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Indian political battle hots up over arms scandal

Indian political battle hots up over arms scandal

India's warring political parties said on Monday they planned to launch street protests across the country over an arms bribery scandal that has plunged the coalition government into its worst crisis yet.

The main opposition Congress said the first phase of a "long haul" programme to oust Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's 17-month-old government would be launched at the weekend with public meetings in each district of the country.

"It is a long haul programme. How long it will be, will depend on Mr Vajpayee," said Congress spokesman Jaipal Reddy. "We are not confident of the moral sensitivity of this government."

A secretly shot film by journalists posing as arms dealers showed politicians, military officials and bureaucrats apparently accepting money to influence a fictitious arms deal.

Officials from Vajpayee's office appeared before reporters for the first time since the scandal broke last week, to deny any wrong doing. They said it was unfortunate that aspersions had been cast on the Prime Minister's office.

"The allegations which arise from this so-called expose are baseless," Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to Vajpayee, told a news conference.

The documentary makes a passing mention of Mishra who is considered close to Vajpayee, prompting opposition groups to demand that he step down with N.K.Singh, another key figure in the Prime Minister's office.

The scandal, which has claimed the heads of the defence minister and the chiefs of two political parties, including that of Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party, paralysed parliament on Monday and most of last week.

Lower house speaker Ganti Balayogi suspended the chamber for the day after opposition deputies led by the Congress party bayed for the government to quit.

"The government is making commissions while soldiers are bleeding," they chanted. The upper house was also suspended for the day after a similar uproar.

A Congress leader, however, said the party would not stand in the way of the government seeking a vote allowing it to continue to spend money after the end of the fiscal year on March 31.

"We don't want to be irresponsible. The vote-on-account will be passed," Congress leader Kapil Sibal told Reuters.

NEEDS APPROVAL

The vote-on-account is a temporary measure whose passage is needed before parliament can approve the federal 2001/2002 budget. It must win assent in the lower house before it recesses at the end of this week. The budget, unveiled last month, will be up for approval when parliament reconvenes in mid-April.

Leaders of the coalition responded to the opposition threat of street protests by saying they too would take the battle to the people, accusing the opposition of unleashing a campaign of lies.

"We will tell the nation the facts of the case. No deal was struck, no minister was involved. It was only a fictitious deal," said BJP spokesman Vijay Kumar Malhotra.

The BJP has called a meeting of its national executive next weekend which will culminate in a public meeting to be addressed by Vajpayee in Delhi.

An opinion poll said 69 percent Indians believed Vajpayee should stay on in office despite the bribery scandal.

India Today newsmagazine which commissioned the poll, however, said that 81 percent of those surveyed felt the scandal had a serious impact on the coalition.

The poll carried out by market research company ORG-MARG sampled 979 people in India's five largest cities.

The government said on Monday that a retired Supreme Court judge would lead the inquiry into the revelations by the journalists of an Internet news and entertainment service who carried out the defence department sting operation.


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