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Can telecom scam bring down India's government?

In scam central, corruption allegations alone might not be enough to engineer change.

Congress Party delegates listen to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's speech during 83rd plenary session of Indian National Congres in New Delhi on Dec. 20, 2010. Singh said he had "nothing to hide" as he offered to be quizzed by a parliamentary panel over a multi-billion-dollar telecom scandal that has shaken his government. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI, India — As investigations continue into the most damaging corruption scandal to strike the Congress party in decades, Sonia Gandhi, the party's leader, had a go at flipping the script.

At the party plenary marking the Congress' 125th year on Sunday, Sonia stood up for beleaguered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. She unveiled a five-point plan to root out corruption, and she blasted the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for its "despicable" attacks on Singh — they said he was asleep at the switch while his telecom minister allegedly defrauded the country of billions of dollars. But Singh, she said, is an "embodiment of sobriety, dignity and integrity."

It wasn't Sonia's remarks, however — or Singh's promise to appear before an investigating committee, saying "I have nothing to hide from the public at all" —that gave the best hint as to the Congress strategy for regaining control of the news cycle. That came from the party's general secretary, Digvijay Singh, in the role of hatchet man as he defended the 40-year-old prime minister-in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi.

Embracing Rahul's trepidations about "Hindu terror" — WikiLeaks' diplomatic cables revealed that Rahul told the U.S. ambassador that he feared Hindu terrorist groups more than Islamic ones — the general secretary attacked the BJP's Hindu nationalist parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). And by amplifying Rahul's rhetoric — he apparently sought to shift the focus from corruption to communalism, the word India uses to discuss its religious divides.

"The RSS in the garb of its nationalist ideology is targeting Muslims the same way Nazis targeted Jews in the 1930s," Digvijay told plenary attendees.

In a less corrupt country, the context for the general secretary's comments might itself be enough to reveal it as a transparent attempt to distract attention from the problems besetting his party.

Thanks to a series of high-profile corruption scandals, the Congress party faces its biggest challenge in years. Every day, new revelations hit the headlines from leaked transcripts of tapped telephone conversations between an influential lobbyist and top politicians, billionaire tycoons and (formerly) respected journalists.

And even though the party has already ousted the chief accused — who is a coalition ally, rather than a Congress party member — the perception remains that the government is dragging its feet on a full-scale inquiry, as its resistance to an investigation by a joint parliamentary committee was at the root of opposition disruptions that prevented legislators even from meeting for all but seven hours of the month-long winter session of parliament.

"After the Bofors [defense kickbacks] scam in the '80s and various scandals of the Narasimha Rao government, this is the first time the opposition has something that it looks like will stick," said Delhi University professor Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst. "The opposition is united with an issue for the first time since the beginning of the UPA [the Congress-led coalition government.]"

Despite his impeccable personal reputation, the prime minister's two terms at the helm of the UPA have paid rich dividends in allegations of corrupt dealings — or what Indian reporters like to call scams. In the so-called rice scam, for instance, officials at state-owned companies involved in grain exports to Africa allegedly bent rules to help private players cheat the government out of $500 million.

In the Commonwealth Games scam, organizing officials allegedly bilked the state for $100 million in inflated rentals for furniture and other fixtures. And in the mother of them all, the 2G spectrum scam, former Telecommunications Minister A. Raja of Tamil Nadu's Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam party allegedly cost the country as much as $40 billion by allowing top industrialists to buy telecom licenses for what opposition politicians term "throwaway prices."

"People are struck by the magnitude of the scandal," said political analyst Praful Bidwai. "This is pretty outrageous."

But in scam central, questions remain whether corruption allegations alone — or even a smoking gun — is enough to engineer a change in government. One need look no further than the last election results to see that Indians — who by and large believe that all their politicians are equally corrupt — suffer from scam fatigue.