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24 April 2024

Indian PM fights 'lame duck' tag in TV fightback


Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said Wednesday he was "dead serious" about fighting high-level corruption as he staged a televised fightback after a run of debilitating scandals.

The 78-year-old took to the airwaves to face a live grilling from Indian news editors in a risky move designed to combat months of bad publicity that have undermined his "Mr Clean" reputation.

Singh, the pioneer of India's dramatic economic reforms in the 1990s, accepted corruption had damaged his government and acknowledged that some people were now calling him a "lame duck".

"I regret that these irregularities have happened, they should not have happened," he said during the 75-minute inquisition, most of which he spent on the back-foot in the face of some unusually aggressive questioning.

Singh's centre-left coalition government, led by his Congress party, has been lambasted over corruption in the Delhi Commonwealth Games in October and the allegedly fraudulent sale of mobile phone licences.

"I wish to assure you and the country as a whole that our government is dead serious about bringing to book all the wrongdoers, regardless of the position they might occupy," Singh said.

He said he had never considered quitting and would "stay the course", urging critics to consider India's impressive economic performance -- growth will be 8.5 percent in the year to March, he said -- and growing diplomatic clout.

"We should not create a situation where the country loses its sense of self-confidence," he said in one of several pleas to the media not to exaggerate the problems faced by the government.

Analysts were split over his performance, with some saying it might help to clear the air while others said it smacked of desperation and would be unlikely to convince voters.

"The PM could have used this platform to deliver a strong statement to garner public support and silence the opposition but he failed to do so," said Ajay Sindu, an independent political analyst based in New Delhi.

Singh only once referred to the government's forward agenda, insisting that "we have not lost the will to take difficult reformist decisions... the agenda is there".

R.K. Dhawan, a political science professor at Delhi University, praised Singh for being "frank and candid" during questions from the mostly young and often outspoken anchors from India's raucous cable news channels.

The premier was repeatedly asked about inflation amid growing evidence that the rising cost of living is adding to the damage to him and his government just 18 months after their resounding re-election.

"It is certainly true that in recent months inflation and food inflation in particular have been a problem. We want to deal with it in a manner that the growth rhythm is not disturbed," he said.

By March, inflation should be down to 7.0 percent from 8.23 percent in January, he said, with a string of interest rate hikes by the central bank expected to cool the economy.

A weekend poll of 2,500 people in eight cities, published in the Times of India newspaper, showed rising frustration over corruption and inflation -- bad news for Singh's Congress party ahead of five state elections this year.

An overwhelming 83 percent of respondents said corruption was at an all-time high, and six out of seven respondents blamed the Congress-led national government or state administrations -- or both -- for inflation costs.

Singh's most uncomfortable moment came when he was asked why he had reappointed former telecom minister A. Raja to his cabinet despite complaints about the the fraud-tainted mobile phone licence sales in 2008.

Raja was arrested earlier this month and remains in police custody as investigators probe what could be India's biggest-ever corruption scandal.

The sale of licences at a fraction of their value could have cost the treasury up to ê40 billion, according to the national auditor, though Singh questioned this figure.

Raja, he pointed out, was from a regional party included in his coalition government and was that party's preferred candidate for the cabinet berth.

"I had no reason to feel anything seriously wrong had been done," he said.

The president of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, Nitin Gadkari, delivered a damning verdict, saying the press conference showed Singh's "helplessness".