New Delhi: Six years into the top job, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday ruled out retirement from politics but 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.
Speaking to about 500 journalists at the first national press conference of the UPA-II, Dr Singh was categorical that he was not going anywhere just yet. He however added that the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition remained a work in progress and could do much better in the coming years.
"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, Dr 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."
Answering a question on his own performance, a confident Manmohan Singh said he was "satisfied" with his performance in the last six years but felt he "could do better". However, he refused to give any marks to himself or the government on performance when asked to give ratings.
Sceptics had their answer when he declared that his government would complete its five-year term.
"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."
"I am not bothered about the legacy issue. I have a task to accomplish to the best of my ability. It is for the historians to pronounce judgements (on my legacy)," he added.
Action against corruption
The Prime Minister also promised to take action if corruption was proved "at any level" in his government. He was responding to a query on allegations of corruption against Telecom Minister A Raja over the sale of licenses in 2008.
Dr Singh acknowledged that the recent auction of 3G spectrum had yielded nearly Rs 68,000 crore as against about Rs 10,000 crore from 2G licenses, granted two years ago. According to the Prime Minister, Raja had told him that "what he did was, implemented the policies which were in place since 2003 (NDA regime)."
"I think one has to look at the whole problem in proper perspective. There was a particular policy which was in place since 2003 before our government came into power," Singh said, adding that Raja`s point was that it would amount to discrimination if different yardsticks were applied for the new entrants.
Dr Singh also forecast an economic growth rate of 10 percent in mid-term, while stressing on social inclusion as the core of his government agenda.
"Prices continue to be a matter of concern... it is affecting the country`s masses... but I believe by December we can bring it down to 5 to 6 per cent," he added.
Trust deficit with Pakistan
Prioritising improving relations with Pakistan as his foreign policy priority in his second term, Dr Singh said: "Pakistan is our neighbour. It is our obligation to make every effort 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," Dr 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, the PM 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.
Naxalism – the biggest security challenge
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".
He further said there was no difference of opinion between the Central and the state governments on the issue of left-wing extremism.
Dr Singh added that the issue of "limited mandate" raised by Home Minister P Chidambaram will be discussed at the "appropriate forum" of the Cabinet.
He was responding when referred to Chidambaram`s statement on May 17 that he had "limited mandate" to deal with Naxal problem.
On terrorism, the Prime Minister made it clear that his government does not look at the menace through the prism of religion and was ready to tackle it effectively.
"Our government`s policy is whatever may be the source of terrorism, whether it is Muslim involvement or Hindu involvement, I think we must tackle that problem effectively," he told reporters when asked about the reports of rise of Hindu terrorism in the country.
Responding to a query on Parliament attack death row convict Afzal Guru’s hanging issue, the Prime Minister said the "law of the land" should be allowed to take its course in dealing with the issue.
On the question of getting access to 26/11 conspirator David Headley, the PM said the highest authorities in the United States have given an assurance to India in this regard.
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.
Advice to ministers
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.
Responding to a query on whether Congress had a deal with BSP supremo Mayawati and SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav to garner their support during the recent Opposition-sponsored cut motions in Lok Sabha, the PM said: “There was no deal....Whatever misconceptions you have in your heart, kindly get rid of them.”
On having a caste-based Census, the Prime Minister said said the government was in the process of taking a decision on the issue. "Discussion on the issue will take place in the
Cabinet and whatever decision is taken it will be brought before the people," he added.
On the much discussed equation with 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.
Dismissing speculation about lack of coordination between the government and the party, the Prime Minister said he meets Sonia Gandhi every week to discuss some major issues
and continued to receive "advice and guidance" from her.
He also dismissed the suggestion that the National Advisory Council (NAC), headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, was a "super cabinet".
“It (NAC) is not a super cabinet. It is an advisory body” which has made significant contributions in pushing forward social development programmes, he said.
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 PM 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.
(With IANS/PTI inputs)