The Prime Minister responded strongly this evening to allegations by Team Anna that he is permissive of corruption and that his party uses him to shield ministers guilty of graft. "I will give up my public career and country can give me any punishment," Dr Manmohan Singh said to reporters on his way back from Myanamar. Team Anna remained unperturbed with the uncharacteristically strong remarks by the PM. "As a responsible PM he should have read the full allegations. If the PM is clean, he will come out clean," said Prashant Bhushan.
However, the PM's strong reaction to Team Anna's allegations did surprise the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). "Surprising the PM has reacted, would like to thank Team Anna," BJP leader Rajiv Pratap Rudy said. But, the BJP's parent body Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) did not take Team Anna's allegations on the Prime Minister too kindly. "Decency in language should be maintained while criticising the Prime Minister, who holds the highest office in the Government," RSS Joint General Secretary Dattatraya Hosbale said.
Over the weekend, lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan and other Anna aides like Arvind Kejriwal accused the PM, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and 13 other ministers of graft. This was the first time that Team Anna charged Dr Manmohan Singh with corruption. The PM described the allegations against him and other ministers as "irresponsible and unfortunate."
Reacting to the PM's remarks, Team Anna's key member Arvind Kejriwal said that it was unfortunate as the team expected the Prime Minister to go through the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report and respond accordingly.
"These are allegations which have not been made by us, these are allegations which have been made by the CAG, which is a constitutional body. Calling the report of the CAG, a constitutional body, irresponsible is not appropriate in our opinion," he said.
"The Prime Minister has sought to defend all his cabinet colleagues which is again unfortunate. Without any investigation, without any inquiry he defends everyone," he added.
Speaking to NDTV, Prashant Bhushan said his comments were misinterpreted. "What I had said was that the Prime Minister is being used by the Congress as a shield to ward off corruption charges."
Team Anna's comments against the ministers and Dr Singh have provoked strong criticism from not just the Congress, but the opposition BJP and one of the most respected members of Anna's group of activists, Justice Santosh Hegde. He said in Bangalore this afternoon that he does not agree with the allegations, which appear unsubstantiated to him.
In what seemed like an attempt to tone down his comments against the PM, Mr Bhushan had said earlier in the day, "The Prime Minister himself may not have taken money, but he is being used as an armour. What is the point of honesty when he can't do anything about corruption in the government?"
The aides who attacked the PM on the weekend said they want a Special Investigation Team or SIT with three retired judges to handle a probe against the ministers they accuse of graft, a group that includes P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal and SM Krishna. The activists warned that if the SIT was not set up by July 24, they would begin an indefinite fast from July 25.
They said their offensive against the PM is based on a draft report by the government's auditor which allegedly estimates that 1.8 lakh crores were lost between 2004-09 because coal fields were allotted at under-valued rates to companies. The PM handled the Coal Ministry directly for a part of this period. The report was leaked in March; Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) Vinod Rai had clarified that the leaked contents were "exceedingly misleading." Dr Singh told reporters this evening, "It is unfortunate that irresponsible allegations relating to irregularities in allocation of coal blocks are being made without confirming facts."