Wednesday, November 21, 2007

UPA coalition

Echoing artists, Singh stings

On Board Prime Minister’s Special Flight, Nov. 20: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today made his first public comments on this month’s bloody events in Nandigram, lending his voice to “the spontaneous outpouring of grief and anguish by artists and intellectuals in Kolkata”.

He said it was the state government’s duty “to ensure that all sections of the population, regardless of their political views and affiliations, are entitled to and do receive protection of the law enforcement authorities”.

The Prime Minister’s remarks — which appeared to belie speculation of a “Nandigram-nuclear deal quid pro quo” with the Left — were not spontaneous but part of a prepared statement.

Apart from taking an unexpectedly firm stand against the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government’s handling of Nandigram, Singh also exuded a certain buoyancy about the prospects of sealing the Indo-US nuclear deal now that the Left had agreed to allow talks with the IAEA.

But the most significant aspect of his impromptu news conference was the comments on Nandigram.

In an otherwise free-wheeling interaction with the media on board the Prime Minister’s special flight to Singapore, where he arrived this evening to attend the 13th Asean Summit, Singh first sought to side-step a question on Nandigram. Then, to a follow-up query, he fished out a written statement from his pocket and read it out.

To the first question on whether Parliament would discuss Nandigram, Singh merely said: “This is a matter that should be discussed in Parliament. The presiding officers of both the Houses are looking at how such a discussion can be facilitated…. I would not like to comment further while I am out of the country.”

But when another journalist wanted to know the Prime Minister’s own assessment of what had happened in Nandigram, Singh said — with a smile — that in order not to “get into trouble” he had a statement ready.

The statement was brief but — given the equivocal stance taken by the Centre and the Congress high command so far — laden with political significance.

The events in Nandigram, the Prime Minister said, had taken “a most unfortunate turn” and “I condole the loss of lives and regret the destruction of property”.

He hoped that the state government would take necessary steps to restore people’s confidence through an effective deployment of security forces.

“It is the duty of the state government to ensure that all sections of the population, regardless of their political views and affiliations, are entitled to and do receive protection of the law enforcement agencies,” he said.

He expressed unequivocal support to liberal and Left-leaning intellectuals who have come out against the CPM on the issue.

“I understand the spontaneous outpouring of grief and anguish over the issue as expressed by artists and intellectuals in Kolkata. I hope the state government will take note of this.”

Singh said he had asked the Union home minister “to be in touch” with the Bengal chief minister.

His remarks were far more hard-hitting than anything said by the Congress leadership or the Centre on Nandigram so far, and could well widen the rift with the CPM at a time when the UPA and the Left have worked out a temporary truce over the nuclear deal.

The Prime Minister indicated that he would have been even more forthright under different circumstances. The concluding line of his statement read: “And as Parliament is in session, I do not wish to say anything more,” seemingly oblivious that what he had said was explosive enough.