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India coalition hunkers down over bribes scandal

India coalition hunkers down over bribes scandal

India's coalition government closed ranks behind Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on Wednesday as opposition groups turned up the heat over an arms bribery scandal.

Coalition leaders after a meeting at Vajpayee's home said there was no need for any ministers to resign after a secretly shot film showed public figures, army officers and bureaucrats apparently accepting money from journalists posing as arms merchants.

Analysts said the affair was a serious embarrassment for the 17-month-old administration, but was unlikely to bring it down.

"This is a conspiracy to destabilise the government; we will face it unitedly," said Vijay Kumar Malhotra, a spokesman of the Bharatiya Janata Party which leads the federal coalition.

One regional constituent of the federal government however stayed away from the meeting and said Vajpayee must accept Defence Minister George Fernandes's resignation which it said he had offered after the scandal broke on Wednesday.

Mamata Banerjee, leader of the regional All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), told Vajpayee in a letter that officials named in the documentary must be asked to leave pending an official investigation.

"In case such actions are not taken, AITC will be left with no alternative but to reconsider continuing its support to the NDA government," said Banerjee, whose party is facing elections in her home state of West Bengal.

The Defence Ministry suspended four officials implicated in the documentary and questioned several other senior military officers in a scandal that has thrust Vajpayee's government into its most serious crisis yet.

The scandal coincides with court hearings into the 15-year-old Bofors arms kickback case, which led to the defeat of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's Congress government in 1989.

Fernandes's party said he had no intention of resigning over the documentary, which was made by tehelka.com, an Internet-based news service specialising in investigative reporting.

"George Fernandes has not resigned and has no plans to resign," Samata Party Secretary General and spokesman Shambhu Shrivastwa told reporters.

Earlier, Fernandes's ministry said four officials,including Major-General P.S.K. Choudhary, additional director-general for weapons and equipment, had been suspended.

DEMONSTRATIONS ACROSS DELHI

The documentary had already claimed the scalp of the leader of Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

BJP president Bangaru Laxman said allegations against him were "baseless and malicious".

But he quit anyway after the documentary showed him apparently taking 100,000 rupees ($2,150) to influence what was actually a fictional deal set up by Tehelka's journalists.

Scenting blood, opposition parties sharpened their knives and disrupted proceedings in both houses of parliament.

"This is a government of thieves. Shame! Shame!" shouted opposition lawmakers in the upper house which, along with the lower house, was adjourned till Thursday.

Communists and regional parties said they were forming a People's Front to launch a nationwide campaign to force the government to resign over the bribes scandal.

Three former prime ministers - V.P.Singh, Inder Kumar Gujral and H.D. Deve Gowda - will be part of the Front which will hold its first demonstration on Thursday in the Indian capital, Shameem Faizee, secretary of the Communist Party of India, said.

Several hundred Congress youth party activists staged a demonstration outside their own headquarters in New Delhi. A Reuters photographer said police used tear gas and water cannon to control the crowd and dozens were arrested.

There was then a demonstration by supporters of the BJP, who wanted to march to the Congress headquarters but were stopped by baton-wielding policemen who fired tear gas shells.

Communist party activists also protested in front of parliament's main gate, burning an effigy.

(Additional reporting by John Chalmers and Kamil Zaheer).


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