Singh says he's no lame duck and India is not a 'scam-driven country'

Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 8:03 PM

NEW DELHI - A satirical cartoon published here last week showed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh holding up his hands and declaring, "I'm above all this." The next frame zoomed out to show Singh perched on the bow of the sinking ship of his government, in shark-infested waters representing a string of corruption scandals.

On Wednesday, India's scholarly, soft-spoken leader decided that lofty abandon was no longer a sustainable tactic, submitting to a rare hour-long grilling in a televised news conference that was broadcast nationwide.

Singh's message was twofold: that his coalition government was "dead serious" about rooting out corruption and that the news media, which have sought relentlessly for the past six months to expose corrupt government officials, should stop disparaging India.

"The impression has gone round that we are a scam-driven country and that nothing good is happening in our country," Singh said. "In the process, willy-nilly, I think we are weakening the self-confidence of the people of India."

Yet the 78-year-old Singh, who often sounded hesitant and defensive, did little in his appearance to restore confidence or burnish his country's reputation.

India's economy is forecast to grow more than 8 percent this year, and investors and economists remain positive about the country's long-term prospects. But inflation has hit double digits, and there has been no sign of the economic reforms the country needs to realize its potential since Singh was reelected to a second term in 2009.

Foreign investors have pulled hundreds of millions of dollars from the Indian stock market since the start of the year, and direct foreign investment has fallen for three consecutive years. Allegations that the government may have lost as much as $39 billion in revenue in 2007 and 2008 after firms were awarded telecom licenses at rock-bottom prices in return for kickbacks have caused months of paralysis in Parliament.

"Whatever some people may say, that we are a lame-duck government, that I am a lame-duck prime minister, we take our job very seriously," Singh said.

Singh's low-key manner may have impressed President Obama - the two men reportedly felt an immediate rapport - but his mild-mannered style is wearing thin at home, with many Indians arguing that the country needs a firmer hand. He has always labored in the shadow of Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, whom many see as the real power behind the government, but Singh also sometimes seems out of his depth in the cut and thrust of coalition politics.

As finance minister in the early 1990s, Singh was considered the architect of the economic reforms that first unleashed the Indian economy's potential. During his first term as prime minister, he pushed through a civilian nuclear cooperation deal with the United States that underscored the country's emergence on the world stage. But his second term has disappointed many people.

The most serious accusation against Singh is that he failed to act decisively when warned about the telecom industry scandal, even reappointing the minister at the center of the controversy. The former telecommunications minister, Andimuthu Raja, was arrested this month, along with two other officials.

"In a coalition government you can suggest your preferences, but you have to go by what the leader of that coalition party ultimately insists," Singh said. "And at that moment I had no reason, frankly speaking, to feel that anything seriously wrong had been done, and therefore I did not feel that I had the authority to object to Mr. Raja's entry" into the government.

Singh said he had trusted his ministers to ultimately decide about the license applications, and went on to defend his government as doing a good, if not perfect, job.

"Things are not entirely the way I would like them to be," he said, "but frankly, I have never thought of resigning, because I have a job to do."

Singh's remarks did little to satisfy the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which halted the last parliamentary session to protest the corruption scandals. It said the "coalition dharma" was no excuse for tolerating corruption.

"Nobody for a moment has suggested that he is guilty of any personal misdemeanor," said the BJP's Arun Jaitley. "But his culpability is lack of political leadership, lack of assertion and lack of courage to stop corruption when it was taking place."

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