Indian PM vows to punish corrupt officials
NEW DELHI – India's prime minister defended his embattled government against a string of corruption scandals Wednesday, saying the allegations would be thoroughly investigated and those involved would be punished, no matter their position.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government has been wracked by allegations that Cabinet ministers and ruling party officials orchestrated shady deals over the sale of cellular phone licenses, presided over faulty preparations for the Commonwealth Games and were involved in other misdeeds that cost India billions of dollars.
The scandals have dominated politics here for months and battered India's global reputation at a time Singh has sought to present his country as a rising international power. The entire winter session of parliament was paralyzed by opposition demands for the establishment of joint parliamentary probe, which Singh refused.
Singh told reporters during a news conference Wednesday that the guilty would be punished.
"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 positions they may occupy," he said.
Singh, a 78-year-old professorial economist, is widely seen as one of the most upright politicians in the country. Though he has not been accused of benefiting from any of the scandals, his reputation has been tarnished.
Many were disappointed that a Cabinet reshuffle last month did not sweep out some of the more questionable officials in his government, though Singh promised a second Cabinet shake-up after the upcoming budget session of parliament.
He brushed off questions about whether he would resign, and chided reporters for focusing so heavily on the scandals.
"We are weakening the self confidence of the people of India. I don't think that is in the interest of anybody that is in our country. We have a functioning government ... we take our job very seriously. We are here to govern and govern effectively," he said. "India as a whole has to march forward."
Nitin Gadkari, head of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said Singh lacks the will to fight the corruption.
"He is responsible for all the decisions taken by the government," he said.
Singh said his government deserved credit for maintaining economic growth amid the global downturn and for strengthening India's ability to prevent future terror attacks. He also expressed optimism about the government's efforts to bring peace and stability to the troubled northeast and the dispute region of Kashmir.
But much of the more than an hourlong press conference focused on the seeming unending list of corruption scandals the have erupted in recent months.
The biggest scandal involved the 2008 sale of licenses for cell phone airwaves under a confusing process that netted the government 124 billion rupees ($2.7 billion). A government auditor said the licenses might have been worth as much as $39 billion.
Two weeks ago, authorities arrested Singh's former telecommunications minister and other top officials in connection with the sale.
Allegations of corruption also dogged India's hosting of the Commonwealth Games last year, with its massive cost overruns, substandard construction and missed deadlines. Last month, the government fired the head of the games organizing committee, though he remains a ruling party lawmaker.
Other smaller scandals have forced the resignation of other top officials in the ruling Congress Party.
"They should not have happened," Singh said of the scandals. "I am not very happy over these developments."