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Is Manmohan Singh in control?

Soutik Biswas | 10:35 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Manmohan Singh

These are the best of times and worst of times for India. The economy is growing at a steady clip, and aspirations of people continue to soar. But corruption scandals, high inflation, the breakdown of bipartisanship, a stalled parliament and a worrying drift in governance threaten to sully the narrative of Buoyant India which the world has happily embraced.

So when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sat down for a rare hour-long press conference in Delhi this morning, he, unsurprisingly, faced a barrage of questions on what his government was planning to do to crack down on corruption in high places. Unfortunately, say analysts, his answers did not reveal a more assertive chief executive who was fully in control of the situation.

For one, say critics, the reticent Mr Singh appeared to be more bothered by how India's image might have been damaged by the media coverage, than by the rising tide of corruption itself. He gave reassurances that the government was "dead serious" in bringing to book "all the wrongdoers regardless of the positions they occupy". When pressed further, he said: "Wrong doers will not escape this time."

But he also worried that in "projecting" (read, the media reporting) these events, "an impression has gone round that we are a scam-driven country". This was, he felt, "weakening the self confidence of the Indian people". He told the journalists: "In reporting the affairs of our nation, you should not focus excessively on negative features."

Many find Mr Singh's plea disingenuous as India remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and graft continues to eat away at its vitals. It hurts the poor most, widens inequity, kills initiative and saps energy out of society. For all its foibles, India's noisy and vibrant media has done more than a good job in relentlessly chasing the scandals - from alleged underselling of telecom licences to purchases for last year's Commonwealth Games. India's merchants of feel-good, however, insist that to highlight corruption at the cost of the country's considerable achievements - and there are many - is wrong.

Critics say Mr Singh should not be worrying about the self-confidence of his citizens. The rising self confidence of Indian people, they say, is despite the weak and ineffectual state; and it mostly comes from the opportunities they have been able to mine for themselves in a highly competitive nation.

Indians may be inured to corruption, but the recent spate of allegations has taken their breath away. Many believe that the time has come for an all-out war against corruption, something consecutive governments have been loathe to do. So, few believe the government when it says it is moving to bring back illicit money that Indians have stashed away in foreign banks. People believe there is a silent consensus among political parties to go soft on corruption. Nothing much has changed during Mr Singh's regime, they say, despite his exhortations and promises.

Mr Singh appears to have taken refuge in the uneasy compulsions of coalition politics to try to take the heat off on the corruption charges plaguing his government - after all, a former minister who is being investigated for his alleged involvement in the telecom scandal belongs to a key ally. So he kept insisting that coalition politics had hobbled him.

"You have to tolerate a lot in coalition politics," he said rather sheepishly. "We can't have elections every six months. Some compromises have to be made." The problem is that many feel that Mr Singh and his party are making too many compromises. "I am not saying that I have never committed a wrong," he said, smiling wanly. "[But] I am not the kind of culprit as some reports are making me out to be."

Mr Singh was characteristically honest and weakly convincing. He tried to shore up confidence in his government saying: "People say I run a lame-duck government, I am a lame-duck PM. But we take our job seriously, we govern seriously." But recent opinion polls point to Mr Singh and the Congress-led government's stock falling and it will take more than words from the prime minister to prove that his government isn't losing the plot.

The prime minister, as one of the journalists at Wednesday's meeting later said, appeared to be a "disturbed man". Prannoy Roy said he appeared to be more at ease at answering questions related to the economy and inflation - again, no surprises, because he is a trained economist - than he was tackling the complex web of charges in the telecom scandal.

Mr Singh has reasons to worry. He rightly despaired at the breakdown of
parliament and bipartisanship. He spoke about the need for a "spirit of rejuvenation, a spirit of self confidence. "We have problems," he said, "but we have credible mechanisms to overcome them."

The problem is that most of the so-called credible mechanisms - the police, judiciary, investigative agencies, regulators - are weak and discredited in the eyes of many people. India urgently needs to reform these state institutions. With little progress on these fronts many, according to BJP leader and former minister Arun Shourie, are feeling that the "situation is ripe for another people's movement". And it needs demonstrable action - and not stirring words alone - to rejuvenate the spirit of a nation which lives in hope and despair simultaneously.


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