NEW DELHI, Feb 16 – Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said Wednesday he was "dead serious" about fighting high-level corruption as he staged a televised fightback after a run of debilitating scandals.
The 78-year-old Singh took to the airwaves to face a live grilling from Indian news editors, in a risky move designed to combat months of bad publicity undermining his "Mr Clean" reputation.
Singh, the pioneer of India\’s dramatic economic reforms, accepted corruption had damaged his government and acknowledged that some people were now calling him a "lame duck".
"I regret that these irregularities have happened, they should not have happened," he said during the 75-minute inquisition, most of which he spent on the back-foot.
Singh\’s centre-left coalition government, led by his Congress party, has been lambasted over corruption in the Delhi Commonwealth Games in October and the allegedly fraudulent sale of mobile phone licences.
"I wish to assure you and the country as a whole that our government is dead serious about bringing to book all the wrongdoers regardless of the position they might occupy," Singh said.
He said he had never considered quitting and would "stay the course", urging critics to consider India\’s impressive economic performance — growth will be 8.5 percent in the year to March, he said — and growing diplomatic clout.
"We should not create a situation where the country loses its sense of self-confidence," he said in one of several pleas to the media not to exaggerate the problems faced by the government.
He was repeatedly asked about inflation amid growing evidence that the rising cost of living is hurting his popularity and that of his government just 18 months after their resounding re-election.
"It is certainly true that in recent months inflation and food inflation in particular have been a problem. We want to deal with it in a manner that the growth rhythm is not disturbed," he said.
By March, inflation should be down to 7.0 percent from 8.23 percent in January, he said, with a string of interest rate hikes by the central bank expected to cool the economy.
A weekend poll of 2,500 people in eight cities, published in the Times of India newspaper, showed rising frustration over corruption and inflation — bad news for Singh\’s Congress party ahead of five state elections this year.
An overwhelming 83 percent of respondents said corruption was at an all-time high, and less than one-third believed the government was serious about the problem.
Six out of seven respondents blamed the Congress-led national government or state administrations — or both — for climbing costs and a fifth said they had been forced to reduce consumption of some items.
Singh has faced pressure from the opposition for an all-party probe into the telecom scandal — a demand he is reportedly set to agree to — and was again asked why he did not stop the fraud-tainted licence sales in 2008.
The telecom minister at the time, A. Raja, was arrested earlier this month and remains in police custody as investigators probe what could be India\’s biggest-ever corruption scandal.
The sale of licences at a small fraction of their value could have cost the treasury up to $40 billion, according to the national auditor, though Singh questioned this figure while defending his decision to re-appoint Raja to his cabinet in 2008.
The Indian Express newspaper said Singh\’s televised appearance was "an attempt to clear the clouded air over the UPA (government) and extricate his government out of its virtual freeze".
The Mail Today newspaper headlined its Wednesday edition: "Singh image in need of pronto PR magic."
"Manmohan Singh\’s government is straying from one mega scam into another and the ruling establishment\’s credibility is at an all-time low," it said.
Singh kick-started India\’s economic revolution 20 years ago when he introduced reforms as finance minister that cut bureaucracy and opened up the country to foreign investment.
He was then the surprise choice as prime minister when Congress returned to power in 2004, going on to win a second term in 2009 with a convincing election victory.