With the advantage of hindsight and never having asked any sitting prime minister any questions — I did ask Manmohan Singh at a lunch at the IIC in Delhi in 1999 if he would like a naan, and Tony Blair at a dinner at the 2008 Hindustan Times Leadership Summit whether he smokes — I must say I found Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s press conference on Friday, January 3, 2014 incredibly tepid. And Manmohan Singh was the sparkiest person in that big hall in the Media Centre.
The representatives of the incredibly free and brave India media that have made politicians shudder over the years, seemed to treat the good doc up on the stage sitting next to his manager for the day, I&B minister Manish Tiwari, not so much with kid gloves as much as treat him as if he was the Ophthalmologist Uncle to whom the nation’s press had come for a check-up.
But this being Bollywood country, where no matter what elders are treated with utmost respect if not separated by the partition of a television camera or an opinion page, even if the elder happens to be Uncle ND Tiwari, politeness overrides whatever sharp, pricking questions that may have been forthcoming when the encounter is a face-to-face. The prime minister, as a result, faced a barrage of journalists who mostly spouted longish editorials that ended, at best with a quiet, rhetorical question. Manmohan Singh, at the fag end of his tenure, must have wondered why he didn’t meet the press more often. Considering despite all his notorious silence and mumblings, he actually made a better answerer, pretty much deflecting every query with a parry, than the journalists came across as questioners.
Tiwari set the pigeons among the pet cats by referring to some selected members of the media as “honourable representatives” of their respective organisations. That by itself must have further blunted any “awkward” questions, since “honourable representative” almost sounds as comfy as a Rajya Sabha nomination in these inflationary times.
Here’s a roster of questions from the journalists who drilled (sic) the PM in a manner that a lawyer questioning his client on the dock would be proud of:
* The honourable representative of Press Trust of India, Ajay Kaul:
After this assembly elections, in which Congress faced a drubbing, much churning is going on within the Congress. Do you think that the Congress should now formally announce a prime ministerial candidate?
Clearly, the honourable Mr Kaul either doesn’t read the papers, or he expected the prime minister to suddenly announce: “No. I don’t think the Congress should now or at any point formally announce a prime ministerial candidate.” Singh instead replied that the Congress president had already stated that it will announce the bloke shortly.
* The honourable representative of Dainik Bhaskar, Pankaj Pandey:
First, congratulations for completing your two terms as PM. My question is: from UPA 1 to UPA 2, one after another there have been corruption cases. Don’t you think that at the time of your leaving the prime ministership, your Mr Clean image has been tarnished? And because of that, a new party in the country, the AamAadmi Party, has been born?
Did Mr Kaul really think the PM would answer, “Yes. I’m feeling rotten about being surrounded by crooks and them taking cover behind my back. Actually, let me resign now that you’ve shamed me publicly here today. Oh, and yes. That’s why there’s the AAP. I think I’m going to join them!”
* Representative of The Times of India, Rajeev Deshpande [Please note Manish Tiwari dropping the “honourable” honorific]:
You’ve just said that many of these corruption cases related to UPA 1 and thereafter you returned to power and completed your second term in office. At the same time, sir, these scandals, whether the Commonwealth Games, 2G or coal allocations have cost your government a great deal. So when you look back at it were there some things that you would have rather done differently and what would they be?
This is the question after Manmohan Singh replied to the previous question by essentially saying that all the corruption-related things happened during the UPA 1’s tenure. What’s all that got to do with the UPA 2? This is the question after Manmohan Singh said that the UPA was re-elected to power despite all these corruption charges swirling around it and the people didn’t care so “What you gonna do about it, boyo?” Deshpande must be kicking himself for not asking, “So according to the same logic, do you think the NarendraModi government that has been re-elected twice in Gujarat after the 2002 riots has the same kind of electorally sanctioned clean chit?”
* The honourable representative of CNN-IBN,Pallavi Ghosh:
You did indicate in your opening speech that you rule yourself out of a third term should the UPA come back to power. So is it Rahul Gandhi’s time? Do you want him to be named as the prime ministerial candidate? And do you rule out an active political life after the 2014 elections for yourself?
Rahul Gandhi has “outstanding credentials” for presidentship, the prime minister said in response. A slip? Or an incredibly canny reply to a question-on-a-loop from a Rahul-obsessed national media that the Gandhi will obviously become Congress president, if not the country’s prime minister? We’ll now never know, shall we?
* Representative of ABP News, Shazi Zaman.
In the last nine-ten years did you ever face a difficult time when you felt that you should tender your resignation?
No, Mr Zaman. I don’t think the PM will tell you with some 100-odd other journos and the rest of us looking in on Doordarshan that he wanted to chuck it all up a few times but stayed.
* The honourable representative of Malayalam Manorama, Sachitanand Murthy.
Basically, looking at UPA 1 and UPA 2, UPA 1 benefited from having a common minimum programme, an active coordination committee but you jettisoned that for UPA 2. Did it come in the way because you shed very valuable allies like the Trinamool and DMK? Do you think in hindsight, if UPA 3 comes to power, it should have a CMP?
Which brings one to the end of a fine op-ed piece, not a question for a lameduck PM from a party that has just suffered defeats in four states.
* The Honourable Representative of Business Standard, Aditi Phadnis.
The Congress defeat in the assembly elections, in a review of chief ministers, many chief ministers, in fact most of them said that their defeat was because of price rise. So does it hurt that all the blame is being laid at your door? And also, we notice that the diesel prices have not been hiked this year. We also hear that subsidised gas cylinders, the number has already gone up from 6 to 9 and is likely to go up to 12. So does this mean your government is reviewing its policy on subsidies as a fallout of the defeat in the assembly elections?
Ah, at last an economic policy question that says more than it seeks out to know. And sure enough, the PM monotones out “Que sera sera, what will be, will be. It’s not for us to see, que sera sera”.
* Representative from Urdu Press, SM Asif.
My question to you is when you had come with your manifesto, you had promised to implement the recommendations of the Sachar Committee. You have undertaken a lot of schemes for the minority community. But why is it that these schemes don’t reach ordinary people?
Another question outside the off-stump ready to be left by the batsman. A few homilies about uplift for the minorities and trying to make these schemes reach every common man from the minority community and the PM’s riding on to the next question.
* Honourable representative of Dainik Jagran, Raj Kishore:
My question is that over the last ten years, you have been accused of being silent. Even in the Congress Party you are believed to not give political answers. What has stopped you in the last ten years? And do you think that there was a time when you should have spoken out but couldn’t?
Another question that we all want to know the answer to, but not till Jayanti Natarajan becomes the prime minister of India will any prime minister answer that. That’s like answering the school principal’s question, “Do you have lustful thoughts about your biology teacher?”
* The representative of Hindustan Times, Saubhadra Chatterjee.
Sir, with elections due in barely four months, are you still hopeful about pushing more reforms agenda? And if so, what will be your priorities?
Well, of course he’s hopeful laddie. And what that Koffee with Karan-kind of question got is a nifty line from the PM: “Reforms is not an event, but a process.” Boy, some newspaper may have just got a headline!
* The Honourable Representative of Times Now, Navika Kumar.
My question to you is related to corruption. You, time and again every year, have written to your ministers to write down and submit to your office all their business interests so that decisions taken by them can be transparent. Now we see a similar example happening in a Congress-ruled state in Himachal Pradesh. Virbhadra Singh, sitting in cabinet meetings deciding on issues that are related to a company that his family and he himself have business involvements with. Do you think that’s proper?
This question starts with a great deal of promise. The probing facts leading to some prodding, turning into a needling and then…a rhetorical “Aren’t you ashamed, just a wee bit?”
If the PM’s response –“I’m sorry, I’m not able to comment on what you’re referring to happening in Himachal Pradesh. I’ve seen some newspaper reports. I’ve also received a letter on 29th of December by Shri ArunJaitley. But I haven’t had the time to apply my mind to it about what is the truth in these allegations.”– isn’t clever, I don’t know what an anti-climax is.
* Representative of NDTV India,HimanshuShekhar:
Prime Minister Sir, I had the privilege to attend your first press conference after you became the prime minister. At that time, all of us had this perception that Manmohan Singh has a very clean image, a very non-political person has become the prime minister, an economist has become the prime minister with a good proven track record. Nine and a half years later, how do you think, an AamAadmi now perceives you? As a politician?As a prime minister?
Well, I am the same person as I was nine years ago. There has been no change. I say it with all sincerity that I have tried to serve this country with utmost dedication and commitment and with integrity. I have never used my office to enrich or to reward my friends or my relatives.
* Representative from Washington Post, Rama Lakshmi:
Mr Prime Minister, I would like to ask you about the state of Indo-US relations now. This has been a big agenda in UPA 1 with the nuclear deal. But as your term comes to an end, it looks like it has hit rock bottom again. Would you like to comment on that?
Priority to strengthen strategic partnership yadayadayada
* The Representative from DY365, Rama Sharma:
My question is that difficult terrain is become a very common reason for those government project implementation agenda in the northeast, whether it is the incomplete Indo-Bangladesh border issue or Simsar Landing border railway project. So what is the things? So did your government ever try to overcome this difficult land issue?
PM didn’t understand.
So she moves on to another question: Sir, can I ask one more question? Regarding animals. Regarding rhino killings, sir? This is very important for us. Rhino killings have become rampant in Assam. Assam Government’s raised forest battalion but this is still going on. Do you feel that central government should step in to protect rhino?
Rhino is a national asset. Every effort should be made and will be made to protect this precious animal.
* Representative from NDTV, Mr Sunil Prabhu:
Mr Prime Minister, sir, my question is very simple and straightforward…But personally many will accuse you. As you said, history will be kind and you will come unscathed. But many will look at you personally as being unable to actually act or rein in your own Cabinet ministers. The fact that you allowed a situation to go out of hand.That you failed to act politically which was required. And that you kept going back to a core group or to various other people but refused to act. And that is why we came to a state that even the Supreme Court asked the Prime Minister’s Office and even indicted it for various acts of omission and commission. So how do you respond to that politically? And how do you see your legacy because of your failure of you to act?
That’s not a question. That’s a programme. But once again, apart from the PM’s response being smartly shorter than the question, we got a tinkler quote from the man: “Well, I honestly believe that history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media are.” Did Manmohan Singh spill his guts about his bad handling of corruption in his government? Nope.
The other questions went about in the same kind of tea-time skippety way.The journos either holding forth as if they were Parliamentarians for a day rather than seeking answers to tough questions, or looping round and round stale ones. Manini Chatterjee of The Telegraph must have come in late because she essentially repeated CNN-IBN’s Pallavi Ghosh’s question about Manmohan Singh’s post-retirement plan: “You’ve already declared that you won’t be UPA 3’s prime ministerial candidate… Do you plan to retire and write your memoirs and play with your grandchildren or play an active role in government?”
Sanjay Mishra of Amar Ujala brought up the matter of compensation for the 1984 Sikh riots in Delhi. “You had gone to Amritsar. Ten years later, you have not brought justice.” This at least elicited a nervous response from the Sikh prime minister: “Our government has done quite a lot.” He reminded Mishra that he had publicly apologised to the Sikh community in Parliament and that as far as compensation is concerned, one couldn’t adequately compensate for lives lost but wherever possible the UPA had done its bit. Here was the PM, at last, being left standing above a hole.
Otherwise, the questions were more of “What’s your finest hour and lowest moment?”,“What’s your thoughts about the economy?”,“What’s your message to foreign investors?”,“Do you conduct regular performance reviews of ministers?”,“Can you get a handle on inflation at the fag end of your tenure?”,“Does Sonia Gandhi get in the way?”. Short of “Do you love mooli ke sabzi”, on the whole, Friday’s press conference showed that when India’s famously brazen political journalists meet the Man they’ve been rightly slagging for at least the last five years, they suddenly become nephews and nieces at Mamu’s home. All this, while somewhere beyond the rainbow a television anchor with no fear plays “The Nation wants to know!” with himself.
God, I so missed the only real hardnosed quizzer in Indian journalism at the PM’s press con on Thursday: bushy-browed Karan. Not Johar, but Thapar.