Aman with his back to the wall cannot afford to be overly defensive.So, there were welcome flashes of decisiveness in what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told five newspaper editors on Wednesday. It helped his case that the rest of the country had to read the transcripts rather than listen to him, because his spoken communication skills have been a problem in a country used to the oratory of leaders such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
As with most such interactions, there was plenty of twaddle. The answers on economic reform were downright disappointing. However, the Prime Minister did unveil that he had taken the lead in the decision to engage with Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev; has doubts whether the Lokpal system, especially as envisaged by the Hazare group, will be panacea; admitted to tension with some allies in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA); and said that the Chinese are far ahead of us in their quest for a blue-water navy with aircraft carriers, even hinting the reason defence spending was low was that the defence ministry has not come up with a credible spending plan.
He also aimed a few barbs at colleagues such as Jairam Ramesh and Mani Shankar Aiyer—stars of the Congress Left. Singh said that he has indeed pressurized the environment minister to reverse some of his positions and pointed out that the letters written by Aiyer about the Commonwealth Games were less about specifics, but rather made broad ideological points about the need to spend so much money on a sporting extravaganza. The Prime Minister also distanced himself personally from the decisions of the telecom ministry, a good strategy in the run-up to a cabinet reshuffle.
Sadly, such plain speaking was absent when it came to his equation with Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, perhaps the biggest problem in Indian politics today. There was the whiff of a durbar loyalist when he said: “I have not got any contrary view from the Congress high command.” Any? It is an open secret that the men around the Prime Minister are immensely sceptical about the schemes dreamt up by the National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi. He also said he meets his party chief once a week. Why, we wonder. No other prime minister did this.
These have been exceptional months, with scams, inflation and political gridlock dominating the headlines. None of these problems can be directly attributed to the Prime Minister. But he happens to be the head of government—and we hope that his frank talk will be followed by decisive action.
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