As he approaches the end of his ten years’ as India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh says he believes that “history will be kinder” to him than the contemporary media and political opposition. That was a recurrent theme at a large press conference lasting about 100 minutes that he gave in Delhi today. It was only his third in ten years (and second since 2004), apart from exchanges with selected journalists on flights abroad.
He has revealed little in the past, so not much was expected this time (picture below). His opening statement attempted to record his government’s performance in a good light. Most of his answers to journalists’ questions were bland, and many were evasive. He did announce that he would not be a prime ministerial candidate in the coming general election. That was expected and it turns the focus onto a Congress Party meeting in two weeks’ time when, it is rumoured, Rahul Gandhi might announced for the role.
Manmohan Singh’s headline catcher was a blunt personal attack on Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, who he said would be “disastrous for the country”. A man who had presided “over a mass massacre of innocent citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad” had not displayed “the sort of strength this country needs, least of all, in its Prime Minister”.
That was a reference to the Godhra riots in Gujarat in 2002, where more than 2,000 are believed to have been killed with Modi as chief minister. The remark showed that Modi will continue to come under attack for his role then, even though he has been cleared of responsibility by the courts and said last week (without actually apologising) that he was “shaken to the core” by the violence with feelings of “grief, sadness, misery, pain, anguish, agony.”
The most telling theme of the press conference was the way that the prime minister shirked responsibility for corruption scandals, notably in the telecommunications and coal industries, that have dogged his administration with him being implicated for at least condoning what has happened.
First, he tried to dodge questions by saying the scandals had started in the 2004-09 United Progressive Alliance government and that people had re-elected him and the coalition in 2009, so did “not seem to have paid heed to all these charges of corruption which are levied against me or my party”. That missed the point that the scandals had not fully surfaced in 2009, and that Singh’s role had not fully developed and emerged – firstly with him allowing an implicated telecoms minister to be reappointed (because his Tamil Nadu-based party was needed in the new coalition), and second with him being in charge of the coal ministry during some of that industry’s scandals.
So Manmohan Singh’s reliance on so-far unwritten history to say that he had done as well as he could was significant. Will it excuse him his failings because he had to cope with both a fractious coalition that blocked some of his policies, and with Sonia Gandhi as his political boss who ruled the roost? He talked today, as he has in the past, about “coalition compulsions” and hoped that history would say he had done the best he could in the “coalition circumstances”
Or will it say he lowered the status of the prime minister’s post by condoning corruption and ceding authority, which was constitutionally his, to Gandhi and her son Rahul when he ought to have stood up to them or resigned?
Maybe, rather vengefully, he hopes that history blames the Gandhi’s for wielding power over the government without being responsible constitutionally, or in parliament, for what was done. That would be a just verdict but, even then, Singh will surely be blamed for being weak and allowing it to happen.
That however is all to do with the past, and another far more significant event to do with the future also happened in Delhi today when Arvind Kejriwal (above) began work in the city’s newly elected assembly as chief minister, following the devastating success of his anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party in recent assembly elections.
The implication of Singh’s remarks is that coalition governments have to be corrupt in order to keep corrupt coalition partners happy. Kejriwal is setting out to prove otherwise, with Congress supporting his minority government!
While 81-year old Singh is looking to historians to produce their verdict on him, 45-year old Kejriwal is beginning a new young era in Indian politics with massive support because of the failings of the Gandhi-Singh government and the lack of hope that the BJP would be much better.