Scandal threatens confidence vote in Indian parliament

Express April 26, 2010

NEW DEHLI: The Indian opposition forced parliament to shut briefly on Monday over a report that security agencies had tapped senior lawmakers’ telephones.

The row added pressure on the government a day before a possible confidence vote. “Democracy has to be defended,” LK Advani, a veteran leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told the lower house of parliament, which was repeatedly adjourned amid uproar on the opposition benches. “This house will not be satisfied until the prime minister comes to the house and makes a statement,” Advani added, demanding new legislation to prevent such abuses of personal privacy.

Home Minister P Chidamabaram promised a probe into the scandal, which surfaced in a magazine last week. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, however, rejected the oppositions demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into both the IPL controversy and the phone-tapping issue on the grounds that it was not needed. “JPC for what? This is not a fit case for JPC,” Singh said when asked about the opposition’s demand for a JPC into the phone-tapping allegation.

Outlook magazine was the first to report that intelligence officers had been tapping the phones of politicians including Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat and Bihar state chief minister Nitish Kumar. The latest controversy threatens to further sap the leftleaning government at a time when it is looking to pass key legislation. It is seeking support from its allies for a possible noconfidence vote over high food prices, as well as passing the budget and other key bills, and has been embroiled for the last two weeks in a cricket scandal.

The government has a comfortable majority in parliament but has struggled to push through its legislative programme in the face of rising food and fuel prices, Maoist violence and the IPL scandal. Other opposition parties also decried the alleged phone tapping as an assault on democratic and civil rights. “We are not living in a military regime,” Communist Party of India national secretary D Raja told reporters at the weekend. Advani said the phone tapping reports recalled the time when former Indian Congress premier Indira Gandhi clamped a state of emergency on the country in 1975, censoring the press and jailing hundreds of opposition politicians.

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