Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday opted out of a third term in office, projecting Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi as the ideal candidate for the prime minister’s post, at the same time acknowledging public concern over high-profile corruption cases and the limited success of his government in checking inflation and creating manufacturing jobs.
In what was possibly his last media address before the nation goes to polls in a few months, Singh promised to punish the guilty in the telecom and coal scams. He also hoped to get over the temporary hiccups that had cropped up in India’s “high-priority” relations with the US in the wake of the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York over alleged visa fraud.
Although he listed out achievements like reducing poverty and raising rural wages, which are now indexed to inflation, his address was also marked by a candid admission of where performance did not measure up to the extent he wanted.
Singh also launched a direct and scathing attack on BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, saying it would be “disastrous” to have him as the PM, a comment that invited sharp protests from the Opposition party.
“Rahul Gandhi has outstanding credentials to be nominated as the PM candidate. I hope the Congress party will take that decision at the appropriate time,” Singh, 81, said. Rahul will have to lead the party to polls with a credible plan to address economic growth at a decade low and persisting high inflation, fuelled by rising food prices. India’s economy grew at 4.8% in the July-September period, its fourth successive quarter of below-5% expansion. Wholesale price-based inflation stood at 7.52% in November, a 14-month peak.
Singh said the food security law passed by his government will to some extent shield the common man from rising food prices. He attributed the rising cost of living to higher global prices of commodities and a weaker rupee, saying the government had held steady the prices of items sold through the public distribution system since 2003.
Singh took credit for the increase in per capita consumption in both rural and urban areas, but said the Congress party will reflect on the recent assembly poll results and learn appropriate lessons. A lot more needs to be done in terms of reforms, he added. Though the cost of living went up, welfare schemes put more money in the hands of people and incomes for most people rose faster than inflation, he said.
Singh, who considered the 9% economic growth seen during his previous term “as a short acceleration and as exceptional”, was optimistic about the coming months as the global economic cycle was turning for the better. He admitted insufficient infrastructure and bottlenecks in granting timely forest and environment clearances to projects. His government, however, was working hard to correct its performance in generating jobs in the manufacturing sector, which Singh said was not as successful as needed.
“We need a much stronger effort in support of small and medium enterprises which can be a major source of good quality employment,” he said.
Singh said the Congress was “deeply committed” to combating corruption, for which steps were taken including adopting the auction method for allocation of spectrum and coal blocks. “Any wrongdoing will be punished through due process of law,” he said, adding that most corruption charges were related to the previous term of the UPA, after which the coalition came to power again. “We went to the electorate on the basis of our performance. People of India gave us mandate to govern for another five years,” he said, adding that voters paid little heed to the charges raised by the media and the Comptroller and Auditor General. “There were irregularities. But the dimension is overstated by the media and sometimes by the CAG,” Singh said.
India attaches high priority to strengthening relations with the US, a close ally, with which it has a nuclear cooperation deal. Singh wanted to iron out the recent differences over the arrest of India’s deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade in New York. “There have been recently some hiccups but I sincerely believe that these are temporary aberrations and diplomacy should be given a chance to resolve the issues that have arisen,” he said.
Singh’s message to foreign investors was clear. India provides a hospitable environment to foreign direct investment and would continue to do so. “We will continue to improve our practices wherever needed,” he assured.