Manmohan Singh asserts himself
New Delhi, June 29
So far, he has maintained a guarded silence as the series of scams saw the credibility of his government fall precipitously. But in his first major interaction with the Press in recent months, which he restricted to a select group of five print editors, including that of The Tribune, Manmohan Singh made it clear that he was still very much in command. But he appeared deeply anguished, even wounded, by the barrage of public criticism that has dented his otherwise impeccable integrity stating, “I have spent 18 hours a day on my work without any holidays. It will be wrong to say that I am not affected by such things - it does affect me.”
He was candid about his concerns stating, “Frankly speaking, if our country is besieged with this constant sniping whether between the government and the Opposition or civil society and an atmosphere of cynicism is created all around. I think the entrepreneurial impulses of our people would not have a full play if this continues. We need a strong mechanism to track down criminal elements, but in all these, my worry is to avoid a situation where we convert this vast country of over 1.2 billion people into a state where everybody is policing everybody else. We must not bring back the licence-permit raj which we abolished in 1991.”
While doubts persist about Manmohan Singh’s ability to pull his government out of the rut it has fallen into, to his credit, in the 100-odd minutes he spent with the editors, he showed his willingness to tackle the problems his government faced head-on, was clear on his views on how to deal with corruption, told civil society where he would draw the line, set out a clear agenda for his government, was confident of his equations with Sonia Gandhi, deftly tackled questions about Rahul Gandhi and was combative when talking about how the Opposition parties were derailing vital reform. Yet, he was careful not to get personal or indulge in backbiting and kept the focus largely on national and international issues. The big message: Despite the setbacks, Manmohan Singh is still king and was willing to go the distance to complete his second term.
On the issue of corruption and tackling black money, Manmohan Singh took pains to point out that long before civil society (read Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev) got into the act, his government was moving towards bringing in a strict regulatory mechanism that would curb malpractices and bring wrongdoers to book. He asserted, “We are not doing anything under duress. Corruption is a big issue that has caught the imagination of the people and we will deal with it firmly. Let me say, while the Lokpal is an essential, desirable legislation, we will honestly work towards evolving a broad-based national consensus so that we have viable statute in place which will give us a strong Lokpal. There are differences, there will be differences, but there are mechanisms to resolve those differences.”
To a question posed by The Tribune about his views on whether the Prime Minister should come under the Lokpal, he stated, “I for one have no hesitation to bring myself under its purview. But there are many of my colleagues in the Cabinet who feel strongly about bringing the institution of the Prime Minister under the Lokpal. Even some Chief Ministers have spoken against it. They feel it will create an element of instability, which, at times, can go out of hand. I hope that some sense will prevail and we would still work to find a way out. Also, the PM is equally covered by the anti-corruption Act. And one can dismiss the Prime Minister of India most easily. All that is necessary is for Parliament to pass a vote of no confidence. We have many effective mechanisms in our place. We have to find a way forward.”
The Prime Minister was careful to state that he welcomed civil society interaction but expressed disappointment that they were not playing by the rules. He said, “I consciously created a system where our government should reach out to all civil society. We need their inputs and their support to carry out social and economic transformation of the type we need in our country. But I also expected them to play by the rules of the game. No group, howsoever important, can insist that their views A to Z are the last word on what the people of India need. There are very many other layers in opinion, including the Parliament and the judiciary. It is still my hope that we can work together with political parties to evolve a national consensus.”
Making it clear that he would not be pushed around by Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev, he stated, “I recognise we need the Lokpal Bill, even though I don’t believe that the Lokpal is a panacea.
The way the Anna Hazare group wants to enlarge its mandate — they want 15,000 people independent of the existing intelligence agencies and prosecuting agencies to cover every single civil servant of the Centre and state — I worry whether the system will be able to stand the strain. Let us concentrate on corruption in high places,which is most obnoxious, which invites wrath. That is a justified concern and wherever possible, we will act, and act firmly.”
About bringing the judiciary under the purview of the Lokpal, the Prime Minister indicated that he had misgivings about it. He said, “I have been talking to a number of people about this in the judiciary and they have grave reservations of including the higher judiciary. Many ask why set up a separate mechanism since we will soon have the Judicial Accountability Bill and we have a new set up in the judicial selection board, which will look into all complaints against judges. How will Supreme Court pronounce judgment on complex issues if they are subject to the restrictions of the Lokpal?
Several distinguished luminaries have questioned this particular provision to include the higher judiciary in the Jan Lokpal Bill, pointing that this runs contrary to the constitutional scheme of things. The judiciary must be encouraged to find ways and means to regulate its own affairs consistent with the spirit of the Constitution. That is my very preliminary feeling. I would like to hear from the political parties and if necessary we should hear other views also about what they are thinking on this matter.” Despite certain sections in the Congress rooting for Rahul Gandhi to take over as Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh exuded confidence that there would be no change in leadership. He stated, “The Congress party and the Congress president has entrusted me with this job to do. I have not heard any contrary view from the Congress high command. In fact, the high command has been highly supportive, particularly Mrs Gandhi. But if you ask me the general perception that younger people should take over I think it is the right sentiment. Whenever the Congress party makes up its mind I have no objection to stepping down. But so long as I am there, I have a job to do.”
To a question by The Tribune about the doubts of the longevity of the UPA Government with the coalition showing signs of cracking up, the Prime Minister’s answer showed that his political instincts remained well-honed. He said, “There are some points of tension. But I am confident that no one wants an election at this time. Therefore, the self-preservation instinct will work towards our advantage. And we can manage these tensions of the coalition.”
About the reform process and whether the UPA Government would be able to sustain it, the Prime Minister appeared clear as to what the priorities where. He said, “The first thing is basically to sustain the momentum of growth that we have built. The second thrust is on infrastructure and to ensure that it is managed well. It is in this context that the procurement system in the public sector must be made more transparent. We are working towards a law in public procurement, which will lay more emphasis on transparency. Then there are newer issues that have arisen with regard to management of scarce natural resources, particularly the land question. The Land Acquisition Bill requires modification. It is also my hope that we would soon have a working draft of the Food Security Bill. And with regard to education and rural health, we have a large agenda. We have to start a system of vocational educational and skill formation.” He wanted the Opposition to stop playing politics and to help the government pass certain vital bills like the Goods and Service Tax Bill and also the bill to increase the share of FDI for insurance firms and also for the retail sector.
Coming to the internal situation in the country, Manmohan Singh squashed hopes of certain sections in the Jammu and Kashmir state Congress of a
When asked, he stated clearly: “There was a decision of the Congress high command that they (the National Conference) would have a full-term as Chief Minister. We have done nothing to reverse that decision.”
About the current situation in Kashmir, the Prime Minister stated that the situation had improved but cautioned: “We have to be on our guard. We hope Pakistan will leave Kashmir alone, because they have their own share of internal problems. Tourists are returning. We have to keep our fingers crossed.”
On inflationary trends across the country, he said much of the problem was because of the international economic scenario and pressures. But he said that the government was taking steps to bring down inflation to 6.5 per cent by March next year.