Singh: India Serious About Fighting Graft

By PAUL BECKETT and KRISHNA POKHAREL
FEBRUARY 16, 2011
NEW DELHI—Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his government under fire over corruption, sought to regain the political initiative before Parliament resumes Monday, saying his administration is “dead serious” about rooting out graft.

In a rare news conference with television journalists, Mr. Singh bemoaned the blow to India’s “self confidence” caused by revelations about government failings, including widespread mismanagement ahead of October’s Commonwealth Games and an allotment of mobile telecommunications spectrum in 2008 that deprived the Treasury of up to $39 billion in potential revenue, according to a government auditing agency.

However, Mr. Singh laid much of the blame for the country’s diminished self-image at the feet of the media, which have been aggressive in reporting the scandals. Mr. Singh said scam allegations are weakening the self-confidence of the people of India.
He defended the government’s action in this context. “We take our job seriously,” said Mr. Singh. “We are here to govern and govern effectively.”

He also said he had no intention of quitting the post before his current term ends. A general election must be held by 2014; the coalition government led by Mr. Singh’s Congress party was re-elected in 2009. There has been speculation that Mr. Singh, 78 years old, may decide not to finish the current term. Mr. Singh said it is “too early… too premature to speculate” who will be the next candidate for prime minister.

Mr. Singh offered no new proposals to combat corruption, saying new measures were being examined by a group of ministers that would make recommendations. Political experts said his appearance likely would do little to reverse the political momentum against the government that has been accelerating in recent months.
Some are concerned with Parliament’s stalled legislative agenda and feel this issue hadn’t been adequately addressed at the news briefing. “On that there were no specific questions and no specific answers,” said M.R. Madhavan, head of research at PRS Legislative Research, a think-tank based in New Delhi.

He said the government has struggled to push its legislative agenda because Parliament has been hamstrung by opposition protests, which largely focused on scam allegations.
At the news conference, Mr. Singh said Parliament hadn’t been allowed to function for reasons he couldn’t understand.

India’s United Progressive Alliance coalition government was re-elected in 2009 with what many observers viewed as a strong mandate from voters to sustain India’s economic growth. It has managed to do so, with India’s gross domestic product expected to grow 8.5% in the year ending March 31, despite the economic slump afflicting much of the rest of the world.

But inflation also has risen rapidly, hurting India’s hundreds of millions of poor people and prompting a series of interest-rate increases by the Reserve Bank of India, the nation’s central bank.

The government also has been tarnished by the corruption scandals. The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and others disrupted the entire winter session of Parliament with protests over graft and demands for a joint parliamentary committee to investigate the spectrum allotment. The Congress party is trying to ensure that the upcoming parliamentary session, which includes its budget for the next financial year, not be similarly washed out. If the government fails to pass a budget, it could face a no-confidence vote, even though it currently has sufficient support in Parliament to survive.

“We will finalize our program [for the Budget session] based on how the government reverts to our demand for the joint parliamentary committee,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, a senior Bharatiya Janata Party member.

Write to Paul Beckett at paul.beckett@wsj.com and Krishna Pokharel at krishna.pokharel@wsj.com

Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703373404576147662375329824.html?KEYWORDS=PAUL+BECKETT

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