New Delhi: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday announced his virtual retirement from politics saying he would not be in contention for a third term in office even if the ruling coalition gets a third consecutive term.
Singh also launched a scathing attack on the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, accusing him of presiding over the mass massacre of Muslims during the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat.
Addressing a press conference at Vigyan Bhavan, packed with national, international and regional media, Singh, however, sounded confident that the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) would emerge victorious in the April-May general elections.
The normally soft-spoken Singh, who is often accused of not speaking up, launched his strongest attack on Modi, who heads the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Gujarat. “Without going in the credentials of anyone, I think it will be disastrous for the country to have Narendra Modi as the PM. [Being a] strong leader does not mean you preside over the mass massacre of people in Ahmedabad,” Singh said.
Singh’s contentious remark over Modi drew criticism from the BJP. “Such a comment is laughable,” BJP’s national president Rajnath Singh said pointing out the clean chit given to Modi recently by an Ahmedabad court on recommendations of the Supreme Court appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) that said they had no evidence against Modi.
“PM says Narendra Modi becoming PM will be disastrous. Mr PM it was your 10 years that have been disastrous for India and its people,” BJP spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain said.
Singh’s announcement not to seek a third term in office came amid speculations that he would step down as the prime minister ahead of the fast approaching general elections, touted to be the toughest ever since the Congress party-led UPA came to power in 2004 due to its falling popularity graph and the Congress party’s debacle in the just concluded state legislative assembly elections.
“I will continue (as prime minister) till 2014 Lok Sabha elections. After that I will hand over the baton to a new prime minister. I hope it will be a UPA-chosen prime minister,” Singh said in his opening remarks of the press conference, the first in the last four years.
Replying to a question, Singh asserted that the Congress party vice-president, expected to be named as the UPA’s prime ministerial candidate later this month, has excellent credentials to lead the country. “I will not be candidate for prime ministership if UPA comes 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 an appropriate time,” Singh said.
Singh’s interaction with media lasted for nearly 90 minutes where his minister for information and broadcasting Manish Tewari played the moderator. Tewari called journalists by name and their organisations to listen to their questions and expressed regret at the end for not calling on every due to paucity of time.
The prime minister wearing a navy blue turban in place of his trademark light blue turban sat through the session patiently.
He, however, preferred to ignore replying to difficult questions and ended up replying in his typical monosyllabic style, giving enough hints why he avoided meeting the press for the past four years, something that used to be an annual feature during his first five years in office.
Singh refused to take the blame for reasons given by the Congress party for its debacle in four of the five states that went to polls last year-end including rampant corruption charges and price rises and astounded everyone by blaming UPA–I for all allegations of corruption against his government.
“All corruption allegations like the 2G spectrum allocation and coal block allocation took place in UPA–I (2004-2009),” Singh said, washing his hands of the issue even though he was the prime minister during that period and held direct charge of the coal ministry when coal blocks were allocated at throwaway prices.
He said he did not agree with estimates of the CAG (comptroller and auditor general) which estimated the 2G spectrum scandal to be worth Rs1.76 trillion (Dh103 billion) and the coal block scandal to be worth Rs1.86 trillion, terming them as “highly exaggerated”.
He opted to turn his attention away when a question was posed about rampant corruption in hosting of 2010 Commonwealth Games, which took place while UPA-II was in power.
“I tried to push for a transparent bidding process but this is often forgotten,” Singh said, while hoping that history will be kinder to him than the media and the opposition. “I have never used my office to enrich or reward my friends or relatives,” was the only defence of Singh on corruption charges.
He refused that he did not have total control over his ministers, especially those belonging to allies or that he functioned under pressure of the Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi.
He also did not agree that all major government decisions were taken at 10 Janpath (Sonia’s residence) rather than at 7 Race Course Road (PM’s official bungalow) of the prime minister’s office.
“Sonia Gandhi has always backed me up in more than one way. For me Mrs Gandhi’s support has been an enormous help in dealing with complex issues,” Singh said while defending his party chief.
“I have done my best. People doubted our ability to run a coalition government. We have compromised sometimes. But we have done well,” Singh said when asked to rate performance of his government over the past 10 years.
BJP leader Arun Jaitley mocked the prime minister, saying the press conference was “intended to announce his (PM’s) own farewell.” He also termed the press meet a “farce”.