India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has today sadly displayed how weak he is in dealing with corruption at all levels of his coalition government.
In a one-hour carefully-managed televised meeting (right) with tv news channel editors, he admitted that he could not control all his ministers, and indirectly appealed to the media not to play up the many corruption scandals that are now being unearthed across the country.
There are two points here. As I have often written before, Mr Singh has little control when choosing many of his ministers, and has limited control over what many of them do once they are appointed – as has been evident in a current multi-million dollar corruption scam over awarding of 2G telecom licences. Second, the government’s media relations are weak, which means that it is bad at managing India’s international image that is currently being questioned because of corruption and ineffective governance.
Mr Singh of course is not nearly as vulnerable as Mr Mubarak was, nor is his democratically elected coalition government, and he had a good story to tell on the country’s strong 8-9% economic growth and moves to curb terrorism.. But a politician does neither himself nor his government any good by appearing in front of the media when he cannot stamp his authority on events. Mr Mubarak did not have that authority, when he appeared on tv the day before he was ousted, because of the crowds in Tahrir Square, especially at a time when international opinion had turned against him.
Mr Singh, who has been criticised for not speaking out earlier, does not have the authority because of the coalition weaknesses that he admitted. His authority is also weakened by the fact that he is not actually the head of the governing coalition – that mantle is held by the even more silent Sonia Gandhi, head of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty who is president of Mr Singh’s Congress Party.
He is a shy (though sometimes stubborn) academic at heart, and is not a strong public performer when under pressure, as he showed today. This is the second time in a year that he has failed to run an adequate press conference. He did the same last May at a big media event, where he said virtually nothing new and developed no themes on major issues. It is unfair however just to blame Mr Singh, when it is Mrs Gandhi who ultimately calls the shots.
Jairam Ramesh tackling corruption
I had been planning to write today about Jairam Ramesh, India’s minister for environment and forests, who is engaged in a battle for a key part of the future of India. He is doing this by trying to bring order and clean government to the application of environmental controls that has been riven by corruption and appalling mis-governance for more than ten years.
I will return to Mr Ramesh in another article, but the point to make today is that he is trying to stamp out corruption in the most effective way possible – by implementing laws and regulations honestly and as fairly as he can, and by setting an reputable example to his officials. He has the authority to do so because, as a long-term Congress Party policy maker and adviser with a clean image, he is backed by Mrs Gandhi. He is also backed by Mr Singh who, however, is concerned that Mr Ramesh’s actions might delay new projects and investment and slow down economic growth.
Mr Singh cannot force other less honest and policy-oriented ministers to be so effective. ”In a coalition government, you can suggest your preferences [for cabinet ministers] but you have to go by what the leader of that coalition partner ultimately insists,” he said today, explaining why he reappointed the now-jailed Andimuthu Raja from Tamil Nadu’s DMK party as telecommunications minister after the last general election, even though it is assumed he did not want him.
“I did not feel I had the authority to object to Mr Raja’s entry because quite honestly in May 2009, although complaints were coming from all sides…I was not in a position to make up my mind that anything seriously was wrong”. Presumably, he was “not in a position” to make up his mind primarily because Congress, headed by Mrs Gandhi, needed the DMK as a coalition partner. “Some compromises have to be made in managing a coalition,” said Mr Singh, after carefully detaching himself from personal responsibility for Mr Raja’s actions.
Mr Singh admitted that corruption scams “do bring out the weaknesses in the processes of governance”, adding, “You may call them ethical deficits”. That echoed remarks made recently by Palaniappan Chidambaram, the home minister, that there were “governance deficits”. Mr Singh added that he did not “deny that we need to improve the quality of governance,” but failed to go further and spell out Ramesh-style clean-ups in other areas.
He admitted that some people said “that we are a lame duck government, that I am a lame duck prime minister”, but did nothing to address that, apart from a promise that the “government is dead serious in bringing to book all the wrongdoers, regardless of
their position they may occupy.”
That has been said before, though there are signs that the government is planning to curb ministers’ discretionary powers that are not properly monitored, and to speed up corruption investigations.
So we wait to see how the government and the legal system deal with those involved in current corruption scandals – which Mr Singh referred to simply as “some aberrations” in his opening remarks. The scandals range from the telecom licences to last year’s Commonwealth Games preparations, real estate and land allocation deals in various states (including one involving top army generals), and illegal mining.
Mr Singh did not say enough to raise much hope that “all the wrongdoers” would be brought “to book” – nor that, as he said when asked specifically about the Games’ corruption, that “the wrongdoers will not escape.”