Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s media conference on Friday — just his third in India, in ten years in office — was directed at his place in history as much as the looming general elections. The top line of Dr. Singh’s interaction was, of course, election-related: he announced that he would “hand over the baton” after the elections, a declaration that will open the way for the Congress to name party vice-president Rahul Gandhi its prime ministerial candidate. Mr. Gandhi, he said, had “outstanding credentials” for the job, adding that he had earlier requested him to join the government. Top Congress leaders have gone on record in recent days asserting that Mr. Gandhi’s nomination will be key to the party’s prospects. Dr. Singh clearly concurs. Earlier, some within the Congress had argued that it would be inappropriate to name Mr. Gandhi the party’s candidate when Dr. Singh was at the helm; the Prime Minister has now cleared the decks. The generally soft-spoken Dr. Singh also had unusually strong words of criticism for the man Mr. Gandhi will be taking on — Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. Pointing to Mr. Modi’s stewardship of Gujarat during the 2002 communal pogrom, Dr. Singh said it would be “disastrous” for India to have him as Prime Minister — a frontal attack of the kind many within the Congress had long waited for him to mount.
The Prime Minister also invoked history frequently in his interaction with the media, suggesting he is concerned that his legacy threatens to be washed over by a rising tide of corruption scandals. While describing the India-U.S. nuclear deal as his “best moment”, Dr. Singh drew satisfaction from the point that India’s economy grew faster on average during his time in office than ever before in recorded history in spite of a hostile international economic environment. Dr. Singh argued that at least some of the problems which cost the Congress heavily in the just-concluded elections, notably inflation, are enmeshed in global economic circumstances no national government could have fully addressed. It was clearly Dr. Singh’s attempt to regain the high ground as his government is perceived to be coming increasingly under siege. However, glaringly evident was the Prime Minister’s refusal to acknowledge the UPA’s singular moral culpability for the mega-scandals involving spectrum allocation and coal block allotments. He went on to make the indefensible argument that being elected a second time absolved the UPA from its responsibility to face the corruption charges. Dr. Singh’s complacent recounting of the UPA’s achievements wore thin in the face of the clear dodging of accountability in this regard. The political costs of the UPA’s continuing state of denial are bound to be high.