India's PM vows to press on despite scandals
New Delhi, February 16, 2011
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh vowed on Wednesday to stay in office to press ahead with reforms, denying a series of massive corruption scandals had made him a lame duck leader.
Allegations the government may have lost up to $39 billion in revenues after firms were awarded telecoms deals at rock-bottom prices in return for kickbacks have caused months of parliamentary paralysis, rocked the ruling coalition, and rattled India's markets.
"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," an often frail-looking Singh, 78, said in a rare media roundtable with TV editors to improve his worsening image.
"We are here to govern, and to govern effectively. Tackle the problems as they arise and get this country moving forward."
That Singh was forced to deny talk of resignation underscored both the gravity of the scandals and how Singh's decision-making has been paralysed in his second term despite winning re-election in 2009 with an increased majority.
The last parliamentary session was halted by opposition protests demanding a probe into the telecoms scam, effectively stopping any reform bills such as one to make land acquisition easier for both industry and farmers.
"I never felt like resigning because I have a job to do ...
I will stay the course," Singh said in comments broadcast live.
Foreign investors have pulled hundreds of millions of dollars from the Indian stock market since the start of the year, while foreign direct investment (FDI) has fallen for three consecutive years, from 2.9 percent of GDP in 2008/09 to around 1.8 percent of GDP in 2010/11.
Some of this is connected with the global economic slowdown, but regulatory uncertainty may also be a factor.
"This sort of atmosphere is not good. It saps our own self-confidence. It also spoils the image of India," Singh said over the corruption scams, but he denied they had impacted FDI.
For more than an hour, editors peppered Singh with questions about why he had failed to act on corruption cases and why probes had taken so long. On each question, Singh, looking defensive and rattled, denied wrongdoing, and often referred to a prepared written statement.
Singh's stumbling has prompted some commentators to predict a repeat of 1989, when Congress lost a general election due to the Bofors scandal. That centred on gun contracts involving close associates of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who were accused of taking bribes.
The next general election is still three years away and Singh has opportunities to regain the initiative, whether through spending on social welfare programmes or doing better than expected in state elections.
But Singh has always been hampered by the image of playing second fiddle to Congress Party head Sonia Gandhi, and, as a figurehead leader, exercising little real power.
In Wednesday's broadcast, Singh at times gave the impression of indecision, such when he replied when asked why he did not act quickly over problems in the allocation of telecom licenses between 2007 and 2008.
"Although complaints were coming in, although complaints were coming from all sides, some from companies not benefiting (from the telecoms spectrum allocation) ... I was not in a position to make up my mind that anything seriously was wrong," Singh said.
Singh's government now appears close to agreeing to a broad, cross-party investigation in the scandal, paving the way for parliament to resume as normal for a Feb 21 budget session, and Singh said he would press ahead with reforms.
"We have not given up, we will persist (on reforms). There are difficulties, particularly when government is not allowed to function."
In one sign the prime minister may refresh his government, Singh said there would be another reshuffle of his cabinet after the budget session. The first reshuffle of his second term in January was widely criticised as cosmetic.
"We have important legislation, apart from the budget, to put before parliament," Singh said. "And talks are going on with the opposition parties to ensure that whatever our differences, parliament should be able to function normally."
The scandals have taken a heavy toll on Singh, who is concerned his legacy is shifting from that of a founder of India's economic boom, to someone who did nothing to stop corruption or policy paralysis.
Singh may have hoped the current scandals would ebb. But an aggressive media, an assertive Supreme Court and an opposition tasting political blood have seen momentum into the corruption probes expand. - Reuters