India's old crocodile snaps up rivals

Battle for power: Rao unleashes anti-corruption law against his opponents
Click to follow
The Independent Online

New Delhi

India's Prime Minister is a man of surprises. Suffering from a feeble heart and encircled by powerful foes within his own Congress party, Narasimha Rao was not expected to last a full five-year term. He has. He is also ready to stand again, in the general elections in April.

A distant, scholarly man who rarely smiles, Mr Rao, 72, stunned everybody by revealing that he was a weekend novelist, capable of penning steamy lines such as, "Their bodies, like strangers meeting for the first time, introduced themselves to each other. It was a process in which millions of pores, blood vessels and reflexes were involved in an all-out mutual comprehension."

In the past few days, the glum-faced Mr Rao has unveiled another side to his character: the audacious predator. Like a crocodile, lying so still that everybody thinks he is a harmless old log, Mr Rao has finally pounced, snapping at his adversaries.

Under Mr Rao's direct command is India's equivalent of the FBI, the Central Bureau of Investigation. On Tuesday, the CBI charged seven of the country's most senior opposition leaders - among them, Lal Krishna Advani, president of the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - with accepting pay-offs in an illegal money-changing scandal. At the same time, the CBI also implicated three cabinet ministers in the same affair. Few observers believe that the CBI would have prosecuted the politicians, especially the Congress party ministers, unless Mr Rao ordered them to do so.

Sacrificing three cabinet ministers - the suave aristocrat Madhav Rao Scindia, who is the human resources minister, Balram Jakhar, agriculture minister, and VC Shukla, in charge of parliamentary affairs - is easy for Mr Rao: they are all possible challengers.

Mr Scindia and Mr Shukla announced their resignations yesterday and Mr Jakhar is expected to follow suit. Mr Advani resigned from his parliamentary seat on Tuesday to fight the accusations and vowed not to contest the elections until he is cleared.

Enraged at Mr Rao's tough tactics, 90 right-wing Hindu MPs and 30 state- assembly members staged a protest march yesterday to the prime minister's residence. All were arrested. Sushma Swaraj of the BJP said that the CBI's accusations will "give us a chance to prove our mettle. Advani will pass through this fire and come out clean". The trial of Mr Advani and the others could drag on for months, sabotaging their election hopes. The BJP claims the charges are false and should be dropped.

Mr Rao's timing was shrewd. The Hindu nationalists intended to make the corruption of the Congress government their main campaign platform. However, the Prime Minister may have caused too many casualties in his attempt to remain unchallenged within the Congress party. In getting rid of all the regional bosses who might have opposed his leadership, Mr Rao may have demolished the party engine which he must rely on to churn out votes.

The sums involved in the alleged bribery cases may be small by Asian standards - pounds 112m shared among 110 politicians and bureaucrats - but the money is tainted by terrorism. The politicians were caught by chance: in 1991, investigators captured two suspected Kashmiri terrorists trying to launder money for their Muslim separatist group. Their contacts were the Jain family, who allegedly operated an illegal money-changing racket. The Jains were charged in 1992 with laundering undeclared "black" money into foreign currency for hefty commissions while paying politicians and bureaucrats to keep silent.

Few Indians pay taxes and the country has a vast, subterranean economy of undeclared "black money". As Professor C P Bhambri, from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, explained: "Black money has allowed real- estate owners, contractors, foreign lobbyists and other powerful urban groups to actively manipulate democratic institutions." At election time, politicians from almost all parties tap these illegal funds for their campaigns, knowing that their benefactors will expect a pay-back if they win.

In raids on the Jains' offices in Delhi and Bombay, police discovered a diary chronicling pay-offs allegedly made between 1988 and 1991 to top politicians and civil servants. But the diary did not give names, only initials. Government pressure closed the case for years until Mr Rao dusted it off to gain political advantage.

Mr Advani, along with Arjun Singh, a former Congress enemy of Mr Rao, and Devi Lal, a former left-wing deputy premier, were reportedly listed in the diary, together with the others so far named by the CBI. At least 18 other politicians may soon be charged by police. If found guilty, the politicians face up to five years in jail for "the receipt of illegal gratifications", according to police investigators.

Rajinder Puri, a public petitioner who fought for years for police to investigate the Jain diaries, said: "Operators in the network who were financing Kashmir and Punjab terrorists were the same that were giving money to our political leaders."