Indian prime minister Singh's image taking hits from dirty politics around him

Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 12:00 AM

NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has enjoyed an unblemished career in a country where most politicians are regarded as corrupt.

But as scandal after scandal rocks his government, analysts and opposition lawmakers are questioning his ability to discipline corrupt colleagues and stop wrongdoing.

Although no one has suggested that Singh has personally benefitted from any of the scandals, even some in his Congress Party concede that the sleaze that surrounds him has begun to tarnish his squeaky-clean image.

"The public perception about Manmohan Singh was about decency, dignity and moral authority," said S. Prasannarajan, the managing editor of the newsmagazine India Today. "The politics of greed, the leitmotif of Indian democracy, has taken the sheen off the much feted gentleman-prime minister."

Singh, 78, a soft-spoken, Oxford-educated economist, has listed corruption and crony capitalism as among the biggest problems India must battle. His supporters say corruption is endemic in India and cannot be erased overnight.

Singh's domestic troubles come as his global stature appears to be rising. During his visit to India in early November, President Obama called Singh "a dear friend." Earlier, Obama said: "The world listens attentively when you speak. You have a deep understanding of economic issues." Former British prime minister Gordon Brown also praised him for his economic acumen.

The most recent scandal involves a telecommunications minister who resigned after he was accused of selling business licenses to select cellphone companies at throwaway prices, costing the nation about $40 billion in lost revenue. A recent government audit report said the licensing process was "arbitrary, unfair and inequitable."

Singh has been criticized for waiting until just three days before the audit report was released before asking the minister, Andimuthu Raja, to quit. The Supreme Court, which is hearing a public interest petition on the case, said it was "troubled" by Singh's "silence" on the matter.

Some Congress Party members have privately said Singh is simply unable to rein in colleagues in his coalition government because he needs their support to rule.

But analysts say he might have sacrificed his honor for power.

The list of corruption scandals this year includes allegations of widespread corruption as India prepared to host the Commonwealth Games this October and revelations that politicians, officials and military bosses took units in a high-rise apartment building in downtown Mumbai meant for families of soldiers killed in battle.

In April, at least two government ministers were accused of impropriety in a cricket tournament scandal.

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