The first column of a new year should have an element of good cheer,a hint of levity,so I cannot make the Prime Ministers dreary press conference the core of this piece. At the same time,no responsible political columnist can totally ignore so rare an occurrence as a press conference by Dr Manmohan Singh,so I shall bring it in tangentially. In any case,it relates to the subject I planned to write about before he chose to speak to the media for only the third time in a decade of deep silences. Why did he choose this particular cold winters day? What did he expect to achieve? I do not know.
What I do know is that,if he thought that by giving his government a good report and pronouncing that history would judge him kindly,he might lessen the disenchantment and defeatism that envelops the Congress,he was wrong. The rats of Lutyens Delhi,dear Prime Minister,are already beginning to desert the ship. Among those quietly building bridges with the BJP and Aam Aadmi Party are high officials,low officials,big businessmen and small,high-minded editors,lowly reporters and even socialites and shopkeepers. That is how it always has been in this city that has been ruled by conquerors,kings and more recently by the most powerful democratically elected Dynasty in history.
First,let me give credit to the friend (she knows who she is) who gave me the idea to write a piece on turncoats. It was at the inaugural of a BJP chief minister and behind us sat an array of famously obsequious Congress sycophants. What were they doing at a BJP gathering in which the loudest cheers were for the hated Mr Narendra Modi? These people,who for years have used secularism as their reason for being devotees of the Dynasty and for despising the BJP,had overnight changed their political stripes. Why? For the simple reason that they have noticed that the Congress has virtually conceded defeat. In private conversations and public,senior Congress leaders admit that the only hope they have of stopping Modi is Arvind Kejriwal. When senior leaders start speaking this way,it does not take long for rats and other survivors to get the message.
Could it be because of this that the Prime Minister chose this moment to have a press conference? Has the smell of rotting floorboards and the scurrying of fleeing rats reached the rarefied heights he inhabits? Could that be why he began his press conference by announcing that India was now set for better times? It was not the only deception he tried to effect. He conceded that there had been an economic slowdown but blamed this on global factors.
Later,in answer to a question,he was a little more truthful and admitted that there had been domestic factors like the slowness with which projects were cleared by the Ministry of Environment,that virtually reinvented the licence raj. What he did not admit was that his environment ministers acted against his wishes because they believed they were acting on the wishes of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. What he did not admit was that foreign investors fled when they noticed that his government had introduced such things as retrospective taxes and midstream changes in policy.
There were other attempts at deception. He admitted that prices had become uncontrollable in recent months but again refused to blame his policies,choosing instead to blame it on higher consumption patterns in rural India. His government had given rural India a new deal,he said,that had resulted in wages going up and real consumption per capita increasing four times faster.
As a former fan of Dr Manmohan Singh,what saddened me about his press conference was his praise for what had been achieved during his tenure in education and healthcare. Before saying this,he would have done well to visit any government school in a village and compare it with the number of private English medium schools that now compete with it. Before praising his rural health mission,he would have done well to go to any rural government hospital and compare its services with the hundreds of private clinics and hospitals that have burgeoned because public health services remain so abysmal.
The enduring impression for me of his press conference was that the good doctor appears finally to have become a real politician. It is his bad luck that this has happened too late. He has graciously announced that he will not be seeking a third term in office without noticing that this is not really an option since there are very few indications that he can lead his party to victory once more. This is why the sound of scurrying rats is heard so clearly these days in Lutyens Delhi.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @tavleen_singh
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