In the wake of mounting criticism of the UPA, and speculative stories doing the rounds that Manmohan Singh may be thinking of making way for Gen-Next, the prime minister called a group of editors at his official residence. The 80-minute interaction turned into a virtual press-conference. Some of the areas touched upon by him in the meeting:
No disconnect between government and Congress party
- "I don’t recollect any disconnect between the government and the party"
- Expression of different viewpoints not "necessarily a bad thing"
- "Not a drift but a debate" — Nothing wrong in ministers and party functionaries expressing different points of view.
- We are a democracy and Congress is a movement. Our leaders are free to express their opinion in party forums. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
- What is necessary is that the cabinet and government operate with cohesion. And on that there’s no problem.
- Decisions once taken by the cabinet are adhered to by all
- Necessary for the Cabinet and the government to function with a "certain degree of cohesion". Cabinet had functioned with a "much greater degree of cohesion" than even the first Cabinet headed by Jawaharlal Nehru. There was almost daily exchange of letters between Nehru and his deputy Sardar Patel.
- There were differences between Indira Gandhi and her deputy Morarji Desai.
- During Mrs Gandhi's time a group of "Young Turks" led by Chandrashekhar openly constituted a dissident group
- "I can't say I will shut up every colleague"
- On issues like the Food Security Bill, "we will take inputs from the NAC (National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi) and see what’s possible and what’s not"
Not thinking of retiring
- Not thinking of retiring
- Will "look at options" of a Cabinet reshuffle before the next session of Parliament
- "I would like to reduce the average age of my Cabinet"
- In the last six years, Cabinet has met almost every week.
- Issues are debated and ministers abide by the decisions taken thereafter.
- When a questioner suggested that it appeared his government was "marking time" while Rahul Gandhi was "spreading his wings": "Politics is a competitive game, and if some people think they would like to sit in my seat, surely, you cannot blame me for that."
- On the role of regional parties: "They have to be taken on board. The system of large majority for a single party is not likely as far as I can see it."
- Agreed with Rahul Gandhi's view that there are two Indias — the inequality of income and wealth is a fact of life and the gap between the rich and the poor has to be bridged
Not fixated on foreign policy
- Did not agree that his main priorities remained ties with the United States of America and Pakistan and broader economy.
- Paying attention to foreign policy issues does not not mean that he is not not focussed on other issues.
- The Naxal issue could be one of the greatest security challenges to the country.
- Economy can be managed but if India did not not manage divisive political issues there could be problems.
The prime minister listed the following as some of the top issues that could determine India's future:
- First and foremost, I am told in a few days' time you will [see the] judgment of the Babri Masjid [title suit]. Now the way the country handles this — the aftermath — will have a profound impact on the evolution of our country
Then the same way — I think the way we handle
- the Kashmir problem,
- the way we handle the Naxalite problem.
"I think, quite frankly, there is no royal road to success in dealing either Naxalism or the intricate problems in Jammu and Kashmir"
- The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) headed by him will meet later this week "to discuss threadbare" the situation in J&K
- "I cannot promise you that I have an instant solution, I cannot produce rabbits out of my hat. It will be a problem of experimentation and the country must learn to be patient."
- Not being patient might "lead to pathways which may later on prove to be counterproductive"
- "We are still groping for a solution" — the Kashmir problem has existed for 63 years and Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi had all attempted to tackle it
- The internal dimension of the militancy has gone down but other issues remain
- There has to be a different attitude to riot control: No lethal weapons but more humane methods should be used to deal with crowds
- More powers to be shifted to Jammu and Kashmir police: "Sometime it will work, sometimes it will not not work"
- No pubic discussion on Omar Abdullah's statement that the status quo was not not an option
Dealing with the Naxals
- One of the greatest security challenges to which there is no "quick fix"
- Favours a two-pronged approach of addressing valid economic and social reasons behind the problem and at the same time enforcing law and order.
Environment and Industry
- "Environmental issues are important, they cannot be wished away"
- "We must adequately ensure that whether it is tribal rights, environmental concerns or forest concerns, they are given their appropriate place. But at the same time there has to be a balance. You cannot protect the environment of this country by perpetuating poverty" or a return of ‘licence-permit raj’
- "My own concern is that if we come across any instance in my Council of Ministers, where I think serious issues of corruption are involved, I will take action. I have an obligation to take action and I will do that"
- On the perception that India has "the most honest Prime Minister presiding over the most corrupt government" and that therefore it would be useful if any action he takes against any minister is made public: "If I get to know such cases, I will take action. Whenever situations have arisen I have asked ministers for their explanation."
- The mere appointment of regulators is no guarantee against charges of corruption. Allegations in 2G spectrum award, despite a telecom regulator, are case in point
- On the allocation of Spectrum in which Telecom Minister A Raja faces allegations: "I did take adequate precaution. It is true that the public perception in some circles at least is that I did not not succeed. But I am quite clear in my mind I did take account of what was appearing in the media where the conduct of a particular minister was being questioned. Now the matter is still sub-judice. I would not not like to comment on that
When asked for reactions to "pinpricks" by Beijing — its refusal to issue a visa to an Indian General doing duty in Jammu and Kashmir and insistence on issuing stapled visas to people of the state:
- Beijing could be tempted to use India's "soft underbelly", Kashmir, and Pakistan "to keep India in low-level equilibrium".
- Which is why, he said, he repeatedly emphasised for India and Pakistan to resolve their differences and reach a good equation. Not only would continued differences give countries like China the opportunity to exploit, but also impede progress in South Asia.
- "China would like to have a foothold in South Asia and we have to reflect on this reality. We have to be aware of this"
- It is his firm belief that the world was large enough for India and China to "cooperate and compete" at the same time.
- His meetings with President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao gave him the feeling that Beijing wanted to sort out the outstanding issues with India. "However, this leadership will change in two years. There is a new assertiveness among the Chinese. It is difficult to tell which way it will go. So, it's important to be prepared."
- India has to take adequate precautions but not not give up hope of peaceful resolution of issues with China. Relations with China continue to be a mix of competition and cooperation and the effort should be to create a milieu in which there can be peaceful competition
- Believes in engagement with Pakistan, irrespective of the "complexity of" set-up in Islamabad. "Engagement is a better way to convey our concerns to Pakistan. Conveying them through the media isn't the best way."
- Despite his belief in engagement, the government respected the popular sentiment post 26/11 and cut off all dialogue with Pakistan. "We felt this would be a lever for us to press Pakistan to address our concerns. But as that didn't happen, we went to Thimpu and restarted the process for dialogue."
On the failure of the talks between External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi in July:
- "You can't guarantee anything about Indo-Pak relations. So, the meeting between the two foreign ministers (S M Krishna and Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Islamabad) was very low."
- I hope Qureshi will accept Krishna's invitation and come to India."
- India would continue to support the aspirations of the people there for democracy.
- New Delhi has vital cultural and civilisational ties with Afghanistan and was deeply interested in its development
On USA and Obama's visit
- India hopes that the two countries, which are strategic partners, would chart out new pathways in many areas during the visit.
- Happy that the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill had been passed with near unanimity by Parliament.
On the new CVC
Defending the appointment of Telecom Secretary P J Thomas as the new Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), the PM said, "We have done the right thing. We have chosen the best candidate out of the list of three." He made light of the BJP criticism of the appointment — that it was to "cover up" the 2G-spectrum scam — saying the party would say what it has to say.
On home minister P Chidambaram
- On PC's complaint of a "limited mandate" in dealing with the Naxal menace: "All of us have a limited mandate." Once a policy is laid down it has to be implemented.
- PC " doing an exceedingly good job and he has my full confidence and support".
- He complimented the Home Minister for the way in which he had handled a difficult job in the aftermath of Mumbai terror attacks.
On Supreme Court and Distributing foodgrain:
Reacting to the order of the the apex court which had directed Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar to distribute rotting foodgrains to the poor, the PM said:
- I respectfully submit that the Supreme Court should not go into the realm of policy formulation.
- Policy formulation should "remain the concern of the policy makers and the government of the day".
- I have not not seen the final judgement of the court. [But] I respect the sentiments behind the [court] decision that when foodgrains are rotting and people are suffering from deprivation, then some way should be found to ensure that the food needs of the deprived sections are met.
- But quite honestly it is not possible in this country to give free food to all the poor people.
- As per Tendulkar committee's estimates, 37 per cent of the population is below the poverty line. "How are you going to give free food to such a large segment of the population?"
- "I do recognise that food should be available to the people below poverty line at concessional prices. We have not allowed any increase in the issue price of foodgrains to people below poverty line since 2004"
- Government committed to ensuring that food is available to the poor at an affordable price. "But to say that we can give foodgrains free, quite frankly, if we do that on a large scale you would destroy the incentive of our farmers to produce more food and if there is no food available for distribution what will you distribute?"
On the suggestion that he should meet journalists more often:
- "Well, I think a pigeon has been set among the cats"
- Admits there have been ‘lapses and delays’ in Commonwealth Games projects.
- Now it is too late to do anything other than ensure that India’s fair name is not besmirched
On film, Peepli [Live]:
- All journalists should see it because "it has a moral lesson both for politicians and for the gentlemen and ladies of the media."
- "The only way we can raise our heads above poverty is for more people to be taken out of agriculture."