Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s much-hyped press conference in New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan on May 24,on the occasion of the completion of his first year in office in his second term, was an unmitigated disaster.
Singh, who will turn 78 on September 26, was never known for his oratory. So no wisecracks, witty, humorous quotable quotes were expected of him. And none came. His demeanor was no betterand in fact his reflexes were visibly slower. Several times he asked the questioner to repeat the question, and on one occasion, the economist prime minister said ‘one billion dollars’and seconds later corrected himself with ‘one billion people’in referenceto the population of India. The press conference was a disaster for state-controlled TV Doordarshan too,with its live telecast of the event interrupted by a blackout of several minutes.
However, Singh’s press conference will be remembered mostbecause of a shockingly poor performance from the members of the fourth estate. At every annual press conference forthe prime minister, the ground rules are circulated before the event. These rules make it clear that a questioner cannot ask any supplementary questions, meaningthat the journalists were expected to ask pithy, probing questions. Yet most meandered through long-winded, poorly-worded questions that lacked any sting at all. This had a comforting effect on Singh,who started off a little bit unsure of himself, but whose confidence grew quickly as journalists put tepid, unfocused questions.
The first question, from a senior Hindi journalist who began on the right note, wasa classic example. He asked what the government was doing to contain price rises, a burning issue in India for months and on which the opposition has hauled the Singh government over the coalsfor, in and outside parliament. Indeed, the questioner came up with a master stroke when he said ‘How is it, and why is it, that while in earlier Congress governments, the prices of essential commodities would start falling immediately after a Minister assured the government’s intervention, this time nothing of the sort is happening?’
He should have stopped there, but he diluted the whole impact by asking the second part of his question,seeking the prime minister’s comment on the state of the national economy. Singh seized the opportunity and gave an elaborate answer describing how the Indian economy was doing well. The price rise question was thus eclipsed by a general, omnibus question on the economy. Imagine Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama being asked to give his take on Japan-US relations instead of a pointed question on the raging controversy regarding relocation of the Futenma air base.
Some questions were downright pathetic. Sample this. One journalist asked: ‘You have two women advisors—one your wife Gursharan Kaur and another Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Whose advice you value more?’
As expected, Singh handled the question with ease and said he was ‘privileged’ to have advice from the two women and that he welcomed both the women’s advice. In conclusion, most questions from Indian journalists were toothless, be it economy, politics or India-Pak relations. The questions were predictable—and so were the answers.