The Prime Minister’s rare press conference turned out to be a retirement plan after Manmohan Singh on Friday ruled out a third term in the top post and made a symbolic changing-of-guard gesture by backing Rahul Gandhi as his successor.
Singh sought to burnish his reputation as a long-serving prime minister by offering a positive big picture of his tenure, combined with defiant defence against the avalanche of criticism that has assailed his second term. He said, “History will judge me kindly.”
This was accompanied by a couple of stunning verbal volleys against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Singh appeared to avoid directly referring to Modi initially, but following multiple queries on the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, he said, “Without going into the merits of Mr Narendra Modi, I sincerely believe it will be disastrous for India to have him as Prime Minister.”
Singh also fended off charges of “being weak” and said, “If the measure of strength is that you preside over the massacre of innocents on the streets of Ahmedabad, then I don’t think that is the kind of strength India needs, least of all in its Prime Minister.”
These statements provided the talking points in what was otherwise a rather wasted and ineffectual interaction — one where Singh lost the opportunity to do some genuine introspection or even reveal his thoughts on contemporary political events, like the rise of Aam Aadmi Party.
Assuming an air of ascetic indifference to public opinion, Singh laid out what was a contrarian’s reading of the UPA government’s rule.
He said the country’s economic growth during his tenure was acceptable given the inimical global economy. He also highlighted his government’s “socially inclusive policies” and “a widening regulatory framework” to bring about transparent governance.
On questions about the many corruption scams that engulfed his regime, he responded with evasive, self-absolving gestures and said he was “sad” at having been accused of graft as it was he who had first suggested transparent auctions to allocate resources, like telecom spectrum and coal blocks.
He also argued that the Opposition, which naturally had vested interests, blew things out of proportion and was helped by “a media that played into its hands” and institutions like the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Another curious tack was that most of these scams had occurred during the UPA-I rule, and yet the electorate had voted them back to power. He appeared to conveniently forget the fact that most of these scams hit the public eye only during his second term.
On the question of the impending change of guard this summer, after the Lok Sabha elections, Singh played to the script and practically gave the floor over to Rahul Gandhi. “He (Rahul) has excellent credentials to be declared as the Presidential nominee,” he said, in a slip of the tongue. He also expressed the hope that the next Prime Minister would be a “UPA-chosen one”, offering a peek into the Congress’ thinking that it could still be central or at least influential in a non-BJP coalition.