India's PM offers to be questioned in scandal

Associated Press
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh greets a freedom fighter during the 83rd Plenary session of the Congress party in New Delhi, India, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)
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India's prime minister offered Monday to be questioned by a parliamentary committee to prove his innocence in a telecommunications scandal that has shaken the government and reportedly cost the country billions.

The Public Account Committee, headed by an opposition leader, is examining a report by India's auditor general that says the government lost as much as $36 billion in potential revenue during its 2008 sale of second-generation, or 2G, cellular licenses.

"I sincerely believe that, like Caesar's wife, the prime minister should be above suspicion. I am prepared to appear before the committee, even though there is no precedent to that effect," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told a meeting of his governing Congress party.

The issue overshadowed the two-day party conclave, which was scheduled to conclude later Monday on the outskirts of New Delhi.

On Sunday, the party chairwoman, Sonia Gandhi, defended Singh, saying "the party stands solidly with him."

Gandhi sought to dispel the opposition criticism that her party and the government were not sufficiently sensitive to corruption.

She suggested a new system of fast tracking all bribery cases involving politicians and government servants and a new law to ensure full transparency in government contracts.

"This would bring the guilty to book quickly and clear those unfairly charged," she said.

India's judicial system is notorious for delays, mainly caused by a heavy backlog of pending cases.

The auditor report last month refocused attention on the 2008 telecoms sale, which it said was held on a first-come, first-served basis that netted the government only 124 billion rupees ($2.7 billion) and awarded some licenses to ineligible participants who sold their stakes at a high premium.

The report led to the resignation of former Telecoms Minister Andimuthu Raja, who has denied wrongdoing.

Opposition officials accused Singh of dragging his heels while one of his government ministers presided over the scandal. They paralyzed parliament for the entire winter session, demanding the creation of a special investigative panel to look into the matter.

Singh has rejected the demand, arguing that the Central Bureau of Investigation already is probing the scandal and that the Supreme Court has been holding hearings on it.

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