Dear PM, why was the press meet held at all?

Last Updated: Sat, Jan 04, 2014 01:56 hrs

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a master of the art of saying very little. And that is how it was on Friday when he held only his third press conference in the 10 years he has been prime minister.

So the question must be asked: why was the press conference held at all?

To say goodbye and to inform us that he has not decided what he will do after retirement in May?

That his greatest achievement was to manage a motley coalition of political parties for not one but two terms, so what if there was so much corruption about?

That Rahul Gandhi is the answer to India's prayers? That Sonia Gandhi supported him throughout in each and every thing he did or tried to do?

That Narendra Modi as prime minister will be disastrous for the country?

That the economy has done very well in average terms since 2004, never mind the last three years when it has gone down the tube?

That the severe food inflation since 2008 is not his government's fault, but in any case higher food prices help farmers so maybe it is a good thing after all?
Or was it all just a result of the persistent importuning by his minister for information, Manish Tewari, who wanted at least one prime ministerial press conference under his belt?

Whatever the motivation for the press conference, it was impossible not to detect a sense of relief in him. Thank god, his demeanour suggested, that in five months all this will be someone else's problem.

Whose idea was it anyway?

At 81, and after five years of being the butt of insults and ridicule, he is entitled to that feeling. After all, it was not his idea that he should be prime minister.

Sonia Gandhi came up with that one, not in 2004 but, say those in the know, as far back as 1998 when she thought she had the required majority. That was when, it will be recalled, she made that famous statement in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan that she had the magic number of 272.

Should Dr Singh have declined the offer? By accepting it, has he not made the biggest mistake of his career, which, until then, had gone wonderfully smoothly?

It was a mistake because even as far back as the mid-1980s, he had absolutely no illusions about what the Congress party had become under the Gandhi family. He described it once to someone I know very well as a "Mughalia durbar", where survival and progress required total loyalty and obedience to the family.

Even more amazing is the fact that between 1991, when he became finance minister, and 1998, when he was leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, he had not met Sonia Gandhi.

But soon after she became the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, they had to interact - at first through chits that were carried by her secretary, who also happened to be a former student of Dr Singh. When he and she finally started meeting, she was quick to notice his suitability for the job. The rest is history.

Seat warmer

Many people think that it was a big mistake to have separated the posts of the Congress president and the prime minister. They are wrong because in all the better democracies, the party chairman and the head of the government are two separate people. That is how it should be and was in India also for a long time.

In India, however, a problem has arisen because of single-leader parties. If that leader doesn't head the government, the person who does head it becomes completely ineffective because even if the head of the party doesn't encourage it, the rest of the party people prefer to behave like his or her servants.

You can see this in all the regional parties. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United), Samajwadi Party, Trinamool Congress, Biju Janata Dal, Akali Dal, Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party - you name it, they are all like the princely states of old.

To her credit, it must be said that Sonia Gandhi never encouraged anyone in the party to speak against Dr Singh. But she did tell him that the Congress had to stay in power whatever it took. Nothing hobbled him more than that.

And the reason she asked him to hang in there was perhaps that it was taking Rahul Gandhi an awfully long time to accept the fact that he would have to, whether he liked it or not, be in politics for the rest of his life. (The only person who can relieve him of the misery is, ironically, Narendra Modi).

From 2009, therefore, Dr Singh knew he was only keeping the seat warm for Mr Gandhi - who may actually have left it a bit too late because if Narendra Modi does manage to become prime minister, it will take a long time for the Congress to return to power.

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