NEW DELHI, Nov 20 – India\’s prime minister on Saturday denied accusations of "inaction" in a 40-billion-dollar telecoms scandal and promised that anyone found guilty of wrongdoing in the case would be punished.
Manmohan Singh is accused of failing to probe allegations that his telecoms minister sold second-generation (2G) mobile phone licences for a fraction of their value in 2008.
The scandal is seen by Indian commentators as the most serious crisis to be faced by the Congress-led government in the six years since it first took office and could potentially be the country\’s biggest corruption scandal.
"There should be no doubt in anyone\’s mind that if any wrong thing has been done by anybody he or she or will be brought to book," Singh said in his first public statement on the accusations.
"We need to deal effectively with the threats of corruption," he told a leadership forum in New Delhi.
While there is no suggestion Singh profited from the 2G spectrum allocation, his reputation as the "Mr Clean" of politics has been put into question, analysts say.
The firestorm was ignited earlier in the week when India\’s chief auditing body declared the sale of 2G telecom licences at far below their market value lost the country up to 40 billion dollars.
In an unusual step, the Supreme Court upped the pressure on Singh by asking him to present a sworn statement explaining his "alleged inaction and silence for 16 months" on a request by a prominent opposition lawmaker to prosecute former telecoms minister A. Raja.
Raja stepped down last weekend, denying any wrongdoing.
Under Indian law, the premier must approve criminal proceedings against any cabinet member.
Responding to the allegations, Singh\’s office submitted an affidavit to the court Saturday denying inaction and saying he had acted "in the interests of probity."
The submission said letters from the opposition lawmaker, Subramaniam Swamy, were forwarded to the justice department, which concluded any move against Raja would be "premature" as the federal Central Bureau of Investigation was already probing the case.
The next installment of the drama will come Tuesday when India\’s attorney general G.E. Vahanvati will appear before the Supreme Court on behalf of Singh to reply to questions about how he handled the request to probe Raja\’s actions.
In a sign pressures might be taking their toll, Singh, 78, who introduced India\’s market-led reforms in the early 1990s, said he sometimes felt "like a high school student – going from one test to another".
The opposition has paralysed parliament over the issue, prompting what Singh said was a "humble request to all political parties to allow parliament to function."
"We can discuss everything," he said, although the government has rejected the opposition\’s key demands for a joint parliamentary committee to investigate the allegations.
Ravi Shankar Prasaad, spokesman for the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, rejected Singh\’s defence, accusing him of taking part in "a conspiracy of silence" and being "guilty of gross indifference to the looting of the system."
Senior politicians of the ruling Congress party have rallied round Singh, whose cerebral style and reputation for probity usually puts him above India\’s mud-slinging politics.
"There has been no damage to an honourable man held in the greatest esteem by the country," said Congress Party spokesman Manish Tiwari.
Raja hails from a powerful southern regional party that is a pivotal member of the coalition government headed by Singh\’s Congress.
Congress party officials were said by commentators to have been unwilling to risk the fall of the coalition by upsetting Raja\’s DMK party.
Opposition parties charge that the ex-minister, who presided over the world\’s fastest-growing mobile market, gave away lucrative wireless spectrum licences to firms he favoured — some of which had no telecoms experience.