The 80-minute-long press conference by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can be summarised in six words: he came, he saw, he prevaricated. Being only the second press conference addressed by the prime minister during his six years in office, it was expected to be eventful, if not path-breaking, coinciding as it did with the completion of the first year in his second stint.
As expected, the media had a lot to ask. But over the years Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears to have mastered the art of staving off uncomfortable questions by blurting out cliches which have become regular idioms of conventional politics. For example, he would not commit himself if Union telecommunications minister A Raja was involved in a dubious telecom deal. On the other hand, he skillfully shifted the blame on the policies outlined during the NDA regime in 2003. Does this mean he exonerated Raja? Not at all, he said that the CVC and the CBI have been investigating the case. In a classical case of maintaining studied ambiguity, the PM neither absolved nor charged Raja of his guilt.The cliched expression on corruption was that “it will not be tolerated”.
Similarly, would anyone believe him when he says that the CBI is an independent agency? There are many instances to prove that the CBI is nothing but a hand-maiden of the government of the day to serve its political purpose. And Singh is not so naïve to not know this harsh reality. In fact, the manner in which Ottavio Quttrochi's account in London was de-freezed by the CBI during Singh's first term as prime minister was a glaring testimony to the agency's amenability to political masters. That the CBI cases can be used as damocles' sword on Opposition leaders is proven beyond doubt when Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati were persuaded to fall in line with the government during the cut motions. Here again, the Prime minister used the cliched expression, “The CBI is autonomous”.
However, even the most consummate practitioner often gives away some inner secrets. This was evident when Manmohan Singh while responding to a query about on-going sniping against one another within the union cabinet said that it was improper for him to discuss what transpired between him and his cabinet colleagues in a “broad daylight”. Though unintended, Singh has implied that governance has to be opaque and conspiracy of silence is an essential component of statecraft.
No doubt the press conference was a masterful show of Singh's skills at fielding all uncomfortable questions without giving his own view -- a trait which seems to be the hallmark of the Indian political class in general. For instance, he did not see any lack of coordination between the government and the Congress on the issues pertaining to Indian formulation at Sharm-al-sheikh, Naxalism and RTI. He went overboard to convince the media that he was getting regular and able “guidance" from AICC president Sonia Gandhi in their one-on-one weekly meetings. That Sonia Gandhi wrote a letter to the PM on the RTI expressing her views divergent from the PMO can be nothing but intellectual digression! This is what Singh wants us to believe.
In fact, the Prime Minister's press conference after a gap of four years should make some bold announcements. This is believed to be an opportunity where the country's chief political executive is expected to be forthcoming, not evasive, in speaking his mind on issues that can develop an instant rapport with people. However, Singh's performance belied such expectations.