Notwithstanding the confidence and
good humour with which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh interacted
with a group of editors recently, he could not but have noticed
how the question of being a lame duck continued to pursue him.
In reply to the same insinuation last February, he had said,
"Whatever some people may say, that we are a lame duck government,
that I am a lame duck prime minister, we take our job very
seriously and we are here to govern and to govern effectively".
Yet, four months later, the same charge is levelled against him
again, suggesting that his governance has not been all that
Although he deflected the imputation this time by saying that it
was the result of "clever propaganda" by the opposition and that
"ultimately, truth will prevail", there is little doubt that in
the absence of determined steps to remove the impression of drift,
the accusation will haunt him. It is obviously not very reassuring
to the general public when a prime minister has to deny the same
charge twice in four months.
However, as the rest of the press conference showed, he seemed as
certain of continuing in his present position - "I have a job to
do" - as before when he also said that "I have never thought in
terms of giving up halfway". At the same time, the fact that he
has to fend off questions of Rahul Gandhi stepping into his shoes
is not an aspect of Congress politics which enhances the prime
This is all the more so because Digvijay Singh has again brought
up the topic despite having been ticked off earlier for saying
that the heir-apparent is now mature enough to take charge.
For the present, of course, Manmohan Singh says that he is unaware
of any "contrary view from the Congress high command" about his
continuation as prime minister, with Sonia Gandhi being "most
supportive". But, at the same time, his hope that the party "makes
up its mind" on his relinquishing his office suggests a marginal
shift from his comment last February that he intends to "stay the
Even if the air remains cloudy on his effectiveness and successor,
the Congress Working Committee's decision that the prime minister
must meet the media more often is an acknowledgment that the
government is not putting forward its views as often and as
effectively as it should. As a result, the opposition and the
media can be said to have a field day.
From this standpoint, the press conference was a success for it
clarified several points. For instance, Manmohan Singh's
willingness to let the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) be covered by
the Lokpal refuted civil society's allegation that he was "scared"
of being brought under the ombudsman's ambit. However, the
reference to dissenting voices in the cabinet since the matter
could not be seen in terms of the present occupant alone put the
issue in the correct perspective.
The air was also cleared about the government's dealings with Anna
Hazare and Baba Ramdev which had been suggestive of uncertainty
and even panic on its part. The prime minister's view that the
Gandhian was being controlled by "other forces" who wanted
"confrontation" explained why the two fell out despite the earlier
accommodative attitude which led to the formation of a joint
committee on the Lokpal bill. As for the yoga guru, the "effect"
which large crowds have on him was held responsible by the prime
minister for the breakdown in communications between Baba Ramdev
and the government.
Such explanations from Manmohan Singh go a long way to dispel
misgivings and misperceptions, something which the articulations
of even senior ministers or high-ranking party spokespersons fail
to do. For instance, his observation that "development is the
master remedy" and that he has persuaded Environment Minister
Jairam Ramesh to "reverse" some of his positions because "poverty
is the biggest polluter", shows that he remains committed to the
reforms which he initiated two decades ago even though the pace
has slowed down.
By ascribing the deceleration to the Bharatiya Janata Party's
habit of "playing politics", for instance on the implementation of
the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the raising of the FDI
(foreign direct investment) cap to 49 percent in the insurance
sector, he has put the ball in the opposition's court.
On foreign policy, too, some of his comments were highly
significant, such as that America's withdrawal from Afghanistan
will "hurt us" since "no one knows what is going to happen in
Afghanistan" or that "we hope Pakistan will leave Kashmir alone"
or that China is "far ahead of us" in military matters. No one but
the prime minister can be as forthright on these sensitive topics.
It will be a definite gain for the country, therefore, if he keeps
his promise to meet the media more often.
Amulya Ganguli is a
political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com