New Delhi, Jan 3:
Known for his placid demeanour and even temperament, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Friday took everyone by surprise when he came out being unusually acerbic against his much talked about political opponent, prime minister-aspirant Narendra Modi.
As the prime minister settled down to read his opening statement at the newly inaugurated National Media Centre, many thought Manmohan Singh will just list the achievements of the UPA government’s 10 years rule and take a few questions on politics, minus the controversial ones.
That is what some journalists were warned in advance regarding their expectations of the much-awaited press conference.
The prime minister seemed a bit hesitant when he started reading from his prepared four-page note, so much so that he read out the new year greetings from the statement itself – without even lifting his head to look at the crowd of mediapersons and senior government officials who had packed the conference hall.
Even as journalists were settling down, he threw his first bombshell, that he was handing over “the baton over to a new prime minister. I hope it will be a UPA chosen prime minister…”
Many started furiously scribbling it in their notebooks, while some, mostly television channel reporters, texted the Breaking News to their offices that was airing the press conference live.
As the prime minister, with his usual wooden expression, faced the media after a gap of two years with Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari anchoring it, Manmohan Singh suddenly tore into Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.
“Without discussing the merits of Narendra Modi, I sincerely believe that it will be disastrous for the country to have Modi as the PM,” he declared in a low voice, without altering his expression.
He continued to be harsh on Modi, seen by many as the next prime minister of the country, when a journalist asked him his reaction to Manmohan Singh being viewed widely as a “weak prime minister”.
Manmohan Singh shot back: “If by strong prime minister you mean you preside over the massacre of innocents on the streets of Ahmedabad, that is not the kind of strength I will like to have.”
In fact, the usually reticent prime minister took one question after another – mostly critical of his government’s failing in governance and not able to stop the economic decline – for an hour, without looking uncomfortable, hesitant or losing his cool, but his expression remained fairly grim and unsmiling.
Even though the press conference was officially wound up, Manmohan Singh tarried to take another question on Modi that was flung at him from the hall.
Asked about the Gujarat chief minister’s statement that India will be rid of the Congress in the coming general elections, he retorted: “I sincerely believe what Mr Narendra Modi is saying is not going to materialize.”
He, however, seemed more charitable about the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). “Time will tell (if AAP has been) capable of dealing with challenges. (They) must be given time to justify themselves.”
Answering the inevitable question about Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, Manmohan Singh said: “Rahul Gandhi has outstanding credentials to be nominated as the prime ministerial candidate, and I hope our party will take that decision at the appropriate time.”
Manmohan Singh appeared not too worried about contemporary criticism that has dogged him and his government for two years, saying repeatedly that “history will judge” him differently.
Asked why he chose to remain silent on crucial issues, he said: “I have been speaking whenever there was a need and will continue to speak.” This evoked some laughter in a hall where senior officials too were present.