Dispatch

The Drama in Delhi

India's government has been rocked by scandal after scandal. So why hasn't it fallen?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

NEW DELHI — Manmohan Singh, India’s beleaguered prime minister, sits slumped on the front bench of the country’s upper house of Parliament, his brow furrowed above large, brown-rimmed spectacles, his arms crossed over his traditional white smock.

Opposite him, scores of enraged opposition MPs are on their feet, wagging their fingers, waving placards, and shouting over the powerless speaker of the house to decry unprecedented government corruption that runs into billions of stolen dollars. In the bedlam that has engulfed India’s Parliament since November, one question rings out clearly: "How can the prime minister still keep his job?"

If Singh, a 78-year-old technocrat who has never won a seat at the ballot box and was handed the top job after Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi turned it down, is an unlikely prime minster, the survival of his administration despite charges of theft, endemic corruption, and allegations of vote-buying seems almost incomprehensible.

Yet, against all odds, Singh and his cobbled-together coalition government are in little danger of being sent to the back benches. The reason: a powerful combination of an unprepared opposition, a ruling party devoid of other leadership options, and an electorate indifferent to corruption that steadfastly believes their soft-spoken, unassuming leader is the only clean politician left in India.

Over the past six months, six major scandals involving improper use of political power by members of Singh’s coalition government have been splashed across the front pages of India’s newspapers. Tentative estimates put the combined loss to the exchequer at more than $80 billion — more than double India’s defense budget.

Most have lead right to the doormat of the prime minister’s office. Singh was forced to admit personal responsibility last month for employing an accused criminal as India’s highest anti-corruption chief; the country’s highest court admonished him for failing to prosecute his telecommunications minister for a $39 billion spectrum allocation scam in November; and he heads the space ministry that opposition politicians allege allocated lucrative telecommunications bandwidth to a private company for $44 billion less than its market value.

In the latest scandal, the Hindu newspaper on March 17 published a secret U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks that claimed Singh’s party had attempted to buy support in a crucial confidence vote in 2008. According to the cable, a senior Congress party official had shown a U.S. Embassy employee two chests filled with cash and told the diplomat that the party had around $13 million for use in bribing lawmakers and that it had paid almost $9 million to four lawmakers to secure their support for the vote, on which Singh had staked his personal reputation and political future.

Singh’s ultimate victory in the tight vote, which centered on U.S. support for India’s nuclear power plans, was seen as a foreign-policy landmark and prompted TV channels to proclaim "Singh is king" — comparing the prime minister, in his trademark baby-blue turban and professorial glasses, to the protagonist of one of that year’s most popular Bollywood movies.

Prior to the vote, three opposition MPs took to the well of the house and waved dozens of 5-inch-thick wads of cash at the Congress benches to protest against rumors of vote-buying. An investigation cleared all members of any impropriety, something the WikiLeaks report threw into serious doubt this week.

Yet the front page of India’s Mail Today newspaper on March 18 neatly summed up the media’s general response to the latest revelation against Singh and his coalition. "WikiLeaks Dent UPA But Won’t Sink It," it splashed, referring to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance.

Arguably, far smaller corruption allegations, such as Britain’s parliamentary expenses scandal last year, have seen Western governments fall on their sword at the behest of angry electorates. Yet Singh and his Congress government appear immune to the taint of graft.

The main opposition party, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has seen its stock rise as Congress’s has plummeted, with party leaders missing no opportunity to pile pressure on the government.

But despite trumpeting a seemingly never-ending list of embarrassing charges for the government to answer, the BJP is in no position to mount a serious campaign against Congress. In a self-confessed recuperation period following two drubbings at the national ballot box, it lacks a campaign message — save painting Congress as the party of graft — to galvanize the electorate.

The once formidable BJP, currently led by a collection of elderly politicians, nationally unpopular figures, and inexperienced political players, lacks a clear candidate for the top job and a defined structure to organize a campaign that would find appeal across India’s diverse population of 1.2 billion.

Further, as India’s political analysts wryly note, the BJP is no stranger to corruption charges. This year, the opposition forced the government to create a parliamentary committee to investigate the $39 billion telecom spectrum scandal, but withdrew demands for a wide-ranging inquiry across all parliamentary corruption — an investigation that most likely would have caused red faces on both sides of the house.

In 2009, research from the Association of Democratic Reforms, an India-based political watchdog, found that 162 lawmakers sitting in India’s 545-member lower house of Parliament (30 percent of them, spread over party lines) faced criminal charges, with 76 facing serious charges such as murder, kidnapping, robbery, or extortion. India’s voters know full well that their representatives don’t always follow the rule of law.

Inside the Congress party, which heads a coalition that retains a one-vote majority in the lower house of Parliament, there is a great deal of head-scratching over possible successors to Singh, should he be asked to step down by party president Gandhi.

Her 40-year-old son Rahul, the party’s general secretary and the youngest in a Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has shaped India’s post-independence future more than any other family, is widely viewed as the heir apparent to the premiership, but his poor performances in state election campaigns and his lack of parliamentary experience mean many inside the party structure are unsure he is ready for the job.

Other candidates, including Singh’s defense, finance, and home ministers have been mooted in New Delhi’s corridors of power as possible interim leaders, but are not likely to be given the nod unless Singh chooses to step down — and Sonia Gandhi gives her blessing.

That looks unlikely as long as the public maintains its unwavering support for the prime minister. As the charges mount and the critics across the aisle and on the news channels increase their volume, Singh’s impeccable reputation among the voting public appears undiminished.

 

"Manmohan Singh is the only straight man in government," B. Butt, a 59-year-old fabric exporter from New Delhi, told me. "If he was corrupt, he would have stolen money when he was finance minister. The BJP know they have nothing on him."

Singh’s global reputation was forged in his role as the architect of India’s current economic boom during his tenure as finance minister in the early 1990s. His close friendship with U.S. President Barack Obama and the long line of world leaders who have publicly praised him for his economic leadership are a source of great pride for India’s common man.

Another factor keeping the government afloat is that corruption is pervasive in Indian society. Indians are used to paying bribes to secure a passport or avoid a driving fine; much larger crimes perpetrated by politicians merit only a resigned shrug from voters. A recent report by Western consultancy firm KPMG stated that the current crop of corruption charges against lawmakers represented merely a step up from the "petty bribes" that most accept as a part of life.

Indeed, for most Indians — 42 percent of whom live on less than $1.25 per day, according to the World Bank — corruption is a minor concern compared with putting food on the table. Around 100,000 people marched in New Delhi last month protesting against the government, but their concern was rising inflation and high unemployment, not graft charges against ministers or billions of dollars missing from federal coffers. A similar march organized in January to protest against corruption drew only 5,000 people.

As the corruption charges rumble on and various investigative agencies and committees compile report after report, Singh’s leadership faces an acid test next month in five state assembly elections. Yet his party is not expected to perform badly in any of the polls; seat-share wrangling with flaky coalition allies appears to present a bigger headache to his party leadership than any possible failings at the ballot box.

But if Singh and Congress are unable to wash themselves of the stains of corruption in time for India’s federal elections in 2014, a better-resourced and better-organized opposition could well make telling inroads against a Congress party with no clear successor.

For now at least, despite the opposition’s wall of noise demanding his resignation, Manmohan Singh shows little signs of making a quiet exit.

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