It is ironic that Manmohan Singh, seen as one of India’s most upright politicians since independence, should preside over an administration widely perceived as one of its most corrupt. It is ironic too that a prime minister (and former finance minister) who has contributed so much to India’s success should now be regarded as a lame duck. But neither Mr Singh’s moral, nor his technocratic, authority are enough to halt the sense of drift, even decay, surrounding his Congress-led coalition.
The prime minister’s impotence in the face of mounting problems came across in Monday’s Independence Day address. Much of his speech was a litany of problems, from high inflation and Naxalite rebellion to persistent malnutrition and terrorist attacks. But the overriding theme was corruption. As well it should be. Mr Singh’s administration has been rightly savaged after accusations that it frittered away $40bn through rigged auctions of telecoms spectrum. Foreign direct investment has fallen sharply, partly because of concerns about investing in what one local banker called “the land of scams”. There has been a wave of hunger strikes. The day after Mr Singh pledged to fight corruption, police arrested the veteran activist Anna Hazare, who is threatening to fast for the cause of tougher anti-corruption laws.
Mr Singh is right to say “no government has a magic wand” to combat graft. But there is more that he could do. He should start by seeking to strengthen the proposed anti-corruption ombudsman. Legislation to create such a body is overdue. It was first proposed in 1968 and has been introduced into parliament – without success – no fewer than nine times since. No doubt Mr Singh has compromised on the bill’s contents to secure its passage. But it has been watered down too much. The new body will have no powers to initiate prosecution nor to investigate corruption by ordinary citizens. Instead, it must limit its activities to cases forwarded by parliament – the body most suspected of harbouring corrupt elements. Penalties envisaged, at a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment, are too light.
Mr Singh’s power has always been limited by the fact that he was nominated by Sonia Gandhi, India’s real political heavyweight. With Mrs Gandhi ill and the prime minister’s administration under attack, his authority is diminished further. But the corruption raging around his government threatens to undermine his legacy. He should use what little clout he can still muster to help stamp it out.
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