Vidya Subrahmaniam

New Delhi: The near-consensus as journalists trooped out of the Vigyan Bhawan after their 80-minute Q&A with Manmohan Singh was that the Prime Minister seemed subdued and a tad out of form.

Never the gregarious, expansive sort, the Prime Minister is by habit measured and careful. No ringing assertions or throw-away lines from him. Yet when placed before an energetic audience, he has shown in the past that he can be sharp, incisive and on the occasion even witty. On Monday, the sparkling moments were few and far between; for the most part Dr. Singh was unsmiling, almost perfunctory, as he dismissed questions with an impatience surprising for the occasion — the completion of one year by the second UPA government.

As the first non-Nehru-Gandhi Congress Prime Minister to have completed six years in office, Dr. Singh had an additional reason to celebrate. But if he did feel celebratory, it did not reflect in his manner. Indeed, the bulk of the answers were short and matter-of-fact, placing in comic contrast the journalistic predilection for posing long-winded questions with multiple clauses, often preceded by a longer preamble.

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The press contingent was large and overeager — 300-odd journalists, all clamouring to ask questions but forced to fall in line by the stern advisory: Raise the number placard given to you, and your turn will come. The regional presspersons easily outnumbered their “national” counterparts, and perhaps for that reason got to ask the lion's share of questions, something that usually doesn't happen, and which expectedly was not to the liking of the latter.

Livid at being left out, a senior journalist from a Delhi-based newspaper lit into the media adviser, warning him that he would take the matter to the Prime Minister. The meet wound down with 55 questions asked. Obviously, the irate mediaman was not the only one to miss his turn.

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Asked about the cacophony in his Cabinet, the Prime Minister replied that diverse opinions were bound to be heard in a country of one billion people — except he slipped up on “people” and said “dollars.” Dr. Singh corrected himself quickly but there was some amusement at the Freudian slip since an earlier question put to him was whether he was not too close to the United States.

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An angry editor from Nai Duniya wanted to know if the government planned to take action against political parties and social activists who “sympathised” with Naxals. It was left to the Prime Minister to explain to the hack that India being a democracy, individual citizens were free to express their opinions and follow any ideology of their choice.

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The foreign correspondents were huddled together right at the back, waiting their turn. When a Japanese correspondent from Yomiuri Shimbun finally got called, all eyes turned to him. But instead of the expected heavy weight quizzing on foreign policy, he embarked on a lament about not being able to get the coveted Press Information Bureau card.