Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signalled that he was very much in control as the country’s top executive, dismissing suggestions about an early retirement or differences either with the Congress party or its president, Sonia Gandhi.
Addressing a press conference, the Prime Minister played down the gains of his regime, presumably as a strategy—promise less and deliver more—to dampen further expectations from his regime.
The conference is significant since Singh’s comments came the day the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) marked the first anniversary of its second term in office.
Otherwise, the press conference, over an hour long, answering 53 questions, and only the second since Singh took charge as prime minister six years ago, failed to provide quick-fix answers or solutions to concerns about governance (linked to the insinuations of improper conduct by ministers, say in the context of telecom policy or the Indian Premier League); threats to internal security (largely revolving around policy concerns about how to tackle the growing red terror threat); or containing the endemic problem of inflation that has lasted over two years.
Singh’s responses largely signalled either status quo with respect to key policies or a reluctance to air any radical departures in any forum other than the Union cabinet. The discipline is no doubt welcome, but ironic since several of his colleagues have, on occasion, chosen to air their views (which inevitably differ from that of the government) and pronounce policy change outside the cabinet.
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While the situation demanded otherwise, Singh’s response was characteristic of him: modest and risk-averse. Thus, he side-stepped controversial queries and avoided appearing eager to usher in radical change. While you can rarely go wrong with such a tactic, at moments when you have to sound right, this may be counterproductive. As a result, it is not surprising that Singh was not able to address the image deficit afflicting the government; this has overshadowed the several positives the government has notched up in the last one year. Nor could he deliver the promise that the UPA is preparing to regroup and impart fresh momentum in the remaining four years of ts office.
For those looking for any between-the-lines signals, the single biggest message is that the UPA will stay the course. Listing the government’s priorities, Singh reiterated the link between rapid growth (10% target in the medium term) and the government’s ability to generate resources to fund its ambitious social inclusion agenda; implicit in this is that growth cannot happen without economic reforms.?By linking growth to inclusiveness, he sought to provide the political justification for reforms.
However, when it came to the issue of inflation, Singh was candid in admitting that it was a problem that his government had not been able to resolve and, keeping with similar pronouncements from other ministers and policy wonks in government, held out the verbal reassurance that it would decelerate to 5% by December—hardly any comfort considering that this is against the 11-year peak achieved in the same period last year.
And, of course, there was no reference to the policy failure of the government to address supply shortfalls (letting foodstocks rot instead) to address food inflation. Instead, Singh chose to blame the spurt in international fuel prices and the drought of last year for inflation.
Inexplicably, Singh failed to stake claim to the substantive reforms managed by the UPA in its first year in office: setting the stage for a unified, investor friendly, efficient and fiscally stable economy through the introduction of a single goods and services tax, the direct tax code and the acceptance of a road map for fiscal consolidation laid down by the 13th Finance Commission. Instead, he merely argued that the UPA had done well to steer the economy through troubled climes.
In the arena of foreign policy, Singh reiterated India’s oft-stated priority of addressing challenges in the immediate neighbourhood. Specifically with respect to Pakistan, while he refrained from putting down any desired milestones, the Prime Minister resolved to proceed to bridge the trust deficit; the diffidence is understandable given that the shelf-life of any confidence building measure is subject to the next terror strike emanating from Pakistan—realistically, if these forces can reach out to attempt a strike in New York, then India unfortunately is far more vulnerable.
Singh was also defensive when it came to controversies associated with his government. His no-nonsense style and teflon-like image have always stood Singh in good defence in the past and did so on Monday too; but it is unclear as to how long the rest of the government can ride on these personal qualities.
The nature of pointed queries, which at times were provocative, from the media seems to reflect some of the misgivings about UPA-II. Whether it was the issue of home minister P. Chidambaram’s utterances, allegations of misuse of office by telecom minister A. Raja or any other short-pitched stuff (to use a cricketing analogy), Singh’s instinct was to duck, or offer a bland denial—as he did in response to a charge that the UPA was misusing the office of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to achieve political objectives.
Going forward, there were implied signals that the UPA is considering a cabinet reshuffle (purely from the fact that Singh did not rule it out and said that the press conference was not the forum to announce change), working towards more inclusive growth (to be defined by the yet-to-be constituted National Advisory Council under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi), and considering the demand to include caste in the ongoing census. Overall, Singh’s message was that UPA-II wanted “to do better” as a government.
To Singh’s credit he used the moment to publicly dispel notions of differences at the level of either the party or Sonia Gandhi, even while he said that he is looking forward to Rahul Gandhi joining the cabinet. In an intriguing twist, even as he denied pursuing a legacy, Singh dismissed suggestions about an early retirement and instead maintained that he was yet to conclude the task he had been assigned. This was a follow-up to his earlier answer on the very same subject when he stated that he always welcomed the participation of youth, he was a loyal Congressman and would, as a result, step down if the party so desires.
This aside, Singh’s public interface with the nation has left most wondering whether he missed an opportunity or deliberately chose to play it down and, thereby, not raise expectations in an otherwise uncertain economic and political climate. It is difficult to gauge from Singh’s inscrutable demeanour and could well be a case of either/or.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@ livemint.com