New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh resorted to a Roman analogy to defend himself from allegations of inaction relating to the ongoing second-generation (2G) controversy but signalled, in a speech to his partymen at Burari in north-west Delhi, that his government, while pursuing punitive action against those found guilty of graft, would not give in to the opposition’s demand for an investigation by a joint parliamentary committee into irregularities in the 2008 allocation of spectrum and licences to telcos.
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), meanwhile, summoned former telecom minister A. Raja, one of the main players in the controversy, for questioning.
Sticking to stance: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi at the party’s 83rd plenary on Monday. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
“I have nothing to hide. I have tried to serve this country with the best of my ability,” Singh said, “but I sincerely believe that like Caesar’s wife, the Prime Minister should be above suspicion and it is for this reason that I am prepared to appear before the PAC (public accounts committee) even though there is no precedent to that effect.” The PAC, a parliamentary panel headed by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Murli Manohar Joshi, is investigating a report by the government’s auditor, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report on the 2G controversy.
In an attempt to alter the discourse on tackling graft in public office, Singh also announced that the government would implement the five-point clean-up plan proposed by Congress party president Sonia Gandhi in her speech at the same venue on Sunday.
An unusually aggressive Singh, stung by growing criticism against his leadership, departed from his prepared speech to take on the opposition, but his speech at the 83rd plenary session of the Congress also signals that the government isn’t blinking yet in the staring contest it is engaged in with the opposition on a JPC investigation. The recently concluded winter session of Parliament saw almost no business being done with the opposition keeping up its drumbeat for a probe by a JPC. The opposition’s argument has been that while a PAC cannot summon ministers without seeking the speaker’s permission or take suo moto action, a JPC could have a broader mandate.
Singh has been under attack from both within and outside the Congress party for his failure to act speedily in addressing allegations of graft against Raja as well as office bearers of the organizing committee of October’s Commonwealth Games (CWG).
A political analyst said that Singh’s offer was a difficult one for the opposition to ignore. The Left parties and BJP have to respond to Singh’s offer or “the country will know that the demand for JPC and the stalling of Parliament session was a calculated political move for electoral gains,” said B.G. Verghese, political analyst and visiting professor, Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi based think-tank. “The opposition has lost its case now.”
The main opposition party had no problems in brushing aside Singh’s offer.
“The Prime Minister said that I have nothing to hide and Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion. Caesar’s wife never chose the forum of her own inquiry, but he has chosen the forum also by saying that he is ready to appear before the PAC,” said BJP’s Arun Jaitley.
In his first public utterances after being criticized by the opposition as well as political commentators, the 78-year-old Prime Minister said: “Our objectives and principles are being suspected. Our record is being questioned for partisan political ends. It is being that we are not sufficiently sensitive to the issue of corruption.”
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Reiterating that the JPC, the demand for which he termed as a political stunt by the opposition, would achieve nothing, Singh reiterated that the government is conducting a thorough investigation of several cases. “These inquiries (CWG and 2G) will be pursued vigorously. And it is my promise to you that no guilty person will be spared—whether he is a political leader or a government official, whichever party he may belong to and howsoever powerful he may be.”
Meanwhile, CBI on Monday sent notices to Raja and corporate lobbyist Niira Radia asking them to appear before it for questioning and grilled former Telecom Regulatory Authority of India chief Pradip Baijal in connection with the 2G spectrum controversy.
“I am not afraid of CBI. I am a lawyer. As a lawyer, I will abide by the law. I will not evade the law,” Raja told reporters in Chennai.
Notices were sent to Raja and Radia among others in connection with the probe into the 2008 allocation of licences spectrum to telcos on favourable terms.
“I have given my clarifications (to CBI),” Baijal told reporters after the questioning.
Singh also indicated that the proposed National Food Security Act will focus on the below poverty level population and said the government is committed to improving the public distribution system “so that the socially and economically weaker sections of our society become the true beneficiaries of the food security act.”
He also said India’s annual headline inflation is expected to ease to 5.5% by the end of March 2011. Annual headline inflation in November fell to a 11-month low of 7.48%.
Although he called for friendly ties with Pakistan, Singh said it would be possible only when that country sees to it that its territory is not used for terrorist activities against India.
At the party plenary, which concluded on Monday, Sonia asked party workers to aggressively confront the opposition.
Keeping in view of the upcoming state elections, including in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, the Congress chief, whose party faced a humiliating defeat in the recently concluded Bihar state polls, said there was “simply no alternative to unity, hardwork and discipline.”