NEW DELHI— India's longtime Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has announced he will step down after elections later this year. As his government’s popularity plummets, the Indian leader defended his record at a rare news conference Friday.
Singh says he will not return to his post even if his Congress Party is able to secure a third term in office. The 81-year-old prime minister has held the top job for nearly ten years.
According to forecasts, the Congress Party is unlikely to win elections scheduled to be held by May. But Singh expressed hope that his successor will be from the ruling coalition.
Rahul Gandhi, the son of Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi, is expected to be the party’s choice - a view the prime minister endorsed.
“Rahul Gandhi has outstanding credentials to be nominated [as the party's prime-ministerial candidate], and I hope our party will take that decision at an appropriate time,” said Singh.
Singh was unusually critical of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, saying it would be “disastrous for the country” to have him as the next prime minister. The Hindu nationalist BJP trounced the Congress Party in a round of recent local elections, raising the party’s hopes of forming the next government.
Political commentators have often compared Modi to Singh, and in some measure attribute Modi’s growing popularity to the differences between the two leaders. Modi is seen as decisive and strong, Singh as weak and ineffectual. Whereas Modi has been crisscrossing the country addressing a host of public meetings ahead of the elections, Singh is a reluctant speaker and campaigner.
But Singh denounced the BJP leader for the 2002 anti Muslim riots which swept through Gujarat state which Modi governs, and killed more than 1000 people.
“If by strong Prime Minister you mean that you preside over the mass massacre of innocent citizens in the streets of Ahmedabad, that is the measure of strength, I do not believe that sort of strength this country needs, least of all in its prime minister,” said Singh.
Modi has always denied any wrongdoing in connection with the riots.
Singh defended his record in office, saying history will be kinder to him than the media or the opposition.
His second term has been tarnished by a series of corruption scandals and criticism that he has not done enough to tackle graft. Slowing economic growth and a huge rise in food prices have eroded his government’s popularity. Both factors were blamed for the massive losses the Congress party suffered in recent local elections.
But Singh says his government has taken several steps to protect the rural poor from inflation and to combat corruption.
“An array of historical legislation has been enacted to make the work of the government transparent and accountable,” said Singh. "Governance has been made more answerable as never before.”
The Indian leader also said India attaches the highest priority to strengthening New Delhi’s strategic partnership with the United States. He was referring to tensions that have flared between the two countries over last month’s detention of an Indian diplomat in New York on charges of underpaying her domestic help. The arrest infuriated India.
“There have been recently some hiccups, but I sincerely believe that these are temporary aberrations and diplomacy should be given a chance to resolve these issues,” said Singh.
Singh also said that India is committed to improving relations with its neighbors including Pakistan.
The Indian leader rarely addresses the media - this was his first news conference since 2010.