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India PM fails to dispel policy paralysis fears

India's cornered Prime Minister Singh brushed aside criticism that he was a "lame duck" leader presiding over a government mired in graft and policy paralysis, but offered little in way of policy steps he would take up

Reuters , Wednesday 29 Jun 2011
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The prime minister met five domestic media editors in an attempt to overhaul his reputation as out of touch with the country, with corruption scandals and stubbornly high inflation eroding confidence in his coalition government.

Singh said, according to editors present at the meeting, that he was not leading a "puppet government", where the real power was held by Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi and her advisers -- a view widely held in India.

He denied speculation he would be replaced by Rahul Gandhi, the 41-year-old son of Sonia who has long been seen as a prime-minister in waiting, saying that was not on the party's agenda.

"He agreed that there was a perception (of crisis) but that the perception is wrong ... he is not a lame-duck prime minister," Kumar Ketkar, editor of Divya Marathi newspaper, told reporters after talks with Singh.

As the government fights the backlash from the scandals, investors are worried it is not paying attention on pushing reforms to support long-term growth in Asia's third largest economy, including an overhaul of its land acquisition policy, taxation system and foreign direct investment rules.

Analysts were unimpressed with Wednesday's meeting, comparing it with Singh's last interaction with the media in February when the prime minister had voiced similar sentiments but ended up doing little to back them up.

Singh was critical of the media, calling it "accuser, prosecutor and judge" rolled into one.

"He has to blame someone, and he can't blame it on Sonia Gandhi. So he's taken the next best thing," said N Bashkara Rao, chairman of New Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Media Studies, referring to Singh's criticism of the media.

"I'll be very blunt. The government has committed one blunder after the other," Rao said.

The prime minister repeated that he would reshuffle his cabinet "soon" but declined to say whether there would be significant changes in top positions, according to two editors present at the meeting.

Singh has been criticised for not firing inefficient or graft-tainted ministers and his perceived inaction has taken off the sheen from his image as the economist who ushered in India's economic boom when he was finance minister in the 1990s.

Singh was forced to discuss the issue of who would succeed him and whether it would happen soon.

Two senior Congress party members have in the past few weeks praised Rahul Gandhi, hinting that Congress members were increasingly anxious to change leadership. Singh said he would be happy to make way for the young leader.

"But the question has not been put on the agenda or raised by the party," Singh said, according to editor Ketkar.

Singh's premiership has been besieged by graft scandals, including a $39 billion telecoms scam that saw a minister arrested and parliament suspended by opposition protests.

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