Cong would have done better to let PM tackle graft

For about a minute in his nearly 2-hour press interaction, PM shows he is no robot, even throws down gauntlet at Modi. But then pulls back on the front where he should have spoken at length

shantanu

Shantanu Datta | January 3, 2014


Manmohan Singh: hit wicket or not, he sure seemed to be batting with the willow tied to Sonia-Rahul Gandhi`s pads.
Illustration: Ashish Asthana

Question: Why did the robot score over Manmohan Singh when asked ‘who is more robotic among the two of you’?

Answer: In acting robotic, the prime minister failed to press the buzzer in time.

Poor jokes apart, even the robot would honourably step down the dais voluntarily when the best robot award is given out any time soon in Indian politics. “The stage,” as the robot might put it in a rare impromptu address to the media, “is all yours, sir.”

So the fact that the opposition (read the BJP) supporters would tear him apart – posture by posture, line by line, statement by statement – on the social media, and Arun Jaitley and company would repeat it at their own press address, scheduled later in the day, is a no-brainer. What Manmohan Singh, and ergo the Congress party, should be worried about is the opportunity lost.

Having admitted that price-rise and inflation were among the factors that were seen in the “strengthened democracy” in which the people spoke by “voting in record numbers in the recent assembly elections”, leading to the subsequent admission that “my party did not do well in these elections”, the time was ripe to take on the issue that has dragged his, and the party’s name, through the gutters in the last five years. And no prizes for guessing: it is corruption. That he should have as good as bid the next elections goodbye on behalf of the Congress party and then leave all questions regarding corruption and the tainted administration under his watch at the doorsteps of courtrooms and history (in that order) is not exactly understandable.

[Read full text of the PM's speech here]

His prepared speech, where he looks more robotic than his impromptu self, may not have had the scope or offered him the latitude to do so, prepared as it seemed by speech-writers borrowed from Rahul Gandhi’s office with more focus on lessons learnt than what needs to be learnt, but it’s the question-answer session with the media where Singh scored. And it is here where he could have scored further – by coming out ‘clean’. For both Singh, the teacher turned bureaucrat turned ever reluctant politician, and the party, that would have settled a lot of things. The respective images – the immediate and short-term as well as for posterity, or the area Singh thought could be judged best by “history” (he must have used the word some 10 times during the Q and A session) – being just one.

That he did not do so could rankle the Congress party in days to come. That the party could field its vice-president to apply a bit of spin-doctor version of antiseptic on issues of corruption and transparency – and he plays the part by tearing up papers and uttering words like “utter nonsense” – and could not give a free leash to Singh to answer the corruption-related questions freely is a little befuddling. After all, more people would be ready to buy nouns like honesty and transparency from Messrs Manmohan Singh than Messrs Gandhi Junior.

But where Singh could speak his mind – letting it be known in no uncertain terms that “it will be disastrous for the country to have Narendra Modi as the prime minister” in a impassive, unflustered voice was more effective than harangues by all the Congress spokespersons doing the rounds of 9-pm debates on TV put together – he let it out loud and clear. “I do not believe I have been a weak PM,” he said, bringing an end to questioning on those lines. And "If you measure the strength of prime minister by presiding over mass massacre of innocent citizens on streets of Ahmedabad, then I do not believe in it," he added, for greater effect.

Modi and the BJP will of course come back with a riposte – they are past masters at this game – but what Singh did today was perhaps ruffle their feathers a bit. The Congress stood to gain more by ruffling a few more feathers, and for a longer period. For, as they say in cricket, you tend to mishit more after getting flustered – especially from quarters unexpected. As for the rest, there was little to take home from this fairly long press conference but a question back home: why field the PM if he had to play by the book, which everyone has been doing for so many months anyway.

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