The Prime Minister is carrying out his responsibilities with great dignity in the face of unrelenting hostility, Ms Gandhi said

A combative UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, clearly in battle mode, forcefully defended Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday night against the unrelenting criticism he has been facing recently even as she tore into the Bharatiya Janata Party for disrupting Parliament and blocking the passage of key laws.

“The Prime Minister is carrying out his responsibilities with great dignity in the face of unrelenting hostility and abuse from the Opposition,” Ms. Gandhi said in her speech at the UPA’s ninth anniversary celebrations, stressing, “We respect him, and we all stand by him.”

She said the UPA government, the Congress and its coalition partners “have all worked closely and unitedly all these years … to pursue our policies and programmes, and provide effective governance.” The UPA was, therefore, “not going to be deterred or distracted by the drummed up noise being created around us,” she said, expressing the government’s determination to pass the food security and land acquisition Bills and asking the government to “impart new energy” to the Aap Ka Paisa, Aap Ke Haath initiative.

It was the battle cry that gathered UPA MPs wanted to hear.

If that was the uncompromising message from the stage, later during dinner on the lawns of the Prime Minister’s residence, Ms. Gandhi told journalists — in answer to a question — that there were no differences between her and the Prime Minister, that the party had a system of collective leadership, and that it would be a joint election campaign for 2014. This was a line party vice-president Rahul Gandhi — who sat along with the UPA brass on stage for the first time — repeated later to the media.

Later, the Prime Minister, responding to a question on the BJP’s attack on the UPA, said, “What else do you expect from a non-result oriented Opposition? ... There is lot of motivated criticism. Sometimes there are attempts to derail us.”

Asked about his current state of mind, he quoted one of his favourite poets, Iqbal: “Sitaron se aage jehan aur bhi hain … (there are many other worlds beyond these stars),” an indication that Dr. Singh has not yet given up the fight.

This was evident in his speech, too, as the Prime Minister emphasised that six per cent growth in the current year will set the stage for returning to an eight per cent growth rate in the current Five Year-Plan period ending March 31, 2017: “This will be difficult, but it is not impossible,” he said, pointing out, “We have done it before, and if we receive a mandate next year, we will certainly achieve it again.”

Taking on allegations of corruption in allocation of telecom spectrum and coal mines head on, the Prime Minister not only promised to punish wrongdoers but said all future allotment of scarce natural resources would happen only through “more transparent systems, i.e. auctions rather than relying on administrative allocations.”

If last year’s anniversary celebrations had seen both Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad on stage, this year, the SP leader was missing, not turning up even for dinner — nor, indeed, sending a representative. But Mr. Prasad and Lok Janshakti Party chief Ramvilas Paswan were seated on the dais, along with the top UPA leaders, hinting at the possibility of the Congress forging an alliance with the RJD and the LJP for 2014. The stage also looked emptier, thanks to the exit of two key allies, the DMK and the Trinamool Congress.

An interesting addition to the guests seated at Ms. Gandhi’s table at dinner was a bearded MP no one recognised: it turned out to be the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s Sanjay Kumar, a Rajya Sabha MP, indicating the possibility of a Congress-JMM government soon in Jharkhand, currently under President’s Rule.

Also seated at the same table was Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s former alter ego Amar Singh: he turned up at the celebrations with SP MP Jayaprada in tow — the buzz is she will be shortly joining the Congress. And finally, though BSP leader Mayawati did not show up, her two MPs, Satish Mishra and Brajesh Pathak, came — all given pride of place at Ms. Gandhi’s table.

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