New Delhi: Even as the government stepped up its anti-corruption drive with its apex investigative agency launching nationwide raids on corporate lobbyist Niira Radia and close associates of former telecom minister A. Raja, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has begun to face tough questions from both within the Congress as well as senior political commentators.
Singh, who otherwise enjoys a squeaky-clean personal image, is facing questions on his handling of the crisis in the government, triggered by a series of sensational corruption charges in telecom as well as other public projects, and particularly his leadership role in calming a bewildered nation and nervous corporate India.
An official in the Prime Minister’s Office admitted that Singh was concerned and would articulate his views at the upcoming plenary session of the Congress party beginning Friday.
Not only has Singh’s image suffered a setback, it has led to a policy freeze with the logjam in Parliament preventing any fresh legislation, and the government itself not pursuing any major policy decisions in cabinet meetings over the last month.
The abrupt turn of events has come as a surprise since the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was re-elected with a more comfortable majority with the party managing 209 seats on its own strength.
Two people familiar with the developments, who did not want to be identified, said that the government was demoralized and one of them described senior bureaucrats to be in “shock”.
An official in the government, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “The cabinet has not taken any major decisions, no major legislation was passed or moved due to the stalemate in Parliament and there is a general lull in the government.”
Another official added that the sense of drift in the government and the raids will have a negative impact on the executive in the coming days.
The raids carried out by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the second in a week, entailed searches at offices and residences of Radia, former chairman of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Pradip Baijal and other close aides of Raja following investigations into irregularities in the allocation of second-generation (2G) spectrum.
It also raided 34 places, including 12 companies, linked to Raja’s close aides and relatives in Tamil Nadu, and a voluntary organization with which Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader M.K. Kanimozhi has close links. Raja is also a member of the DMK, the ruling party in Tamil Nadu.
The agency said Radia, who owns the firms Vaishnavi Corporate Communications, Noesis, Victom and Neucom Consulting, and Baijal, a retired Indian Administrative Services officer of the Madhya Pradesh cadre, were also questioned about files and documents during the raids.
Baijal, who retired in 2006, works with Noesis. Neither Baijal nor Radia could be immediately reached.
A Vaishnavi Corporate Communications spokesperson said, “We have extended all co-operation to the authorities and will continue to do so in the ongoing investigations.”
“CBI has today conducted searches at the residential and official premises of several companies, their directors and the former Trai chairman as part of the follow-up of searches conducted on 8 December in connection with the ongoing investigation into the allocation of unified access service licences,” CBI spokesperson Vineeta Thakur said. “Investigations have led to linkages of these people who were raided earlier. Searches have led to the recovery of incriminating documents.”
The agency had registered a case on 21 October 2009 against unknown officials of the department of telecommunications and unknown private persons, companies and others under charges of corruption and criminal conspiracy.
More raids are likely to take place in the coming days, a CBI official said.
The CBI investigations are likely to receive a fresh impetus after the Supreme Court decides on Thursday who will monitor the investigation into the 2G spectrum allocation.
The apex court is expected to name serving or retired officers to assist it in keeping track of the investigation, which has been on since October 2009, when the initial first information report (FIR) was filed by CBI.
CBI director A.P. Singh recently stated that the agency had expedited the probe and investigations can be concluded in three months.
The enhanced scrutiny by CBI has made corporate India, already shaken by the publication of leaked private conversations between industrialists and Radia, nervous. The Prime Minister sought to allay their fears by saying that in future such phone taps would be used judiciously.
Political analysts believe that matters have spun out of control and are now beginning to nibble at Singh’s image. “His image has suffered a big blow,” said Ramachandra Guha, historian and political analyst.
Writing in The Indian Express on Wednesday, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president, Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, said, “Prime Minister, you are central to governance: you constitute the governance deficit.”
Mehta concluded his essay by saying: “As for the prime minister: his worst failing may not be corruption, it may not even be standing idly by. His worst failing will be that by not coming clean, he has undermined any reason to trust so-called good men.”
Politicians, including former allies, were equally unforgiving.
Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member and Rajya Sabha member Sitaram Yechury added: “I would not say that he is responsible for what had happened but he is the one who has to set things right. He is the leader of the cabinet and the government so he should take the lead rather than blaming others.”
Guha pointed out that it was “disappointing” that Singh had not acted against corruption. “Tolerance of corruption is equally unacceptable... What’s the point in having an upright and honest prime minister if he is not taking action against those who are corrupt around him.”
Congress leaders privately admitted that the corruption charges against its leaders have “made serious dents in the party’s image” and the developments over 2G allocation have damaged the “teflon image” that the economist-turned-prime minister has enjoyed.
Sanjiv Shankaran and Nikhil Kanekal also contributed to this story.