is enormously proud of, but he was worried that it would fall a casualty to energy shortages, which is why the nuclear plant at Kudankulam was so important, promising cheap power.
In a reference to the Kudankulam agitators's fears about nuclear safety, Dr Singh declared, not with some drama, "We will protect all the people of India! Our safety standards will be second to none! And if we have any doubt we will be the first to tell our people that we will not move forward."The architect of India's return from nuclear Siberia felt, "It is my honest expectation that sooner or later the world would recognise that there is no alternative, but to rely on atomic energy, as an essential component of the energy mix of a country, any country that seeks protection of its environment that wants to protect itself from excessive carbon emission."
The prime minister was asked if his reference in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly against the use of military force to bring about regime change -- "Societies cannot be reordered from outside through military force. People in all countries have the right to choose their own destiny and decide their own future." -- was a reference to the US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.
No, Dr Singh clarified, it referred to NATO's military mission in Libya. "My worry," he said, "is that despite what the Western powers are saying about Libya, their success in getting rid of Gadaffi, there are still signs that Libya may well be entrapped in civil war like Somalia. And if it goes the Somalian way it will be in nobody's interest."
He was asked about American officials blaming Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence for supporting attacks like the one on the US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in June. "What General (actually, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike) Mullen has said with regard to the role of certain forces in Pakistan is also something which is nothing new to us. In fact, when we were the first to flag this issue earlier, the world didn't believe us. I am glad that at least the world recognises the truth of what the government and the people of India had been saying about the activities of ISI for many, many years."
Perhaps for the first time Dr Singh spoke about the Chinese leadership's "hesitation" to back India's case for a seat on the UN Security Council, but did not believe that they were "not totally unsupportive. So I am not predicting that it will fall into our lap tomorrow or the day after. But I think the climate of global opinion is certainly in favour of a country like India being made a permanent member of the reformed UN Security Council."
When Rediff.com asked the prime minister what he considered the five most urgent economic issues confronting his government and the nation which he would like to address, Dr Singh drew up his wish-list: