Manmohan Singh Looks Back

As he approaches the end of his 10 years as India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh hopes the “history books will be kinder” to him than the media and other critics. That was a recurrent theme at a large press conference lasting about 100 minutes that he gave in Delhi Friday. It was only his third in 10 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. 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 rumored, Rahul Gandhi might announce 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”. He then added that a man who had “presided over massacre of innocents on the streets of Ahmedabad” had not displayed “the kind of strength I will like to have.”

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 apologizing) 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 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, implying hat the electorate had not been bothered. That missed the point that the scandals had not fully surfaced in 2009 and that Singh’s role had fully developed and emerged – firstly with him allowing an implicated telecoms minister to be reappointed (because his party was needed in the new coalition), and second with him being in charge of the coal ministry during for some of that industry’s scandals.

So Manmohan Singh’s reliance on so-far unwritten history 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 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 Gandhis 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 in the past, and a far more significant event also happened in Delhi Friday when Arvind Kejriwal 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.

The implication of that, Singh said, was that coalition governments have to be corrupt in order to keep corrupt parties happy. Kejriwal is setting out to prove otherwise, with Congress supporting his minority government!

While the 81-year old Singh is looking to historians to produce their verdict on him, the 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.

(John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s India correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, appears on this page as well)