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For India’s prime minister, corruption refuses to stay ‘at arm’s length’

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NEW DELHI — Like an honest man surrounded by thieves, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is finding that his own reputation for personal integrity is proving hard to maintain.

India’s Parliament has been in uproar this week as the opposition demands that Singh answer accusations that he deliberately turned a blind eye to rampant corruption within his cabinet and party.

The damage to his reputation is significant and is only going to get worse, political analysts say.

“It doesn’t suggest he had his hand in the till,” said columnist and broadcaster Karan Thapar. “But it is either negligence, a lack of vigilance, or he was aware and deliberately turned his eye in the other direction — which is perilously close to complicity.”

The main charge is that Singh was in the know when then-Telecommunications Minister A. Raja gave away valuable telecom licenses for dirt-cheap prices in 2008, cheating the exchequer of up to $40 billion.

Singh even wrote to Raja at one point asking him to adopt a fairer system of allocating the licenses. After his advice was brushed aside by the now-jailed minister, Singh asked to be kept “at arm’s length” from the process.

The prime minister’s office says Singh was merely keeping his distance because he did not want to be seen as favoring any particular company, while Congress party spokesman Manish Tewari says Singh was guilty of nothing more than trusting a colleague.

Others say the prime minister just needs to explain himself better. Sanjaya Baru, Singh’s former media adviser, blames “incompetence” in the communications team at the prime minister’s office since Baru left.

But there is no denying that Singh’s image has been dented.

The prime minister is also accused of ignoring warnings from his ministers about rampant corruption in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, for which games organizer and former Congress stalwart Suresh Kalmadi has been jailed.

Abroad, Singh’s reputation soars above most of the world’s political leaders, for his humility, integrity and intellect. President Obama calls him a good friend and says “the whole world listens” when Singh talks. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and an Egyptian presidential challenger, once described him as “the model of what a political leader should be.”

But at home, cartoonists show Singh drowning in a sea of corruption. Forbes magazine may have ranked Singh the 18th-most-powerful person in the world, but political analysts in India wonder whether he controls even his own cabinet.

“He has let himself down, and he has let the people of India down,” said historian Ramachandra Guha. “He appears weak and indecisive . . . and he is seen as lacking authority to implement his own decisions.”

Critics say Singh, who holds an unelected position in the upper house of Parliament, lacks political credibility within his party by virtue of never having won a constituency seat in India. But the soft-spoken, almost timid economist-turned-politician also lacks the deftness to survive in the rough and tumble of Indian politics, commentators say, and the ability to forge alliances within his rowdy coalition and with the opposition.

He was also dealt a poor hand right from the start, when he was nominated as prime minister in 2004 because Congress leader Sonia Gandhi did not want the role — a convenient frontman for a party that remains deeply divided and corrupt.

Then, after elections in 2009, Singh appeared to have had little role in the formation of his cabinet, as coalition allies demanded — and received — particular ministries in return for their support.

“They chose portfolios where everybody knew you could make money, where discretion was involved and massive investment was taking place,” said Bharat Bhushan, editor of the Mail Today newspaper. “The PM was never his own master.”

Singh will always have a place in history as the finance minister who ushered in sweeping reforms in 1991 that unleashed the Indian economy’s potential and set the stage for two decades of growth.

But that record has arguably also been tarnished in the past year as the government drags its feet over a second round of economic reforms the country still desperately needs, as the economy slows and inflation runs rampant.

For now, Singh, 78 years old and the survivor of two heart bypass operations, is likely to continue as India’s leader until elections in 2014, partly because he has no serious challengers from within the Congress party, analysts say. But as one leading magazine proclaimed in a recent cover story on Singh, the latest allegations may represent “The End of an Aura.”

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