New Delhi: Six years as Prime Minister have not taken the conservatism of the central banker out of Manmohan Singh. His answers to most questions at Monday's press conference to mark the first anniversary of his second stint in the top job were overly cautious and controlled, one might even say ‘monitorist'. Like a prudential banker, he opted for the path of generating low interest, wary, perhaps, that an expansionary supply of words would only inflate the risk of being misunderstood.
Of course, Dr. Singh spoke passionately on issues closest to his heart or with which he was intimately familiar. These were his efforts to build peace with Pakistan, the complex relationship between himself and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the functioning of his Cabinet and, of course, his own future. His words on all these subjects carried the hallmark of sincerity and conviction. There wasn't a trace of equivocation when he said he had no intention of “retiring” from the job of Prime Minister so long as the work he had started remained unfinished. He confidently brushed aside the idea of a disconnect between party and government and surprised many by seeing virtue in debate and disagreement between his ministerial colleagues, so long as the airing of differences was first done in the Cabinet.
Little or no information
But on virtually every other issue, he yielded little or no information and barely ventured to stake out a position. There were no less than 17 questions of the 55 he was asked to which he provided generic answers. Of the boilerplate — “When the time comes, we will take appropriate decisions in all these matters” or “Every possible effort is being made and will be made to find amicable solution to these problems” or “the law should be allowed to take its course” — variety.
So it was that he told the country affirmative action for Dalits and tribals in the private sector — a promise the Congress had made in 2004 — required the “right atmosphere” while progress on delinking black money from politics needed “consensus”. The Telangana question was now being examined by a committee so it would be “difficult for me to offer any meaningful comment.” On whether a caste census might be divisive or not, all he would say is that “the process of examining [the inclusion of caste] is on.” On illegal mining in Orissa, “if anything concrete comes to the attention of the government, we will take effective action,” he said. On the failure of his government to grant sanction to prosecute soldiers accused by the CBI of murdering villagers in Kashmir, “I will look into it.”
The Home Minister's controversial demand for an “expanded mandate” to deal with the Maoist insurgency was also stonewalled. “These are issues which are strategy issues which will be discussed in the appropriate forum of the Cabinet whenever the opportunity arises,” he said.
This refusal to take a position on a range of issues that have animated public discourse over the past few weeks and months and which concern the lives of millions means that as and when the Prime Minister and his government take decisions, these will end up becoming even more divisive. Governments can carry their public along on difficult policy matters only when some effort is made to convince them about the necessity for a particular course of action. Dr. Singh has not flinched from arguing in favour of engagement with Pakistan but today neither he nor Ms. Gandhi is willing or able to play that role on pressing domestic issues. If, for example, the government really believes the execution of Afzal Guru could generate a negative political dynamic in the Kashmir valley, it should have the courage to make that argument. If, as the Prime Minister once said, minorities and other marginalised sections ought to have first claims on government resources — a Gandhian principle that is perfectly in harmony with the requirements of true democracy — he ought to lead from the front in taking the argument to the wider public. If he believes the private sector needs to do more to provide opportunities to India's Dalits and tribals, he could have used the press conference to make that point, even if a government decision is still some way away.
Political parties cannot serve as vehicles for enlightened decision-making, for raising the level of society's consciousness, if their leaders are going to shy away from taking a stand.