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India's sugar scandal leaves bitter after-taste

Indians like their tea with lots of sugar, and this national sweet-tooth is adding to Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's cup of woes. A sugar scandal is brewing which led to calls for Mr Rao's resignation yesterday by opposition parties, and over 20

ministers are offering to quit so that the prime Minister can sweep his cabinet clean of corrupt officials.

Unfortunately for Mr Rao, none of the ministers ready to resign are the guilty ones. So far, a handful of cabinet ministers who have tainted Mr Rao's 3-year-old Congress government with their alleged swindles and bribe-taking are refusing to leave.

The latest political barrage against Mr Rao comes after he has been weakened by stinging state election defeats in Karanataka, Sikkim and Andhra Pradesh on which he had staked his prestige and durability. Wounded, the 73-year old prime minister is now being attacked by his many foes within his Congress party and among the opposition.

Mr Rao is vulnerable to attack. His economic reforms came under fire for having neglected India's starving millions. This message was delivered to the prime minister most brutally: his rival in Andhra Pradesh won on the impossible promise of cutting the cost of rice from 10 rupees (20 pence) a kilo to 2 rupees for the poor. Congress MPs are expected to come up with more "populist" measures at a brain-storming party session next week to regain popular support.

But the possibility that the prime minister may put a brake on his liberalisation of the economy for short-sighted political gains has many economists cringeing with worry. However, as Mr Rao cautioned: "It's our duty to see that the finances of the country do not go to waste."

The Prime Minister is also widely perceived as being indifferent to, or worse, ignorant of, the corruption mushrooming under his government. He has failed to remove several ministers and top bureaucrats implicated in a 1991 £400m banking and securities fraud.

More recently, Mr Rao has refused to sack several ministers whose wrong-doing cost India £132m worth of sugar. Attempts by his aides to cover-up the sugar affair were exposed during stormy sessions of parliament this week, climaxed by the resignation of the Civil Supplies Minister, A K Anthony. Regarded as probably the most honest of all Mr Rao's men, Mr Anthony quit in disgust when it became apparent that other ministers more directly involved in the sugar scandal were trying to blame him.

At a recent Congress party meeting, Mr Rao glared at the two ministers - Kalpanath Rai, in charge of food, and Health minister Shankaranand- considered to be most cupable for the sugar swindle.

Referring to Mr Anthony, the Prime Minister said: ``Here is a minister who has nothing to do with the sugar scam, but he has voluntarily resigned. What are those directly involved doing?"

Although the two ministers squirmed nervously, they chose to ignore the Prime Minister's hint.