Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday disagreed with those in the Congress who were dismissive of the challenge posed by Narendra Modi but asserted that the party would approach the 2014 Lok Sabha polls with self-confidence, irrespective of the results of the just concluded elections in five states.
"As it is an organised party, we cannot underestimate the power of Opposition to unsettle the ship of the state. Therefore, I am one of those who take very seriously our opponents. There is no room for complacency," he said.
The prime minister was answering questions after delivering the keynote address at the 11th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi.
Earlier in his address, Dr Singh also criticised those who try to accuse the entire political class of being corrupt and spread cynicism.
"Over the past two years, some well meaning and concerned citizens tried to spread cynicism by accusing the entire political class of being corrupt and anti-people. Many began to suggest that democracy had not served India well. They attacked the institution of Parliament by refusing to respect Parliament's judgement," he said while asking the people to look at the "big picture".
Exit polls have predicted rout for Congress in the assembly polls to Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh when counting of votes takes place on Sunday. Counting of votes for Mizoram will take place on Monday.
Notwithstanding the poll projections, the Prime Minister said, "Congress party is going to the elections with the spirit of self-confidence and that should not be mistaken whatever may be the outcome of the provincial elections.
He was asked about different views among his cabinet colleagues, one of whom has stated that the challenge posed by Modi should be taken seriously while another has dismissed the challenge posed by BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate.
The Prime Minister rejected a poser that the Communal Violence Bill is a vote-catching gimmick and said the government's effort is to ensure that if riots can't be prevented, there should be adequate compensation for the victims.
"It is not a vote-catching gimmick.....What happened in Muzaffarnagar and some other parts of our country is a reminder that although as a country, we can take pride in our ability to protect all the people, yet there are times when aberrations take place," he said.
"This bill, if it is passed by Parliament, will help to control those aberrations," he added.
Dr Singh noted that in the last five or six years, the country has been grappling with the problem of communal riots in some part or the other.
"And our effort has been to create an environment where officers would have the responsibility to look after the law and order situation as effectively as is humanly possible.
"Plus also if riots cannot be prevented, there should be adequate compensation for the victims of the riots. These are two basic principles, which underlines what is the purpose of the communal violence bill. I think it is a bill, whose time has come," the Prime Minister said.
His remarks came amid Centre's move to drop several provisions to ensure that the legislation is neutral between communities and address concerns of States who complained that their powers are being encroached upon.
Dr Singh had on Thursday said that government will try to evolve a broad- based consensus on issues which are of "great" legislative importance on a day when Modi dubbed the bill as a "recipe for disaster".
Seeking to dispel apprehensions of the economy going downhill, the Prime Minister said, "Through all the ups and down in the face of global challenges and despite the burden of past policy mistakes, our economy is on a rising growth trajectory".
Urging the media and the people to see the big picture, Dr Singh sought to strike a note of optimism, saying, "India is on the move. Indians are on the move...the unyielding spirit of the Indian people is what we must celebrate all times."
The prime minister said, "Governments come and go. We are all birds of passage, actors on different stages...India will continue to rise and in doing so, will help everyone rise ....that is the big picture. For the short period, we mortals occupy the places we do, let us strive to do our best for India, for the world, for humanity."
Dr Singh noted that the rate of growth has more that doubled to an annual average of over 7 per cent in the last two decades and the Indian economy was put on an upward trajectory.
"Naturally there will be periods of ups and downs. The economic cycle presents us years of high performance and years of modest performance. But the highs are getting higher and so are the lows.
"Today, many feel dissatisfied with the annual rate of five per cent, while for more than two decades, five per cent was the target rate of growth of our five year plans," the prime minister said.
Noting that economic growth, social change and political empowerment have brought in their wake "new aspirations of an entirely new generation", which has contributed to "growing impatience for faster growth and an even better quality of life," Dr Singh said a "revolution of rising expectations" is underway and he welcomes it.
"These aspirations and ambitions are exerting pressure on governments to deliver more, perform better and be more transparent and more efficient," the Prime Minister said.
At the same time what is truly significant is that when one steps back and looks at the big picture, one finds that "our political system has been responsive to these expectations," he said.
He said even in the face of churning ambitions and rising expectations, the people of country chose to vote and secure change through democratic means.
Slamming those who try to spread "cynicism by accusing the political class of being corrupt and anti-people, the Prime Minister asked "Did that turn out people against democracy? Did that make them despair about electoral system? No. Look at the voter turnout at every election over the past two years and in the just-concluded assembly elections."
Dr Singh said while once in a while, public anger may spill over on the streets and into the media, India's "silent majority" exercises its franchise in a legitimate democratic ways to secure and change.
The prime minister talked at length about six elements of UPA's strategy for inclusive growth.
He said these included a new deal for rural India, increased public and private investment in education and health care with a focus on girls and young women, livelihood, food and energy security for the poor, a more transparent and responsive government made answerable to people through RTI, investment in skills and support for private enterprise and public investment in public transport.
While claiming that these interventions made the country's growth processes more socially inclusive, Dr Singh also said, "I cannot deny that there remains many challenges, problems and weaknesses in implementation."
He said the government's biggest challenge in trying to sustain this process of inclusive growth has been to bring rates of inflation down and keep the fiscal deficit under control. "These remain a challenge are being seriously addressed," Dr Singh said.
Striking a word of caution against "any sudden acceleration of growth", the Prime Minister said that this as was seen in the period 2004-2008 creates "imbalances that can contribute to inflation".
"Such growth can also create opportunities for personal enrichment that distorts governance and creates social resentment. Rising economic growth has helped to liberate millions of Indians from chronic poverty, reducing the incidence of poverty, but it has also widened social and economic inequalities.
"Our strategy of inclusive growth has sought to blunt the edge of such disparities," the Prime Minister said.
Talking about national security, an issue on which the government has faced repeated flak from Modi and BJP in recent months, the Prime Minister underlined the need to prevent the "ideologues of terrorism" from creating divisions among the people and pitting one Indian against another.
"More importantly, I have always viewed the challenge of terrorism in India as one of preventing the ideologues of terrorism from creating divisions among people of our great country and pitting one Indian against another. The objective of a terror attack is not just to kill innocent people.
"It is not just to create fear, but in fact to cause hate. It is to use such killing to create mutual distrust between people of different faiths. Creating communal tension, communal conflict and communal divisions in India is the ultimate objective of terrorism," Dr Singh said.
He said every time people of the country respond to terror attacks as one people, as Indians and not as Hindus or Muslims or Sikhs or Christians, the nation defeats forces of terrorism and challenges the "ideology that feeds terrorism".
"If we only look at the number of terror attacks on India in quantitative terms, we may feel despondent. However, if we consider the fact that, over the past decade, such acts of terrorism have failed to generate communal conflict, we feel more hopeful.
"Terrorism is being defeated in the minds of our people because they are refusing to respond to such attacks in the manner in which the ideologues of terror want them to," the prime minister said.
He also urged the media to keep in mind that while a terrorist has to succeed only once to cause pain to innocent people, the security forces have to succeed every minute everyday to prevent terror attacks.
The Prime Minister noted that India has been victim of "pre-mediated acts of terror".
"Each time terrorists attack us there is widespread anger and despair....the media quiet understandably reports on events as they occur. Any lapse on the part of security forces and the intelligence and law and order machinery comes in for understandable criticism," he said while urging the media to appreciate the dedication and commitment of security forces and intelligence agencies in preventing many more attacks.
On foreign policy, Dr Singh, who is often referred to as the economist Prime Minister, said, "Even as we strengthen our relations with all major powers, we are doing so to become an active member of the emerging Asian economic community
"...I believe the experience of the past two decades tells us that greater integration with the world economy is benefiting India and enabling our people to realise their creative potential. The world wants India to do well."
Dr Singh said the single most important objective of Indian foreign policy has been to create a global environment conducive to the well-being of the people of India.
"I believe the experience of the past two decades tells us that greater integration with the world economy is benefiting India and enabling our people to realise their creative potential.
"The world wants India to do well...India's voice is heard with respect in all important international forums," he said.
Noting that in the past few months Indian business leaders have been worried, Dr Singh said he understands their "anxieties about red tape, our tax laws and administration, our regulations and procedures".
"I often found it tough to deal with these challenges because of a lack of political consensus on the reforms, we need to bring in," he said while lauding the business community for demonstrating its ability to cope with the competition.
Dr Singh recalled that when he had entered politics in the midst of a crisis in 1991, he had to worry not only about reducing the fiscal deficit and reviving economic growth, but also about stabilising the rupee and ensuring access to adequate foreign exchange as a result of the breakdown of the bio-polar world.
"Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, we took momentous decisions both with respect to our economic policies and with respect to our foreign policy. Prime Minister Rao launched what has come to be known as India's Look East Policy, linking India to the new growth engines of Asia.
"We liberalised our trade and investment rules to help us re-integrate with the global economy. In doing this, we were inspired by the experience of many East and South-East Asian countries," he said.
The Prime Minister said that since then the country has faced multiple challenges on the external front but it managed to protect its core economic and foreign policy interests.
"Whether it is dealing with sharp escalations in food and energy prices, or the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98 and the Trans-Atlantic financial crisis in 2008-09, or the rise of China as a global mega-trader and changing power balances in the global and regional trading regimes, we have managed to protect India's core economic and foreign policy interests," he said.
Dr Singh also talked about nearly half a century of slow growth, low industrial development, frequent famines and little social mobility in which his generation lived.
"That India still exists for many of our brothers and sisters, but for fewer and fewer of them. Having lived through a past that was very different, my generation constantly tends to compare it with our present. And the stark fact is that, as a generation, we have experienced a transformation in our own lives that in our youth we never even imagined was possible.
"There are millions of Indians like me, who have spent their childhood in a milieu of little hope, and have then lived a lifetime of sweeping transformation. This is not a function of the passage of time alone, but of a combination of the effort, enterprise and aspirations of the people of India, as also the leadership and guidance provided by various governments at the Centre and in the states," Dr Singh said.
He said after half a century of zero growth between 1900 and 1950, India saw annual growth rate rise to 3.5 per cent.
"When we realised that other developing countries were overtaking us and had found new routes to development, we too changed our course in the early nineties. In the past two decades, the rate of growth more than doubled to an average rate of over 7.0 per cent per annum and the Indian economy was put on an upward growth trajectory," Dr Singh said.