At the fag end of his second and last term in office, facing the media for only the third time in ten years, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was left defending his government’s record and the Congress’s positions on controversial issues. Reproduced below are excerpts from the 75-minute interaction
What about the corruption issues which have come to light during UPA-2?
As far as the charges of corruption are concerned, most of these charges relate to the period of UPA-1. Coal block allocation as well as 2G spectrum allocation were both in the era of the UPA-1. We went to the electorate on the basis of our performance in that period, and the people of India gave us the mandate to govern for another five years.
When you look back, do you feel there is something you should have done differently?
I feel somewhat sad, because I was the one who insisted that spectrum allocation should be transparent, it should be fair, it should be equitable. I was the one who insisted that coal blocks should be allocated on the basis of auctions. These facts are forgotten. The Opposition has a vested interest. Sometimes the media play into their hands as well. There were irregularities. But the dimensions of the problems have been overstated by the media, by the CAG sometimes, and by other entities.
You did indicate in your opening remarks that you rule yourself out of a third term. So do you want Rahul Gandhi to be named prime ministerial candidate?
I have indicated in my opening remarks that I am not going to be a candidate for Prime Ministership if the UPA were to come back to power. Rahul Gandhi has outstanding credentials to be nominated as the (Prime Ministerial) candidate. I hope our party will take that decision at the appropriate time.
Have you ever felt like resigning, at any point over the last 9-10 years?
I have never felt like resigning at any time. I have enjoyed doing my work. I have tried to do my work with all honesty, with all sense of integrity, without regard, or fear or favour.
Most Chief Ministers said their defeat was because of price rise. Does it hurt that the blame is being placed at your door?
I will be honest enough to say that, it could be that price rise was a factor in the people’s turning against the Congress party. And I have explained that the reasons why price rise took place are reasons beyond our control, because international commodity prices are rising, because international energy prices are rising. But having said that, I would also like to say that we have taken enough measures to protect the weaker sections of our economy and our society against rising prices.
Are you still hopeful about pushing some reforms agenda?
Reform is not an event, it is a process. Therefore, so long as we are in power, we will continue to push the cause of reform wherever there is scope for it, and if circumstances permit us to go forward.
How do you think the aam aadmi now perceives you, as a politician, as a PM?
I am the same person as I was years ago. There has been no change. I say it in all sincerity that I have tried to serve this country with utmost dedication and commitment and with utmost integrity. I have never used my office to enrich or to reward my friends or my relatives.
What is the state of the Indo-U.S. relations? As your term comes to an end, it seems to have hit rock bottom again.
Our government attaches highest priority to strengthening the strategic partnership between our two countries. There have recently been some hiccups, but I sincerely believe that these are temporary aberrations and diplomacy should be given a chance to resolve these issues that have arisen.
How do you see your legacy in view of the fact that you failed to act?
I honestly believe that history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media, or for that matter, the Opposition parties in Parliament. I cannot divulge all things that take place in the Cabinet system of government. I think, taking into account the circumstances, and the compulsions of a coalition polity, I have done as best as I could under the circumstances.
Do you think Rahul Gandhi vs Narendra Modi is an equal contest? Are you confident he will be able to form the government?
I have full confidence that the next Prime Minister will be from the UPA coalition, and that without discussing the merits of Narendra Modi, it will be disastrous for the country to have Shri Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister.
The BJP and Mr. Modi’s charge against you is that you have been a weak PM.
I do not believe that I have been a weak Prime Minister. That is for historians to judge. The BJP and its associates may say whatever they like. But if by “strong Prime Minister”, you mean that you preside over a mass massacre of innocent citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad, that is the measure of strength, I do not believe that sort of strength this country needs, least of all, in its Prime Minister.
Will you feel historic opportunities on India-Pakistan were missed?
I have tried to improve relations with all our neighbours to the best of my ability. At one time, it appeared that an important breakthrough was in sight. Events in Pakistan, for example, the fact that General Musharraf had to make way for a different setup, I think that led to the process not moving further. But I still believe that good relations between India and Pakistan are very essential for this subcontinent to realise its full development potential.
There has been a perception that decisions are made in 10 Janpath and announced at 7RCR.
The Congress Party President or the Vice-President — if they have any views, they ought to be reflected in the thinking of the government to the extent that it is possible. The fact that Mrs Gandhi or for that matter Rahul Gandhi were there to back the government up, is something which has enabled us to deal with many difficult moments in these nine and a half years. There were, of course, times, when they differed from what the government had done. The government reconsidered those issues, and I don’t think this is wrong, or a disadvantage, to make corrections.
How do you rate the phenomenon of the AAP?
The people have reposed confidence in the AAP party in Delhi. I think we must respect the democratic process. Only time will tell whether this experience is capable of dealing with the challenges that our economy and our polity face.
You keep asking Rahul to join the government, but he keeps refusing.
I have always felt that our government would have been strengthened if Rahul Gandhi was part of the government. But Rahul says that he has responsibilities to the party that do not permit him to join the government, and I respect his sentiment.
Did the Congress leadership ever hint to you to step down before the elections?
I have said what I have to say. But nobody has asked me to step down because of any inadequacies that may have characterised my tenure as Prime Minister.
When are you going to find a permanent settlement to the problem of the Tamil Nadu fishermen?
We have consistently made every effort to persuade the government of Sri Lanka to address the genuine problems of the Tamil population of Sri Lanka. We will continue to do so in the future as well. As far as the fishermen’s fate is concerned, we have on innumerable number of occasions, discussed this matter with the Government of Sri Lanka, and now we find that in northern Sri Lanka, we have a government of the Tamil population themselves. We feel there is an opportunity for the Tamil population of Sri Lanka, and the Tamil population in Tamil Nadu to sit together, to work out an arrangement between the fishermen of the two countries which will be mutually satisfactory. I think this is going to happen.
Your party men also say you are an overrated economist and underrated politician.
When I became Prime Minister, the general perception was that the Congress Party has never been able to run a coalition government. The Congress ability to run a coalition government was to be tested, and we showed that the Congress party can successfully manage the coalition to complete not one, but two terms. In the process, there have been some compromises, but I can assure you that those compromises relate to peripheral areas.