EVEN as you are reading this, Manmohan Singh is probably preparing for what is only his second formal press conference after assuming office as the Prime Minister in May 2004.
Undeniably, there is much that he can be proud of, not the least of which is the fact that he is the only Congress Prime Minister from outside the Nehru- Gandhi clan to occupy office for six years. That’s an achievement that would have called for raucous celebrations but the unfortunate death of over 160 people in the plane crash on Saturday morning means all revelries now stand cancelled.
Yet, the government is treating the press meet as a very special event. More than two months ago, in these columns I had written about the Prime Minister’s decision to shelve the dour “ Report to the People”, which had marked his first five anniversaries and instead meet the press. I had then said that in keeping with the coalition spirit, Manmohan would invite senior ministers from the major alliance partners to share the dais with him.
The plan has now been shelved.
His cabinet colleagues have been requested to sit in the front row, ahead of the over 900 journalists from the print and TV media. While the ostensible reason for the change of plans is that the government wants the focus to be on the Prime Minister, the real reason is the fear in the establishment that journalists may choose to train their guns on the likes of controversial ministers such as A. Raja and Mamata Banerjee who would have flanked him on the dais.
The barrels of midnight oil being burnt would suggest that babudom is putting more effort into the event than it would for, say, the joint session of Parliament or the Union budget. Cabinet secretary K. M. Chandrashekhar and the PM’s principal secretary TKA Nair have personally been monitoring the run- up. The former had issued a circular to about a dozen select secretaries asking them not only to update the PMO on the latest developments and decisions relating to their ministries but also be present at the press conference while Nair held a review meeting with senior secretaries last Thursday at the conference venue, Vigyan Bhavan. Secretaries of key ministries are busy updating on the main talking points such as internal security, Maoists, Pakistan, proposed amendments to the Right to Information Act, the many inter- ministerial tussles, etc.
Bureaucratic and political circles are united in their belief that the success of the press conference will lie not in the answers that Manmohan will give to the tough questions but by the number of leaders from alliance parties who will be present in the special enclosure. The Congress cabinet contingent will be there in full strength and I am sure the A- Team of Pranab Mukherjee, P. Chidambaram, A. K. Antony, Kamal Nath, Kapil Sibal, Anand Sharma and S. M. Krishna will be occupying the front row. Sonia Gandhi is unlikely to attend though the PMO expects the AICC officebearers to be present in full strength to show that the PM has the full backing of the party.
As a coalition, UPA ministers from all alliance partners are expected to be present just to show that they stand united.
But I have reason to believe that the government will be left red- faced due to the absence of several senior leaders from alliance partners.
Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar is abroad and may not make it back in time to attend the show. Mamata Banerjee has said neither “ yes” nor “ no” to the invitation. Of the DMK’s three ministers, Dayanidhi Maran is abroad. The other two are an embarrassment to the government; Raja, for the clouds of dust that he kicks up at every step he takes and M. K. Alagiri for his inability to comprehend anything that is remotely connected with his job as Union minister for chemicals and fertilisers.
Manmohan should be glad if they don’t turn up even if the message that goes out from Vigyan Bhavan will be of a Prime Minister who is wary of keeping the company of his own cabinet ministers.
Their absence may even be a blessing in disguise for Manmohan to blunt the BJP charge that his government is characterised by 3C’s — corruption, conspiracy and contradictions. Whether he can turn the tables on the Opposition by offering his own 3C’s — clean, credible and commendable— will depend to a large extent on the display of candour from Manmohan.