Not many days after Time magazine called him an underachiever, another American publication, the Washington Post, has been controversially critical of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the UPA, saying his image is one of a "dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat presiding over a deeply corrupt government". The Prime Minister's Office has sent a strong rejoinder to the article titled, "India's 'silent' prime minister becomes a tragic figure."
The Washington Post has critiqued Dr Singh's performance as India's Prime Minister and served a less than flattering report card. The New Delhi-datelined article credits Dr Singh with once being the major force behind the growing closeness between the US and says "President Obama's aides used to boast of his tremendous rapport and friendship with Singh. But, it says, "The image of the scrupulously honorable, humble and intellectual technocrat has slowly given way to a completely different one." (Read original Washington Post article here)
The article quotes critics to say that the PM - who it describes as "a shy, soft-spoken 79-year-old" - is in danger of going down in history as a "failure". "He has become a tragic figure in our history", the Post quotes historian Ramachandra Guha, also the author of "India after Gandhi", as saying. Mr Guha is quoted as describing Dr Singh in an Indian magazine as "fatally handicapped by his timidity, complacency and intellectual dishonesty".
Taking strong exception, Union minister Ambika Soni said yesterday, "We have done it before and they have apologized. If The Washington Post has written such a piece on the Prime Minister, then trust me we'll oppose this strongly." The letter from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) accuses the Post of "unethical and unprofessional conduct" though it refuses to go into "your one-sided assessment of the Prime Minister's performance, as comment is free in journalism."
Responding to the Post article, Pankaj Pachauri, communications adviser at the Prime Minister's Office, in a letter to Simon Denyer, wrote "Despite all lines of conversations open, you never got in touch with us for our side of the story though you regularly talk to me about information from the PMO. This story thus becomes totally one sided."
Mr Pachauri told Denyer, the Post's India bureau chief and author of the story, that when he rang him to point out that his request for an interview was declined "till the Monsoon Session" of the Parliament which gets over in two days, "you said sorry twice though you tell the media here that you never apologised."
"The former media adviser to the PM Dr Sanjaya Baru has complained that you 'rehashed and used' an 8 month old quote from an Indian magazine," he added.
The Post has denied that it has apologised to the Prime Minister's Office for the story and also denied that it failed to take the PM's version. The reporter tweeted yesterday that he had asked for an interview and his request was declined. He tweeted that he had apologised only for the newspaper's website not functioning properly. He also tweeted that "no threats were issues from their (PMO) side, no apology offered from mine".
Since then, the Washinton Post has also published on its website a point-by-point rejoinder from the reporter to the PMO's letter. And it has added a correction to say that it quoted two people from their statements made to Indian magazine Caravan last year, but failed to credit the magazine. It has since also updated the article to include this.
The BJP has seen more political opportunity to hit out at the Prime Minister. "This is absolutely right, everyone knows that he is a corrupt leader. He had a very good image of an economist and an honest leader, it was not expected that his image would come crashing down like this. Even we didn't expect this," said BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
Last month, Prime Minister Singh, who has long been lauded for his pivotal role in liberalising the Indian economy, was dubbed as an "underachiever" by Time magazine in its Asia edition. In an article titled 'A Man in Shadow', the magazine said he appears "unwilling to stick his neck out" on reforms that will put the country back on growth path. The Opposition BJP had latched on to that story too, saying that Time had reiterated what it had been saying all along. The Congress had to put its best ministers and spokespersons up to defend the PM at that time.
UK daily The Independent too had carried a critique of the Prime Minister calling him, as Time magazine suggested, 'the underachiever'.
And in June this year, global rating agency Standard and Poor's was critical of the Prime Minister as well. Its report said, "Moreover, paramount political power rests with the leader of the Congress, Sonia Gandhi, who holds no Cabinet position, while the government is led by an unelected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who lacks a political base of his own."
The Prime Minister has for some time now been facing severe criticism for allowing the economy to slide by not taking politically tough reform decisions. Many allegations of corruption and scams in the government have not helped his cause either. The latest is the coal allocation issue; the national auditor or CAG has alleged that private firms were shown undue favours, allowing them windfall gains of Rs. 1.86 lakh crore. Two Congress MPs, one of them a minister in the Union cabinet, are already facing public and political indictment and one of them has been booked by the CBI.
The Opposition BJP has not allowed Parliament to function at all in the current Monsoon Session, demanding the PM's resignation, since he was the coal minister at the time the national auditor alleges the scam happened.