First it was the fault of the media, then of his coalition partners, but now Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has found someone else to blame for his government’s inability to carry out planned projects.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, right, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy after a joint news conference in New Delhi in December 2010. Sarkozy visited India to pitch new nuclear contracts. (Pedro Ugarte/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

His comments attracted a barrage of criticism. In a front-page story, the Mail Today newspaper accused the soft-spoken and mild-mannered Singh of taking a leaf out of Indira Gandhi’s book, referring to the strong-willed, self-assured former Indian prime minister who “used to conveniently blame the ‘foreign hand’ for all the ills plaguing her government” in the 1970s.

The business newspaper Mint said in an editorial that Singh’s statement was “indicative of the deep crisis of governance facing India today.” Instead of blaming other people, it said, Singh should engage members of the opposition and persuade them to cooperate on important projects.

“It is simply not enough for the Prime Minister to throw up his hands and blame NGOs for his own government’s inability to get things done,” the Mint wrote.

In an interview with Science magazine that was published this week, Singh said the proposed Kudankulam nuclear plant site in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, which is being built using Russian technology, “has got into difficulties because of these NGOs, mostly I think based in the United States, who don’t appreciate the need for our country to increase the energy supply.” 

Singh’s words appeared out of character for the bookish economist, who is not known for promoting conspiracy theories. But the pressure of office, along with persistent criticism of his government’s policy paralysis and alleged corruption, may be telling.

Last year, Singh accused the media of undermining India’s self-confidence through their relentless campaign against corruption. Then his government threatened to clamp down on Google and Facebook for disseminating defamatory content about Singh and coalition leader Sonia Gandhi.

Singh has passionately advocated the expansion of India’s civilian nuclear energy program and is also the architect of a controversial nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. But work has not yet started on any of the new nuclear plants proposed as a result of the pact because of local opposition, which has grown since the accident at Fukushima in Japan last year.

Singh’s statement was rejected by a coalition of women, fishermen and farmers from 17 villages who have been protesting against the Kudankulam plant.

“By making these absurd allegations, he is diverting everybody’s attention from the real issues here,” said V. Pushparayan, an activist from the Coastal People’s Federation, which threatened to sue a minister in Singh’s government for making similar accusations about foreign influence last month.

At the time, the minister in question backtracked. But on Friday, the government stood by Singh’s charges. The prime minister’s aide and government minister V. Narayanaswami said a government probe had found financial irregularities in the functioning of some of the NGOs and had suspended the licenses of three groups, which he did not name.