NEW DELHI: Indian Premier Manmohan Singh won media praise on Saturday for his “straight talk” to voters after he made a televised bid for public support for a slew of economic reforms that cost his government its majority.
In a televised speech to the country late Friday, Singh said he acted in the national interest to stop “a loss of support in our economy” and asked for people's “trust, understanding and your cooperation” to avert a crisis.
In the past 10 days the Congress-led government has announced a string of reforms to open up the retail, aviation and other sectors to more foreign investment and cut deficit-bloating subsidies, prompting protests and the exit of a key coalition ally.
“We have to restore the confidence of foreign investors,” said Singh, who turns 80 next week. “Money does not grow on trees and that is why we have made these decisions.
“At times, we need to say no to the easy option and say yes to the more difficult one.”
While political opponents accused Singh of selling out the country to foreign interests, the media lauded him for addressing the difficulties facing Asia's third-largest economy.
“The PM's straight talk on TV and his greater effort to reach out deserve credit,” commented the influential Indian Express daily in an editorial.
It said the opposition had ended up looking “uncaring about the urgency of the economic troubles that loom over us”.
The tabloid Mail Today went even further, proclaiming “the Dream Team is Back”.
The front-page headline was a reference to Singh and his pro-market finance minister P. Chidambaram who were known as the “dream team” in the 1990s for bold moves in kickstarting the liberalisation of the socialist-style economy.
The newspaper added in an editorial the only thing Singh's administration had to fear “was fear itself” in carrying out its reform agenda. It said the opposition was “unlikely to pull the rug” from under the government's feet, even though it was now a minority in parliament.
The economy grew by just 5.5 per cent in the latest financial quarter, its slowest clip in nearly three years, while ratings agencies have warned India is in danger of being downgraded to junk status unless the government acts decisively to rein in its gaping budget deficit.
Singh's address came hours after the coalition's main ally Trinamool withdrew support over the reforms, leaving the government dependent on outside support from other parties and vulnerable to falling before elections due in 2014.
In an angry parting shot, fiery Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee accused Singh of allowing in foreign supermarkets such as Walmart in “an undemocratic and unethical manner”, which would swamp India's small, family-owned stores.
“The government is selling out the country,” she said.
Singh dismissed such talk as scaremongering and added the move to modernise India's antiquated retail sector would create “quality jobs” for India's increasing army of young workers.
The government appeared in no immediate danger of collapse after the secular regional Samajwadi Party vowed to keep out of power the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and its Hindu nationalist agenda.
However, even the Samajwadi Party opposes foreign supermarkets entering India, underlining the difficulties the government faces in pressing ahead with reforms.