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India to Prosecute Any Phone-Permit Wrongdoers, Singh Pledges

prime minister of India Manmohan Singh
Manmohan Singh, prime minister of India. Photographer: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg

India’s prime minister rejected allegations that he had delayed responding to calls for prosecution of a minister that awarded phone licenses at below- market prices and pledged to punish wrongdoers in the case.

“If any wrong thing has been done by anybody, he or she will be brought to book,” Manmohan Singh told a conference in New Delhi yesterday. His office also filed an affidavit with the Supreme Court yesterday rejecting allegations Singh had put off bringing charges against former Telecommunications Minister Andimuthu Raja.

Opposition lawmakers stalled proceedings in parliament for seven days and demanded a deeper probe, resulting in the benchmark Bombay Stock Exchange Sensitive Index falling to a two-month low at its close on Friday, Nov. 19. The clash in parliament is threatening to slow decisions by the Congress Party-led coalition government that is reviewing policies to open up the $1.3 trillion economy to companies including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Carrefour SA.

“Various aspects of this are being looked into by respective investigating agencies,” Singh said. “I appeal to all political parties to let the parliament do its work. We are ready to discuss all issues in parliament.”

The Supreme Court had asked the Prime Minister’s office to explain by Nov. 20 why he didn’t respond to calls for Raja’s prosecution. The prime minister’s office said it was in the process of seeking advice from the law ministry and awaiting a probe report by the federal investigating agency.

‘Partisan Interest’

Singh’s government has rejected the opposition’s demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the Comptroller and Auditor General’s charges, the nation’s auditor.

“The reason we are raising the demand for the parliamentary probe is because of the suborning of official institutions to narrow partisan interest,” said Brinda Karat, a lawmaker of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) at the Hindustan Times Leadership summit in New Delhi yesterday.

The government sold wireless airwaves in 2008 for 123.9 billion rupees ($2.7 billion), though they were worth as much as 1.5 trillion rupees, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India said in a report to parliament in New Delhi on Nov. 15. The telecommunications ministry allowed some bidders to “jump the queue” and awarded 85 of the licenses to ineligible companies, according to the report.

Raja resigned one day before India’s chief auditor said the 2008 sale “lacked transparency and was undertaken in an arbitrary, unfair and inequitable manner.”

Clear Conscience

His conscience is “clear,” Raja said after resigning on Nov. 14, adding he will prove he didn’t break any rules.

The former telecommunications minister is a member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the political party that rules the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and is a partner in Singh’s federal governing coalition with 18 seats in the lower house.

India’s plan to raise the foreign-direct-investment ceiling in insurance to 49 percent from 26 percent has been stuck in parliament for more than three years because of a lack of consensus among the political parties.

“The key legislative business has come to a standstill due to this impasse, and the government will have think hard about how it will get its important laws passed,” said N. R. Bhanumurthy, an economist at the New Delhi-based National Institute of Public Finance and Policy. “This also offers them an opportunity to address the institutional weaknesses in the system.”

The government may decide in two months whether to allow Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart and Paris-based Carrefour to open retail stores, Junior Commerce Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia said Nov. 19.

Constant Tests

Prime Minister Singh gave Human Resources Minister Kapil Sibal the additional charge of the communications and information technology ministry on Nov. 15 after Raja’s resignation.

“It is often said that these are testing times,” Prime Minister Singh said yesterday. “In fact, I can’t help feeling that we in India are always living through testing times. Indeed as Prime Minister I sometimes feel like a high school student, going from one test to another.”

“The good news is that though being constantly tested, we are winning,” Singh said.

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