Indian Prime Minister Agrees to Telecoms Probe

Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, has agreed to face a parliamentary investigation into a spiralling corruption scandal that has paralysed the world’s largest democracy.

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

Mr Singh said on Wednesday that he was prepared to answer questions from legislators about alleged irregularities in the award of 2G telecoms licences.

An official audit, claiming the scandal cost the national exchequer $39bn, has rocked a fast-growing sector that attracted investments from some of the country’s most powerful business magnates.

A spokesman for Anil Ambani, the Indian billionaire who controls Reliance Communications, said that the tycoon met with federal police on Wednesday “to clarify ongoing issues relating to telecoms matters for the years 2001 to 2010”.

The ruling Congress party had previously resisted opposition demands for a parliamentary investigation. The dispute has stalled the government’s legislative agenda. “I’m quite happy to appear before any committee,” Mr Singh said.

Opposition leaders on the right and left leapt to the offensive minutes after the prime minister expressed disappointment that his second term in office had become mired in corruption scandals.

Nitin Gadkari, president of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, has attempted to paint Mr Singh as a weak leader presiding over a rotten cabinet. He said that the telecoms scandal demonstrated that the prime minister was “not capable of controlling the country’s bureaucrats”.

Mr Singh criticised the BJP, saying that the opposition’s disruptive politics reflected its concerns about the outcome of an investigation into riots that led to the killing of an estimated 2,000 Muslims in 2002.

However, he also acknowledged that a series of corruption scandals, which have also embroiled India’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games last year and the military top brass, had sapped the confidence of Indians in their country’s governance.

“I’m not saying that I have never made a mistake, but I’m not at fault to the extent everyone thinks I am,” Mr Singh said.

Amid speculation that Mr Singh’s travails might hasten a political transition, he emphasised his determination not to resign before serving a full five-year term. “Whatever some people may say – that we are a lame-duck government, that I am a lame duck prime minister – we take our job very seriously. We are here to govern, and to govern effectively.”

Swapan Dasgupta, a leading columnist, applauded Mr Singh’s honest approach to address concerns that were undermining India’s governance and international image.

But he said that such honesty was dangerous in a political environment where the “political distance” between the prime minister’s office and the swirling corruption allegations had narrowed.