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We need only 10 years to rid India of poverty: PM

By Jyoti Malhotra in New Delhi
April 10, 2009 21:59 IST
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For five years, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has lived with the tag of being a weak prime minister whose authority is constantly challenged by the main power centre, that of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

But on Friday evening, in an interaction with nearly 150 women journalists from the Indian Women's Press Corps, it seemed as if the hurly-burly of the election campaign had freed him from the self-restraint that he has exercised these past five years.

From responding spiritedly to Opposition leader and the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate L K Advani's favourite 'weak prime minister' charge with a spicy retort of his own to making a dig against his own party at the "lack of publicity" given to several government initiatives like the path-breaking Sachar Commission findings, to the back-handed compliment to the all-women audience present that "you know much better than me about the prices of essential commodities," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seemed to be in his element and enjoying every moment of the tough question-and-answer session.

His quiet sense of humour that causes a ripple of laughter rather than a guffaw was much in evidence all through the interaction with the women journalists. Asked, for example, if the Congress party would support Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati in the formation of a government after the elections, he responded, without blinking an eyelid, "I don't think that eventuality will arise."

Asked about the importance of the Third Front, he chose to attack with a side-swipe. "I don't know who is left in the NDA. (Naveen) Patnaik has gone, so has Chandrababu Naidu and Jayalalitha..."

Time and again through the press conference, he pleaded that the Congress be given the opportunity to come back to power. "Give us ten years, and we will double the standard of living of the people, we have given you 8.6 per cent growth these last five years... poverty eradication is not a mere slogan, we need only ten years to do it," he said, aware that the press conference was a great way of getting his government's message and its achievements across to the country at large.

That was why the media interaction, initially intended to take place at the prime minister's home on Race Course Road in the heart of the leafy capital, was shifted to the Taj Palace hotel under the aegis of the Congress party. Clearly, with the Election Commission notching up several political scalps, the prime minister didn't want to take any chances with the Model Code of Conduct.

In a rare moment of candour, he Spoke of his growing up years and how, they had impressed upon him, as prime minister, of the overwhelming importance of breaking the cycle of poverty that still haunted millions of Indians. How in his village in Chakwal tehsil in the Punjab province of Pakistan "there was no school, you had to walk several miles, there were no roads, no electricity," he said.

"I felt it was my duty" as prime minister to bring about meaningful solutions that could help eradicate poverty in India, Manmohan Singh said, by expanding the economy so that a greater number of people could participate in prosperity.

Clearly, though, Advani's barbs about him being a 'weak prime minister' and refusing to contest from the Lok Sabha, had got to the prime minister. "Mr Advani will have to change the Constitution if every prime minister has to be elected from the Lok Sabha. I am not the first one, Mrs Indira Gandhi for the first one-and-a-half years was a member of the Rajya Sabha, so was Deve Gowda and I K Gujral."

Asked why he would not contest an election despite his record, he added, disarmingly, "It was because of my surgery. I need some time to regain my full health."

But he simply refused to get caught in making any critical comments on the Left parties, keenly aware that the Congress might need their support after the elections in the formation of a secular government. "I successfully led the government for four-and-a-half years (with the Left), I regret them leaving the government."

Then he took recourse to an Urdu couplet: Main akela hi chal raha tha/log milte gaye/Aur caravan badta gaya (I was walking alone/Then people began to join me. And the caravan began to grow)."

As for the clean chit given by the Central Bureau of Investigation to Congress leaders Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler, he admitted that he had asked the CBI director about this matter after he checked with Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Prithviraj Chavan whether he had any intimation on this score.

Chavan told him that he was neither consulted nor informed "and neither was I," the prime minister said, adding that he was told by the CBI director that this was "routine and nothing out of the ordinary."

But it was his left-handed compliment to a persistent journalist who quizzed him about the rising prices of essential commodities that had the hall breaking out in laughter. When she told him that prices had doubled in the last five years, even as the prime minister attempted to defend himself, saying that they had fallen somewhat, he replied, "Main jaanta hoon ki aap se achhi jaankari nahin ho sakti (I know that I cannot match your information)!"

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Jyoti Malhotra in New Delhi