One More Scandal: Indian Prime Minister Reckons With New Wikileaks Charges

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Wikileaks has revived one of the most sordid episodes in India’s recent history — in which members of the opposition waved bundles of cash on the floor of Parliament — and forced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to answer, yet again, for charges of corruption within his party.

The cable in question, from July 17, 2008, was sent by a senior U.S. diplomat, who writes that the Congress Party had offered money to MPs from other parties in order to secure their votes in a confidence motion in Parliament. The Left pulled out of the Congress coalition over the controversial civilian nuclear deal; the Congress Party eventually rallied new coalition partners, and kept its majority.

Rumors of cash for votes had been floating around the capital for weeks prior to the trust vote, but there had never been any proof. This cable, too, fails to substantiate the claims, but it does name names and prices:

“[Congress Party insider Satish] Sharma’s political aide Nachiketa Kapur mentioned to an Embassy staff member in an aside on July 16 that Ajit Singh’s RLD [another political party] had been paid Rupees 10 crore (about $2.5 million) for each of their four MPs to support the government. Kapur mentioned that money was not an issue at all, but the crucial thing was to ensure that those who took the money would vote for the government. Kapur showed the Embassy employee two chests containing cash and said that around Rupees 50-60 crore (about $25 million) was lying around the house for use as pay-offs.”

Sharma and Kapur have denied the charges, but the opposition has nevertheless demanded answers from the Prime Minister, who was forced to  deliver some on Friday morning, at the India Today Conclave, one of the capital’s biggest, splashiest annual “thought leadership” festivals. (Sarah Palin is the featured speaker tomorrow.) Singh’s response to the allegations was careful and defensive:

“I have no knowedge of any purchase of votes. I am not involved in any of these transactions. I have not authorized anyone.”

As unsatisfying as that reply may be to critics — who are sure to continue hammering the Congress Party on corruption during this spring’s state elections — there is little more the Opposition can do other than continue to protest noisily. A secondhand conversation reported in a diplomatic cable is not enough proof to  hold anyone accountable for bribe-taking or put to rest any of the constant stream of rumors and innuendos circulating through India’s chattering classes.  Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee noted that a diplomatic cable  would not be  admissable as evidence in an Indian court of law. Even if it were, it could do no worse than the infamous suitcase of cash displayed in Parliament in 2008. That evidence was handed over to the Crime Branch of the Delhi Police in January 2009 on the recommendation of a parliamentary panel. And it sits there still.