Combining candour, calm and combativeness in a televised media interaction on Wednesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admitted to "weaknesses in governance" but said "wrongdoers will not escape this time".
The barrage of allegations of corruption and inefficiency against his government has only strengthened his resolve, the PM indicated. "We have a lot of unfinished business… I have never thought in terms of giving up half-way and I will stay the course," he said.
"Obviously, if these events have taken place, they bring out the weaknesses in governance, or you may call them ethical deficit… we need to improve the quality of governance,” Singh said, when asked if recent scams symptomised an “ethical deficit”.
There were occasions in the 70-minute interaction — his third major one with the media in his second term as PM — when Singh sounded defensive and searched for words, but largely the message was of firmness.
However, Singh’s attempts to counter allegations of him being a “lame duck PM” and why he could not act against tainted ex-telecom minister A Raja was less forceful: “Whatever some people may say… that I am a lame duck prime minister, we take our job very seriously.”
"In May 2009 (when Raja was inducted into the UPA-2 Cabinet), although complaints were coming from all sides… I was not in a position to make up my mind that anything was seriously wrong with Mr Raja’s doing at that time. I did not feel I had the authority to object to Mr Raja’s entry,” the PM said, referring to coalition partner DMK’s insistence that Raja be made telecom minister.
His explanation of the decision not to auction 2G spectrum — despite its strong logic — was feeble: “I did not feel I was in a position to insist that auctions must be insisted upon,” Singh said, recalling that the telecom and finance ministries had concurred with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and the Telecom Commission that auctions were not required.
Singh, however, distanced himself from Raja’s implementation of the “first come, first served” policy wherein telecom operators were handed out licences arbitrarily. “These were decisions of the telecom ministry,” the PM said.
Giving out a strong signal to his party colleagues and the Opposition, the PM said strong measures to clean up the government and punish the corrupt would follow. “Sometimes, it is very frustrating that it takes time,” he said about the delays in pursuing corruption cases. But he said wrongdoers would not go scot-free this time.
The PM reiterated that a new reshuffle of the Union council of ministers was on the cards. “I hope and I think I will get back to the task once the budget session of Parliament is over,” he said.
The news conference conveyed a willingness to take corrective measures on issues of governance as well as to fight for his honour. The PM repeatedly warned that while reporting, the media should not create an “impression that we are a scam-driven country”.
"Let me say that this sort of atmosphere is not good. It saps our self-confidence and spoils the image of India,” he said. “While opinions are a matter of speculation, facts are sacred.”