Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's 70-minute interaction with editors of television channels, which was telecast live, is an event of some political significance. It has come at a time when the United Progressive Alliance government is besieged by corruption scandals and issues arising from governance and ethical deficits, policy muddles, and coalition woes. Reaching out to a large national audience by having a free and open interaction with informed journalists is a politically smart idea. But this assumes that the leader has a strong message to communicate and can do it persuasively. Wednesday's event was worthwhile in that we got to know a little more about what has been going on in Dr. Singh's mind than we did before this ‘conversation.' Unfortunately, the terms and format of the interaction imposed severe limitations on the depth of questioning by not allowing any real focus on the key issues raised by the television journalists. But that was not the real problem with the Prime Minister's performance on live television. He had no strong and clear message to communicate on any of the critical issues troubling the people of India — corruption, inflation, livelihood and other economic issues — and therefore failed to persuade.
Dr. Singh did well to announce unequivocally the government's “sovereign policy decision,” even if taken rather late in the day, to go for annulment of the indefensible Antrix-Devas S-band deal. But on the issue at the top of political India's mind — the 2G spectrum allocation scam, where the kingpin, a former Cabinet colleague, is in the custody of the Central Bureau of Investigation and will soon be charge-sheeted, and various others, including those in high places, are presumably being investigated for their misdeeds — he was anything but convincing. Facing questions on how and why he as Prime Minister, who was in communication with Telecom Minister A. Raja in 2007-2008, allowed the so-called First Come, First Served policy of 2G spectrum allocation to go through, he essentially washed his hands of the affair, which resulted in a revenue loss of tens of thousands of crores of rupees. Dr. Singh's defence is four-legged: (a) Mr. Raja, the Telecom Ministry, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the Telecom Commission, and eventually even the Finance Ministry were of “the same view,” namely that “auctions ...[were] not the way forward as far as 2G spectrum ... [was] concerned”; (b) “at that moment, there was no reason to feel that anything wrong had been done”; (c) was the presumptive loss a real ‘loss'? and (d) in any case, coalition compulsions made his party accept its ally's choice of Cabinet Ministers and presumably their ways. This amounts to evading the key issue of prime ministerial accountability for high-stake Cabinet decisions in a parliamentary form of government.