Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

INDIA: Govt Faces ‘Crisis of Credibility’ Amid Corruption Scandals

Sujoy Dhar

NEW DELHI, Mar 29 2011 (IPS) - Members of the united opposition here say the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh faces a crisis of credibility and are calling for drastic action amid charges of corruption.

Heated exchanges rocked India’s parliament as the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came under fire again following revelations from WikiLeaks that the government had survived a 2008 crisis by allegedly bribing lawmakers.

“The PM must quit forthwith,” said Lal Krishna Advani, the head of India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiaya Janata Party (BJP). Advani said the WikiLeaks cable merely confirmed their worst suspicions that Singh’s win in 2008 was influenced by bribery.

“This government survives on the strength of a political sin, a moral sin,” hollered Arun Jaitley, senior BJP leader and head of the opposition in India’s upper house or Rajya Sabha, on the floor of parliament.

A WikiLeaks cable published in an Indian daily set off the opposition. The story quoted a cable that a U.S. diplomat dispatched to Washington, allegedly saying he was assured by an aide of the ruling Congress leader that the party had gathered millions of rupees to buy out lawmakers’ votes. The centre-left Congress party leads the UPA.

Parliament was then involved in a crucial vote over the signing of a civil nuclear deal with the U.S. The communists withdrew their support for the deal, leaving the government with a minority vote, prompting the opposition to file a no-confidence motion. But the government managed to survive that crisis – garnering the support of lawmakers outside the coalition.

“The government is completely on the mat now. The image of the Prime Minister is sullied because his own clean record does not make any sense anymore, having been surrounded by murky people involved in corruption,” political analyst Paranjoy Guha Thakurta told IPS.

The WikiLeaks exposé is the latest in a series of corruption scandals to hit the Singh government, with even the judiciary weighing in on his office and governance.

Earlier this month, the supreme court struck down the appointment of P.J. Thomas as the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) of India, the country’s top corruption watchdog. The court cited Thomas’s tainted past and involvement in an oil import scandal, which had apparently been overlooked during his appointment.

Political analysts saw the supreme court decision as the severest blow to the Singh government because the prime minister himself headed the panel that chose Thomas, overruling dissent by the only opposition representative on the committee, the BJP Party’s Sushma Swaraj.

The government is also being pilloried for the nation’s biggest corruption scandal since its independence from British rule in 1947 – an irregularity in the allocation of telecommunications bandwidth that the government’s auditor said cost the state coffers over 39 billion dollars.

“The WikiLeaks cables are the latest to follow but the government is assailed since the scandal over the granting of second generation mobile spectrum licences, leading to a scandal which is the biggest in India in past 64 years,” says Guha Thakurta.

Former Telecommunications Minister A. Raja, a member of the government’s coalition partner Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) party, had to resign and then was sent to jail after a federal probe. Raja allegedly sold second- generation (2G) spectrum licenses at undervalued rates to mobile phone service providers, including ineligible companies, costing the national treasury about 39 billion dollars, according to the comptroller and auditor general.

The favoured recipients of the telecom licences made a profit by reselling the rights at a higher price, according to the investigators.

While the mobile spectrum scandal continued, another one erupted, this time over bandwidth granted to a private company by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), an agency directly under the office of the prime minister. Attacked by the opposition, Singh said he was not in the know and later cancelled the contract.

The spectrum cases were preceded by a media exposé of financial scandals during the Commonwealth Games last October.

In another judgement more recently, the supreme court slammed the government for failing to act against wealthy Indians who have been stashing away huge sums of money in foreign tax shelters. A report by Washington- based Global Financial Integrity (GFI) said India has lost a total of 213 billion dollars in capital via “illicit financial flows” from 1948 through 2008.

“These illicit financial flows were generally the product of corruption, bribery and kickbacks, criminal activities and efforts to shelter wealth from a country’s tax authorities,” GFI said.

The crisis of credibility prompted the prime minister to call a press conference, where he announced he would get tough on corruption. “I am not that much of a culprit as I am made out to be,” he told reporters.

After the publication of the diplomatic cables, political analyst Swapan Dasgupta said, “WikiLeaks is not conclusive evidence, but it corroborates the charges of cash exchange and skulduggery.”

Speaking on national television, Dasgupta added, “It really builds up an entire environment and corroborates the charge that this is a scam-ridden government.”

While the ruling government and the prime minister battle graft charges, a fresh survey by consultancy firm KPMG said corruption scandals tarnish India’s image abroad, impeding its growth and slowing down foreign investments. “Corruption poses a risk to India’s projected 9 percent GDP growth and may result in a volatile political and economic environment,” the KPMG report said.

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