B S Raghavan

A PM without grip or grit

B. S. Raghavan | Updated on February 18, 2011

Ican only say that I am aghast at the performance of the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, at the electronic media meet of February 16.

I sat glued to both the live and repeat telecasts from beginning to end, hanging on every word of his, intently looking for some sign of grip or grit. As one who had attended, watched or kept myself posted with media conferences of every Prime Minister from Jawaharlal Nehru downwards, I cannot recall a single one which filled me with dejection and despair to such an extent.

I traversed throughout the Internet looking into the reporting of the conference by all the newspapers of Tamil Nadu, and at least eight published from Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta. All of them are unflattering and many of them caustic. The initial comment from the BBC News was also unfavourable. And with good reason. The overall impression left by Dr Singh was of a cornered person looking for excuses and scapegoats.

Frankly, with his dead pan and diffident manner lacking in eloquence, spirit or passion and unrelieved by any show of wit or warmth, Dr Singh was not in command of the media conference as one expects a person of the stature of the Prime Minister to be. It was painful to see him struggle for words (at one point, he used the expression “I think” six times at a stretch) and accept meekly statements from his interlocutors about his being surrounded by corrupt Ministers and about scams occurring “right under his nose”.

At sea

With the Antrix-Devas deal falling within the Department of Space directly under his charge, one expected that he would have the facts at his finger tips and be able to give a cogent and convincing account of the whys and wherefores of it off his own bat. Instead, he appeared distinctly ill at ease and at sea, and had to read extensively from a note obviously prepared and handed to him by the Department.

Similarly, Dr Singh did not look like a person who knew his own mind when he explained the inclusion in the Cabinet of persons of dubious antecedents and his omission to intervene more aggressively and in time to prevent occurrence of scams as being due to the compromises that he had unavoidably to make as part of coalition dharma. And when a media person sharply pulled him up (I can't describe it any other way) saying that there could be no compromise with corruption, he fell silent and let the TV anchor have the last word.

Malfeasant elements

There must have been an audible gasp of utter disbelief among all those watching the telecast when Dr Singh, for all his high academic credentials, compared the revenue loss in the allocation of 2G spectrum to subsidies which are integral to the policy of poverty alleviation. He laid it on thick by mentioning the food, fertiliser and kerosene subsidies one by one with the figures of the outgo they entailed, in his contrived effort to make out that the revenue forgone in the allocation of spectrum was tantamount to a subsidy meant for promoting teledensity and low tariff.

Already, reports have appeared in the media questioning his contention that the Finance Ministry, the TRAI, the Telecom Commission and the Department of Telecommunications were unanimous in ruling out auctions in preference to first-come-first-served. The Finance Minister seems to have had serious reservations about the procedure adopted and suggested measures to safeguard national interest in a note of January 15, 2008 sent to the Prime Minister.

All in all, the media conference has shown the Prime Minister in a poor light — as one who is not on top of his job. Or, maybe, malfeasant elements in the UPA have begun to take advantage of his good and gentle nature and he can no longer cope with them. Ample food for thought for the UPA there!

Published on February 18, 2011

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