I wasn’t afraid of press: Manmohan Singh

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Former prime minister takes on government on RBI autonomy, revised GDP figures

Hitting out at critics who referred to him as “Maunmohan” or a “silent” Prime Minister, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday said he had never been scared of facing the press, and had engaged with journalists often as Finance Minister in the 1990s and later as Prime Minister.

Speaking at an event in Delhi to launch a five-volume collection of his writing and speeches titled “Changing India”, Dr. Singh recalled his experiences at managing the economy and criticised the Modi government’s handling of relations with the Reserve Bank as well as the revision of the previous GDP numbers.

‘Regular meetings’

“People say I was a silent Prime Minister, but I hope these volumes, particularly the two volumes that deal with my speeches as PM speak for themselves. I certainly was not a Prime Minister who was afraid of talking to the press. I used to meet the press regularly and on every foreign trip I undertook, I would have a press conference in the plane itself or immediately after landing,” he told an audience comprising economists, Congress party colleagues and his former team at the Prime Minister’s Office. The remarks appeared to be aimed at Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not having addressed a single press conference since taking office.

Dr. Singh also defended India’s record of economic growth during the past few decades spanning his role as Reserve Bank governor (1982-85), Planning Commission Chief (1985-87), Finance Minister (1991-96) and then Prime Minister (2004-2014), and said the reforms he had introduced in 1991 had “changed the course of the Indian economy.”

When asked about the government’s recent decision to revise GDP data during 2005-2012, reflecting a lower growth rate during the period, Dr. Singh criticised the role of the NITI Aayog in the process.

“I think it’s not proper that people with no expertise should be releasing the GDP numbers,” he said, adding that the announcement by the NITI Aayog Vice-Chairman Rajiv Kumar had “reduced the credibility of the exercise”.

In an interview to The Hindu last week, Mr. Kumar had said it was the Central Statistics Organisation that had asked Niti Aayog to vet the process.

‘Respect independence’

On the issue of the current tensions between the Reserve Bank and the government over the issues of autonomy, and reports that the government was considering dipping into the central bank’s capital reserves, Dr. Singh said the government must “respect the independence and autonomy of the Reserve Bank”.

“RBI and government are like a husband and wife team, and their differences must be harmonised,” he added.

During the hour-long discussion on his experiences in the 1990s conducted by former Chief Economic Advisor Kaushik Basu, Dr. Singh revealed for the first time that the devaluation of the rupee had been conducted under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao on the basis of a “hand-written note”.

He said Mr Rao had agreed to back him, although several members of the cabinet and even then President R. Venkataraman, were not in favour of devaluation.

He also divulged that when he had first been offered the post of Finance Minister by Mr. Rao’s principal secretary, he had not thought it was a “serious offer” and had to be told to go “dress up” for the swearing in at the last moment.

“In that sense, I wasn’t just an accidental Prime Minister, but an accidental Finance Minister too,” said Dr. Singh to laughter from the audience.

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