India police widen probe into cash-for-votes scandal

NEW DELHI Thu Jul 21, 2011 6:15am EDT

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian police widened their probe into charges some opposition lawmakers were bribed in 2008 to vote for the Congress party-led government in a confidence vote, as prosecutors prepared Thursday to oppose the bail plea of one of those accused.

Sohail Hindustani Wednesday became the second person to be arrested after the Supreme Court pulled up police for tardy progress in the case, which could prove a fresh embarrassment for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's scandal-hit government.

The 2008 confidence vote, which nearly brought down the coalition government, was sparked by opposition to a civil nuclear agreement between the United States and India, which ended New Delhi's isolation in the global nuclear market.

"He (Hindustani) will be presented in court at 2 p.m. (0830 GMT)," Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said, affirming the police would seek to continue holding him in custody. Indian law permits accused to be held for up to 90 days without filing charges.

Police have not yet drawn any link between the two arrested suspects and the Congress party, and Singh's government is unlikely to fall on the scandal as it has a slim majority in parliament.

"I don't think it will cause any serious damage," political analyst Amulya Ganguli said. "It's a three-year-old incident."

Singh was returned to power in a national election in 2009, but his second term has been dogged by a series of graft scandals that have paralyzed his government and prevented him from forcefully pushing forward reforms to further open up the $1.6 trillion economy.

Allegations of graft emerged in the middle of the 2008 confidence vote, which was forced on Singh after four communist parties withdrew support from the government over the civilian nuclear deal with the United States.

As parliament debated the 2008 vote, three opposition members stood up waving bundles of cash they said was given to them to vote for the government. In the pandemonium that followed, Singh won the vote by a narrow margin.

Hindustani is accused of acting as a go-between to facilitate the bribes. Once an associate of the youth wing of the main opposition Bharaiya Janata Party (BJP), he has said that he was only acting as a whistle-blower to expose corruption.

LEAKED CABLE

A U.S. diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks quoted a political aide as saying Congress leaders had paid lawmakers from a small party $2.2 million each to back Singh.

Singh has denied that any member of his party or government was involved in the cash-for-votes scandal, but the BJP has raised the issue as another instance of the government turning a blind eye to corruption within its ranks.

The former telecoms minister and a coalition lawmaker are in jail pending trial in a case over graft and illegal favors during a 2007/08 grant of lucrative telecoms licenses. Another prominent Congress lawmaker is in jail in a case of graft in issuing contracts for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

These instances of corruption in high places have eroded public support for Singh's government, evidenced by the large crowds that gathered across the country to back a hunger strike of anti-graft activist Anna Hazare in April.

Police had earlier arrested in the case a former aide to Amar Singh, who in 2008 was a top leader of the regional Samajwadi Party which had switched positions to vote in favor of the nuclear deal and the government.

The three opposition members, all from the BJP, told a parliamentary inquiry that Amar Singh had offered them the bribes, after speaking to Ahmed Patel, the powerful political secretary to Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi.

The inquiry had concluded that there was "no case" against Patel and "no clinching evidence" against Amar Singh. Amar Singh is not related to Manmohan Singh.

(Editing by Paul de Bendern and Alex Richardson)

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