India's Congress paid for votes in '08: U.S. cable

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 11:35 AM
India's Congress paid for votes in '08: U.S. cable

By Paritosh Bansal

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks says that a political aide told a U.S. embassy official that India's ruling Congress party officials paid some members of parliament $2.2 million each to get them to back Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government in a 2008 confidence vote.

Congress officials paid 100 million rupees ($2.2 million) to politician Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal party for each of their MPs to support the government, the aide to a Congress party leader Satish Sharma was reported as saying.

His comments were in a U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to Reuters by a third party.

Sharma's aide "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," the cable shows.

The story has some inconsistencies. The cable mentions in one place that Congress paid bribes to four Rashtriya Lok Dal MPs and in another place talks about only three. The lawmakers also ended up voting against the government, though it did narrowly win the vote.

Earlier on Thursday, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the government could not confirm or deny the allegations, first reported by the Hindu newspaper.

A spokeswoman of the U.S. embassy in New Delhi said they did not comment on classified material and could not comment on the report's authenticity.

The news added to the woes of a government already under fire for a slew of corruption cases, including a telecoms scam estimated to have cost the state billions of dollars.

India's opposition forced parliament to adjourn on Thursday and demanded Singh resign over the allegations, which seemed to back earlier charges by the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party that the vote was bought. A committee set up to probe the charges in 2008 gave an inconclusive report.

The cable was sent on July 17, 2008 by Steven White, the embassy's Charge D'Affaires at the time, and mentions these discussions with Sharma and others under a section titled "Votes For Sale."

CHESTS CONTAINING CASH

Sharma's aide showed an embassy employee "two chests containing cash" and said that around 500 million to 600 million rupees ($11 million-$13 million) "was lying around the house for use as pay-offs," the cable shows.

The cable also said that Sharma himself had told U.S. officials that Singh and others were trying to get the support of the Akali Dal party in the vote through a financier and others, "but unfortunately it did not work out."

Sharma, a former Indian Airlines pilot and a close associate of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, "is considered to be a very close family friend of Sonia Gandhi," the Congress president, according to the cable.

Another person described as a "Congress insider" in the cable told U.S. officials that Kamal Nath, then minister of commerce and industry, was also helping "to spread largess." Nath is now the urban development minister.

"Formerly he could only offer small planes as bribes, now he can pay for votes with jets," the cable said, citing the unidentified Congress insider.

(Reporting by Paritosh Bansal, additional reporting by C.J. Kuncheria and Henry Foy in New Delhi; editing by Martin Howell)