The biggest questions on people’s minds February 16, when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met editors of some television news channels in a nationally televised interaction, were: a. Is the India story going
awry? b. Is the prime minister, at last, taking up responsibility to clean the muck in the system — surfacing in the
form of scam after scam — to give some hope to the common man, who is also burdened by unbearable inflation?
I am clean, but I am helpless! That was the answer — in
essence — the nation got.
The 90-minute session revealed that to remain in power,
the Congress party, the ruling coalition’s leading party, is
making limitless compromises.
The prime minister looked disturbed. His defense was
not inspiring: ‘Obviously, things are not entirely the way I
would like them.’
He did clear the air a bit about his actions — or inaction
— by trying to convince people that he is ‘not as big a cul-
prit as is being made out to be.’ But, he conceded that there
is an ‘ethical deficit’.
In response to a question about his moral responsibility
in corruption charges on the government, Singh stunned
the nation with his realism of Himalayan proportions.
His memorable response — in Hindi, and translated here
— was: ‘I am aware of my responsibility. You should have
no doubt about that. But I have some compulsions too. One
has to tolerate a lot in coalition politics. Else, let a new elec-
tion be conducted every six months — but that would not
be proper. So, some compromises have to be made in man-
aging a coalition government and those issues therefore
have to be used in the context in which no single party, I
think, emerges which can rule by itself.’
Decoded, his remark mean that he can’t do anything
about corruption involving the Congress’ allies because the
government is dependent on them for survival. If he takes
stern action against corruption, the government will fall
and an election will be inevitable.
Even if this is realpolitik, these arguments are not acceptable, most critics felt.
‘They carried the odor of a wily politician more than that
of a forthright leader,’ declared Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the New Delhi-based think tank, the Center for
While the prime minister might blame coalition partners,
his Congress party’s track record of showing respect to its
allies is not trophy material.
‘This very prime minister and UPA-I (the first term of
Prime Minister Singh’s United Progressive Alliance government) ruptured the ‘coalition dharma’ and went ahead with
the (United States-India) nuclear deal, breaking with the
Left parties and engineering a majority in the Lok Sabha
through an obnoxious display of monetary horse trading.
Having done this, now to bemoan the “compulsions of
coalition” to justify its drift sounds hollow,’ declared
Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Sitaram Yechury.
At the meeting with editors, the prime minister looked
like a man under siege. Highly placed sources in the government claimed to India Abroad that he is worried about
his image and wants to make it clear that his hands are
clean. But he is fighting a lonely battle, because his party
has hung him out to dry.
Singh also sent a political message to detractors in his
He was asked: ‘Would you concede that there are a lot of
corrupt people in your government you are not able to act
against and that led you to believe that enough is enough?’
The answer was a study in pragmatism and survival
‘I think,’ he replied, ‘in a coalition government there is a
coalition dharma and obliviously the things are not entire-
ly the way I would like them to be, but quite frankly I have
never felt like resigning because I have a job to do. The
country voted our party to be the leader of the UPA coali-
tion and we have a lot of unfinished business to accom-
plish. Therefore, I have never thought in terms of giving up
halfway and I will stay the course.’
The idea of facing the editors was the prime minister’s
own, insisted sources in the know. In fact, the Congress
party seems pretty pleased with the progress in the investi-
of the helpless
Is the Indian prime minister an honest man stuck in a quagmire or just
another politician trying to save his office, asks Sheela Bhatt
I am clean, but I am helpless! That was the answer — in essence — India got to its pressing questions from Prime Minister
B MATHUR/ REUTERS
gation into the 2G spectrum scam so far. The Congress
party thinks it has given them a leg up in the upcoming
Tamil Nadu election because Andimuthu Raja, the now
jailed former telecommunications minister, belongs to the
state’s ruling party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. So,
while the prime minister is facing flak from the media and
the people directly, his party is dreaming of benefits in
The tension within the Congress party is also showing.
On the spectrum issue, Singh shifted the blame clearly to
the telecom ministry and the finance ministry, which was
held by P Chidambaram then. A day before the prime minister’s press conference, The Wall Street Journal hailed
Chidambaram as India’s possible next prime minister.
Immediately after Singh’s remarks, a letter written by
Chidambaram to the prime minister was leaked to the
media. The letter — written five days after the spectrum
allotment — recommended that 2G spectrum licensees
should share part of the profits earned.
At the press conference, the prime minister tried to project seriousness on the issues uppermost in people’s minds.
‘I wish to assure you and I wish to assure the country as
a whole that our government is dead serious in bringing to
book all the wrongdoers, regardless of the position they
may occupy,’ he said. ‘However, I would like to say that in
projecting these events an impression has gone round that
we are a scam-driven country and that nothing good is
happening in our country. In the process, believingly, I
think we are weakening the self-confidence of the people of
Ironic, because till India’s supreme court and the media
forced it to, his government did not take any action against
Raja, who allotted the telecom licenses and spectrum.
Singh also stunned the country when, in his first-ever
detailed public explanation of the 2G spectrum scam that
has cost at least $10 billion to the Indian exchequer, he parroted what Raja has been saying in defense of his first-come-first-serve- policy — as opposed to a transparent auction — for allotting spectrum to uber-rich corporate houses.
Singh not only echoed Raja’s arguments, he also defend-
ed it by owning up to the process of decision-making of that
first-come-first-serve policy. There was also a fig leaf: He
said he did write to Raja, raising a number of concerns.
Then the prime minister went on to explain how all con-
cerned departments had agreed against an auction. And,
he shifted the blame to the telecom and finance ministries.