Ready for third innings as PM? Too early to say: Manmohan Singh

ON BOARD PM’S SPECIAL AIRCRAFT (TIP): Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on March 28 refrained from spelling out whether he will serve a fresh term if the Congress leadership nominates him for the top job for an unprecedented third time.

“These are all hypothetical issues. We will cross the bridge when we reach there,” Singh told reporters while on his way back from Durban after attending the BRICS summit. He was responding to a question if he will agree to another innings as prime minister if asked by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and the party.

The PM’s comment comes amid intense speculation over whether Congress will declare its choice for prime minister before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who should have been the natural choice, is seen as reluctant, although sources say the leader has denied having recently said that he is averse to being the PM. This was reiterated by Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh recently.

Given the backdrop, Singh’s careful response to the question on the prospect of an extended tenure can potentially be interpreted to mean that he may not flinch from shouldering the responsibility if persuaded to do so by the Congress leadership. Singh also avoided a direct reply when asked whether he, having been prime minister for close to a decade and after a long career of public service, had the drive, energy and motivation to contribute more to public life. “I have tried my best to serve the country with all sincerity and all dedication. Whether I have succeeded or not is for the people of India to decide,” he said.

The questioner had given the example of other world leaders who went on to accomplish a lot after they turned 80. Singh, who looked confident and relaxed, also asserted that his government would not just complete its term but also push through key reforms, its vulnerability because of the pullout of DMK and Samajwadi Party’s increasingly aggressive posture notwithstanding: which perhaps attested to Congress managers’ ability to manage SP in every crunch situation and to find replacements for missing numbers. Asked if SP, whose 22 members in Lok Sabha are critical for the government, could withdraw support later this year, he said, “Well, obviously, coalitions raise issues that sometimes give the impression that these arrangements are not very stable arrangements. I cannot deny that such possibilities don’t exist.

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But I am confident that our government will complete five years and the next Lok Sabha election will be held on schedule (in 2014).” Singh disputed the assessment that the exit of Trinamool and DMK showed Congress could not hold on to allies, suggesting that the two constituents had to go because the demands they made could be accepted only at a cost to the reforms process and governance. “I don’t share the view. I think that alliances do have compulsions which have to be taken into account. (But) we will not allow such compulsions to derail reforms or to create a situation that will compromise the essential task of governing a vast country like ours,” he said. The PM struck an assured note also when asked if the government had lost its appetite to implement reforms, although he acknowledged uncertainties on that score. “It is not a once-for-all reforms set up that we are seeking by the way of reforms.

Reforms certainly have to take into account the fact that we don’t have the majority to get Parliament to approve some of our reforms proposals. So we are certainly dependent on the goodwill of some of our allies. I would be the last one to deny that there are uncertainties. But even then, we are confident that on reforms that matter, and that are going to yield results in the next few months, we will be able to push them,” he said.

Singh agreed that the current account deficit, now standing at 6.7% of GDP, was a cause for concern. “The current account deficit does worry me. It is our expectation that we will be able to finance it, though in the medium term, we must seek to bring the current account deficit to a more acceptable limit, which I believe in our country would be about 3% of GDP,” he said.

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