No retirement plan, UPA II can do much better: PM


New Delhi : Ruling out retirement, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Monday forecast an economic growth rate of 10 percent in mid-term and underlined his resolve to improve relations with Pakistan, saying better ties with neighbours were necessary to realise India’s development potential.

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Six years into the top job, the 77-year-old economist-prime minister said he was ready to make way for younger people like Rahul Gandhi, the Congress general secretary who is widely considered to be a prime minister-in-waiting, but added that the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition remained a work in progress and could do much better in the coming years.

Confident of achieving medium-term target of 10 percent economic growth per annum, Manmohan Singh stressed on social inclusion as the core of his government agenda.

Prioritising improving relations with Pakistan as his foreign policy priority in his second term, Manmohan Singh said: “Pakistan is our neighbour. It is our obligation to make every efforts to normalise relations with India’s neighbours. That’s essential to realise our full developmental potential.”

“Trust deficit is the biggest problem. Unless we tackle that, we can’t make progress. It has been my effort to reduce the gap,” Manmohan Singh, who last met his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani three weeks ago in his continuing effort to improve ties, said at a press conference to mark the first year of the second tenure of the UPA government.

“We are willing to discuss with Pakistan all outstanding issues. Pakistani territory should not be used to spread terror in India or against India,” he said.

When asked a question on the unfinished business of the India-US nuclear deal, the defining foreign policy initiative of his first term, Manmohan Singh asked all political parties to support the contentious civil nuclear liability bill for the sake of India’s emergence as a major nuclear energy power.

Addressing about 500 journalists for over an hour at the Vigyan Bhavan convention centre on a range of issues, ranging from Maoist violence and Jammu and Kashmir to his equation with Congress president Sonia Gandhi and the future of Rahul Gandhi, Manmohan Singh was categorical that he was not going anywhere just yet.

“I have been given a work and it is incomplete yet; and till I complete it, there is no question of my retirement,” he said, putting to rest speculation that he may not be entirely in control.

However, Manmohan Singh also said in response to a question on Rahul Gandhi and son of Congress chief and UPA chaiperson Sonia Gandhi: “Well, I sometimes feel that young people should take over (as prime minister)… I would be very happy to make place for anybody.”

Rahul Gandhi, he said, would be a “very appropriate addition” to the cabinet “as and when he is ready”.

Answering a question on his own performance, a confident Manmohan Singh, who answered questions in his sedate professorial manner, said he was “satisfied” with his performance in the last six years but felt he “could do better”.

Sceptics had their answer when he declared that his government would complete its five-year term, but declined to do any crystal ball gazing for the next election.

“I have every reason to believe that we will complete our term… Although we are a coalition government, we have given our country a government which works, which has delivered high rates of growth, which has accelerated the process to inclusive growth.”

The prime minister, who gave short, succinct, answers to most questions, denied that the government had underestimated the Maoist insurgency, which he again described as the “biggest” security challenge the country faces.

“If you remember I have always been saying that Naxalism is the biggest security challenge. So it is not correct to say that we have underestimated the magnitude of the problem”.

On Jammu and Kashmir, he said he was ready for dialogue if separatists shed violence and reiterated that his government followed a “zero tolerance” policy against human rights violations.

Trying to downplay the controversies over Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh’s utterances or by former junior foreign minister Shashi Thaoroor, who quit in the wake of the Kochi-IPL controversy, Manmohan Singh said although he welcomed dialogue between ministers, such differences should not be aired in public.

On the much discussed equation with Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, he said “there was no question of any gap between me and her”.

“Any elements of distrust or mistrust are not there between her and me,” he added.

There were some difficult questions to which Manmohan Singh could only give partial answers.

On the telecom scandal, Manmohan Singh gave a clean chit to his Communications Minister A. Raja pending conclusion of investigation and asserted that the process followed on auction of airwaves to telecom companies was above board.

He was responding to a question on charges that precious airwaves for 2G were sold to telecom firms at throwaway prices, resulting in losses worth billions of dollars, seen in the light of $15 billion the government will get from 3G spectrum auction.

Injecting perhaps the only note of humour in the nearly 80-minute press conference, he also took on a question of whose advice he valued the most – his wife or Sonia Gandhi.

“I am privileged to have advice of Shrimati Sonia Gandhiji and my wife,” the phlegmatic prime minister replied.

“Both deal with different subjects and I welcome both their advice,” he said, prompting laughter in the packed hall. The prime minister allowed himself a smile too.

Manmohan Singh, the only Indian prime minister to be re-elected after a full five-year term after Jawaharlal Nehru, however, deftly skirted a question on his legacy. “I am not bothered about legacy issues. It’s for the historians to pronounce judgments,” he said.