It does not bode well for a government when its choice for the country’s new anti-corruption chief is blocked by the judiciary because he has been accused of corruption.
This is just one in a string of embarrassing revelations involving corruption in India, casting doubt over Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s squeaky clean image.
Meanwhile, recent Wikileaks documents have revealed that Singh’s Congress party might have paid parliamentarians to vote in favour of a civil nuclear deal with the US in 2008. While no one believes that Singh himself has been involved in any corrupt dealings, there is public disquiet over his perceived failure to take decisive action to prevent corruption from occurring around him.
In the case of the anti-corruption chief choice, the Supreme Court this month overruled a decision taken last September to appoint PJ Thomas to the role, pointing out that he is still facing criminal charges relating to allegedly fraudulent palm oil imports dating back to the 1990s.
And last year Singh was dragged into the corruption scandal of the year, when it was revealed that the former telecommunications minister had sold off rights to the 2G mobile spectrum and licences at grossly undervalued prices: the estimated loss to the government was $40bn (€28bn). Singh’s involvement? The prime minister had been notified that corrupt activity was taking place but he allegedly failed to respond until 16 months later.
This latest debacle comes hot on the heels of the scandal-plagued Commonwealth Games and some foreign firms are still complaining about not being paid for their services.
All this has not escaped the notice of India’s allies. In fact, David Cameron wrote to his Indian counterpart last month to express concern over corruption and a lack of business transparency – not a good look for a country poised to become a global economic power. “No one doubts his personal integrity; he’s not corrupt, he’s not taking any undue benefits,” says right-wing political commentator KG Suresh. “But you cannot be the head of a government where many ministers are under a cloud.” Singh’s inability to take clear preventative action has raised questions about his efficacy as the leader of a rag-tag band of coalition partners. With ruling coalitions cobbled together after elections, member parties within them often have little common ideological ground. This means Singh is often forced to accept decisions, such as those on ministry allocations, he otherwise wouldn’t support. “The overwhelming dependence on smaller parties [in the coalition] means they seem to have disproportionate influence,” says Neera Chandhoke, political science professor at Delhi University.
So while the corruption links are hardly career ending for the leader, they are a blow to his perceived ability to govern. And the timing couldn’t be worse, with state elections looming and India still trying to court much-needed foreign investment.