Indian MPs face graft trial

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New Delhi

Seven senior Indian opposition politicians were charged with corruption yesterday for allegedly taking pay-offs from a money-changing racket. Investigators also want to prosecute three cabinet ministers and have asked the President, Shankar Dayal Sharma, to waive their immunity.

With a general election due in April, the scandal has caused a sensation. Among those implicated are leading rivals of the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, both within his Congress party and in the opposition. They include Lal Krishna Advani, leader of the main opposition group, the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Devi Lal, an ex-deputy prime minister in the left-wing former Janata Dal government, and Arjun Singh, who recently broke away from the Congress party after quarrelling with Mr Rao. The ministers whose prosecution is sought are viewed within Congress as Mr Rao's possible challengers.

They are Madhav Rao Scindia, the Human Resources Minister, Bajram Jakhar, Agriculture Minister, and VC Shukla, Parliamentary Affairs Minister. Mr Scindia dismissed the allegations as "a contemptible attempt to tarnish the reputation of an honest man". Detectives said up to 18 other politicians and senior bureaucrats could be charged.

Mr Advani yesterday resigned from his parliamentary seat to fight the accusations. He accused the Prime Minister of levelling the charges to sabotage the BJP's chances in the election. Polls indicate that the BJP could deny Congress its majority. "Mr Rao is trying to scuttle the BJP's proposal to make corruption an issue in the elections," he said.

The politicians are accused of taking bribes from a family of powerful industrialists, the Jains, who allegedly operated a money-changing racket before India's 1992 economic reforms made the system obsolete.

The industrialists were charged in 1992 with laundering undeclared "black" money into foreign currency for hefty commissions, paying politicians and bureaucrats to look away.

In raids on the Jains, investigators found a diary with details of pay- offs amounting to more than pounds 11.5m allegedly made between 1988 and 1991 to the country's top politicians and bureaucrats. But the diary did not give the culprits' names, only their initials.

If convicted, the politicians face up to five years' jail, police investigators said. Left-wing and opposition parties are demanding the resignation of all three ministers named by police.

Although the investigation into the money-changing racket has dragged on for years, political observers in New Delhi said it was likely that the Prime Minister had manipulated the timing of the charges against his rivals in order to dash their hopes of unseating him in the April election.