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New Delhi, March 6: Slaked by rambling and protracted criticism, the usually waxen Manmohan Singh today dripped hard and hot on the BJP, taunting its frontrunners as proven failures and daring them with the prophecy of another electoral defeat. “In 2009 they (the BJP) fielded their Iron Man Advaniji against the lamb that Manmohan Singh is and we all know what the result was,” Singh told the Lok Sabha, to rippling applause from treasury benches packed behind him, “The BJP will lose again because of its arrogance…I am convinced that if people look at our record, they would repeat what they did in 2004 and 2009.”

For the record, Singh was replying to the motion of thanks to the President’s address, but for those that heard him, this was as close as it could come to a declaration of candidacy for a third successive term as Prime Minister. There is time yet for the battle for 2014 to gather steam but Manmohan Singh may have already picked up the war bugle.

Read with Congress scion Rahul Gandhi’s recent remonstrations against being touted as the party’s uncontested choice for the top job, Manmohan Singh’s off-the-text pugilism in the Lok Sabha left few in doubt he was not merely ready for another round but being backed by his party bosses for it. Among the most fervent bench-thumpers for his combativeness this evening were Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, president and vice president respectively of the Congress.

PMO insiders told The Telegraph shortly after Singh ended his gladiatorial act — its effect enhanced in no mean measure by his impassiveness of tone and delivery — that their boss had “departed hugely” from the prepared text he had brought along to the House. Himself taken by surprise, a top PMO official said, “We don’t know what hit him, he suddenly swerved and took off on his own, unprompted, he must have been very rankled by what has been said about him lately. This was a mostly impromptu and very political speech, not the one that he left his office with.” 

New Delhi’s vibrant political grapevine has swelled with all manner of speculation these past months on the “post-Manmohan” scenario in the Congress, much of it centred on Rahul Gandhi’s accession as prime ministerial prospect. The newly-elevated vice president of the Congress has himself beaten back such speculation, admonishing party leaders recently for pressing the demand that he announce himself candidate and asking them what was wrong with Manmohan Singh.

Although Rahul’s candidacy remains the mandatory flavour of first choice in a mostly supine and dynasty-driven party, some in the Congress have also begun to give whispered currency to prospects of finance minister P. Chidambaram — the best riposte to Narendra Modi with his no-nonsense approach to efficiency and his people-like-us (PLU) middle-class connect, it has been argued.

Manmohan Singh’s bellicose-ringmaster performance today may have been aimed at putting a swift end to all of that, at least within Congress circles. Here was a Prime Minister not merely willing to take the fight to the Opposition camp but also assured and assertive on his own performance at the helm.

What he sought to achieve, too, today was to tweak the political-electoral discourse from a Rahul-versus-Narendra Modi personality showdown to a UPA versus NDA contest, a clash of whole formations rather than a duel between individuals. He was clearly speaking as a proponent and protagonist of the UPA’s record in power, not so much as a Congressman. Equally, he was seeking to put the NDA’s governance record in the shade rather than merely pick a political quibble with the BJP.

He labeled the NDA’s ‘Shining India’ campaign a “disaster” and said, “The best I can do is to compare nine years of UPA with six years of NDA, people can compare and decide what has been done. Our average growth rate in these nine years has been 9 %, during the NDA tenure growth was no more than 6%.” The Prime Minister conceded the recent slowdown but with a rider of hope. “Our focus remains on inclusive growth…the slowdown in the economy need not persist, we are fully capable of putting the country on a high growth path of 7-8 percent in the next two to three years. There is a slow down but let me tell you during the time we have grown by five percent, the growth rate of Brazil as been less than two percent, South Africa has had a rate of 2.3 percent.”

None of the many vitriol-shot barbs he shot at the BJP benches right across the Lok Sabha floor were part of his prepared speech. It remains an irony that the central object of his ire, L. K. Advani, wasn’t in occupation of his seat. Ahead of the 2009 elections, Advani had copyrighted criticism of Manmohan Singh as the weakest and most emasculated Prime Minister the country had seen.  The verdict of 2009 was merciless on Advani’s invective. Speaking like a man bullied into landing a counter-punch, Manmohan Singh predicted an encore this evening. “Jo garajte hain woh baraste nahin,” he said, perhaps also responding to widespread criticism that he doesn’t speak his mind out. Loosely translated, that meant those that thunder don’t bring rain, or, barking dogs don’t bite. He did not mention Narendra Modi, widely touted as the UPA’s challenger-in-chief for the next election, by name but consensus was biased towards interpreting that comment as aimed at the Gujarat chief minister.

BJP chief Rajnath Singh, who sat facing the Prime Minister, wasn’t spared direct, and sardonic, assault though. “The BJP recently assembled in Delhi under Rajnath Singh,” the Prime Minister said, “And used the choicest abuses were used for the Congress and the Congress leadership including me. It is not my intention to reply to them in that language….But I would respectfully submit to this august House that what has been achieved is not something which can be belittled as Shri Rajnath Singh tried to do.”

Rajnath Singh did attempt a clever retort likening the Prime Minister’s flaming posture to the last sputter of a candle about to blow out, but by then Manmohan Singh had left the BJP so scalded he seemed to deserve the applause from galleries he rarely plays to.

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