Posted by: John Elliott | February 16, 2011

Manmohan Singh is weak on corruption so spotlights the media


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.

“An impression has gone round that we are a scam-driven country and nothing good is happening in our country, that we are weakening the self-confidence of the people of India. I do not think that is in the interest of anyone in our country….This sort of atmosphere is not good. It saps our own self-confidence. It also spoils the image of India,” said Mr Singh (left), appearing to blame lack of objectivity in the media rather than the government’s failure to tackle issues, for India’s corrupt image.
As Reuters’ correspondent Alistair Scrutton tweeted from Delhi just after Mr Singh had spoken, “Blaming media is often the action of a cornered leader. India’s PM has just done that by criticising coverage of the corruption scandals,” to which Andy Buncombe, The Independent’s Delhi correspondent replied “Didn’t Mubarak also blame the media?”.


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.”


  1. All this corruption has been mainly due to the strength gained by way of powers by the Babus during the last 64 years. We are unnecessarily blamin the politicians who have no powers to sign a single cheque in our governing system .

    Had these Babus been honest and ahd respect for their country , not a single scam could have happened .

  2. Most of the communities in India (such as Bengali), are succumbed in ‘Culture of Poverty'(a theory introduced by an American anthropologist Oscar Lewis), irrespective of class or economic strata, lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody is at all ashamed of the deep-rooted corruption, decaying general quality of life, worst Politico-administrative system, weak mother language, continuous absorption of common space (mental as well as physical, both). We are becoming fathers & mothers only by self-procreation, mindlessly & blindfold. Simply depriving their(the children) fundamental rights of a decent, caring society, fearless & dignified living. Do not ever look for any other positive alternative behaviour (values) to perform human way of parenthood, i.e. deliberately co-parenting of those children those are born out of ignorance, real poverty. All of us are being driven only by the very animal instinct. If the Bengali people ever be able to bring that genuine freedom (from vicious cycle of ‘poverty’) in their own life/attitude, involve themselves in ‘Production of Space’(Henri Lefebvre), at least initiate a movement by heart, decent & dedicated Politics will definitely come up.
    – Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay

  3. Long back the Learned Lord Swaraj Pal suggested a National Govt at the center consisting of some Nationalist and honest leaders of BJP & Congress was the best solution for India to proceed on the path of progress. But such suggestions does not go down the throats of Todays’ politicians.Lal Bahadur Shastri told in a meeting of his staff that he is ready to tolerate an unintelligent person in his Deptt but not a corrupt staff. And in fact in life corruption wastes more time in solving a problem by an intelligent man than the slow reaction of honest person as he has less to think on hoodwinking the system for solving a problem .

  4. These guys are pretending that don’t know anything. Coalition government is more important than nation. What to say 😦

  5. A separate article on Jairam Ramesh is a great idea – he is a learned economist and astute politician. I think Ramesh, along with Arun Jaitley are 2 ‘young’ leaders from the Congress and BJP who should get better roles in government.

  6. I wanted a confirmation that whatever is going wrong in Indian Politics not some but most of it lands at Mrs Gandhi’s grandier loo which was not earned by her but bestowed on her from the lineage she enjoys and obstinacy of the Congress men who find refuse in this family name to hide their corrupt acts. Thanks for that insight.

  7. […] to home, here is John Elliot’s excellent piece on the rare press conference by Dr. Manmohan […]

  8. But the media has been full of hubris, this notion that India’s image has somehow been tarnished because corruption scandals have been unearthed is complete coddswaddle.

    If you were an institutional investor investing in India at any time post reform, you would have had to have been a complete idiot if you believed that you were investing in a country that was transparent and had good governance.

    The media has been editorialising the corruption scandals as being something new and shocking, when it is quite the opposite and totally unsurprising and perpetual.

    If you are global corporate or a portfolio investor looking for emerging market exposure to an economy with 300 million middle class consumers growing at 8 per cent clips, then there are few options available to you, and if India happens to be one of your choices, you would have to have been a fool to have put your money in, assuming there would be transparency and good governance. As you would have to be if you were investing in China or any other developing nation.

    India’s image has not been tarnished, it is unchanged.

    Mr. Singh has a very difficult job and a fine line to walk, his flaw as with virtually all Congress politicians, is a fear or aversion to being bold, though I appreciate Mr. Ramesh clearly does not suffer from the same affliction. In my opinion Mr. Singh wasn’t blaming the media, that is narcissism on the media’s part, what he was saying if you ask me, is that perhaps the domestic television news channels could be more responsible, rather than report 24 hours non stop on the same story, without ever really saying anything new and at the expense of all other news story’s, really in an effort to whip up populism and gain ratings.

    He said a number of times during the conference that India is a functioning democracy with a free press, but I would beg to differ that he was blaming the media, in so much as he was asking them to behave responsibly, and if you ask me, in a 24 hour news cycle world that is not a a wholly unreasonable request, given the fact that in this very post you say the Independent’s correspondent no less compared Mr. Singh with Hosni Mubarak, thank god you had the decency to refute that.

    Asking the media to behave responsibly and be fair in their reporting, is not the same as blaming them, when covering corruption scandals, lets avoid the colour and the hubris. This is India, we know its corrupt, by all means the media should report on corruption and help root it out, but not ad nauseum and lets not suggest that the India story is diminished as a result.

  9. “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.”

    This is a great insight (honestly, I’m quite cynical of Western journalists). Few pay attention to the relationship between India’s government and its media. The media is actually very independent compared to places like Canada, Australia, and the UK. The government has little or no say in what is printed, and there’s no Indian equivalent to the CBC, BBC, or ABC.

    I’ve found that most journalists will use anecdotal reporting to portray India as the most corrupt government in the world (it’s corrupt for sure, but not the most corrupt) while more objective (but not perfect) agencies like Transparency International give India a score of 3.2, which puts it middle of the pack and just behind China but well ahead of Russia.

    I’ve bookmarked your blog, cheers!

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