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Singh under fire over massive telecom graft

—Indian PM’s popularity partly resides in his ‘Mr Clean’ image

From Christina Palmer

NEW DELHI – India’s parliament adjourned in uproar Friday over a massive corruption scandal that has ensnared Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose popularity partly resides in his “Mr Clean” image.
India’s chief auditing body ignited a firestorm earlier this week when it announced that the botched sale of 2G telecom licences in 2008 at a small fraction of their value had cost the country up to 40 billion dollars.
Ahead of the announcement, tainted Telecom Minister A Raja, whose ministry was raided by police in October last year, was finally persuaded to step down after his position became untenable.
The opposition has been blocking parliamentary business all week, calling for an all-party investigation into the scandal. Proceedings were adjourned on Friday after angry MPs stormed the well of the house.
On Thursday, India’s Supreme Court upped the pressure on Singh by asking him to depose a sworn statement before the court by Saturday explaining why no action had been taken against Raja earlier.
The court said Singh had failed to reply to a request to approve the prosecution of Raja, adding “the matter is very, very serious in nature”.
Opposition parties say Raja, who presided over the world’s fastest-growing mobile market, gifted the lucrative wireless spectrum licences to firms that he favoured.
The story of the so-called “2G scam” has been splashed across all newspaper front-pages, becoming the focal point of anger against official corruption that has seen a number of high-profile figures toppled in recent weeks.
Suresh Kalmadi, the chief organiser of October’s Delhi Commonwealth Games, which was also mired in corruption, was forced to step down from a senior position in Singh’s ruling Congress party earlier this month.
Two of his aides have since been arrested as police and investigators probe a series of murky deals and suspected kickbacks in the multi-billion-dollar event.
On the same day as Kalmadi stepped down, the chief minister of western Maharashtra state resigned over a housing scam involving apartments reserved for war widows that were sold to politicians and military officers. Kalmadi and the chief minister, Ashok Chavan, are from the ruling Congress party headed by supremo Sonia Gandhi, while Raja is from the regional DMK party, part of the Congress-dominated coalition that holds power in New Delhi.
India’s Comptroller and Auditor General office said Tuesday that the cost of the “2G scam”, in which spectrum was sold off for mobile phone services, could reach 39 billion dollars.
It said 85 of the 122 licences issued in 2008 were given to ineligible companies.

11 feared dead in Indian Air Force chopper crash

GAUHAT – An Indian air force transport helicopter crashed in the mountainous northeast of the country near the border with China on Friday, with up to 11 people feared dead, a defence official said. The Mi-17 Russian-made helicopter was travelling from Tawang in the state of Arunachal Pradesh to Gauhati in Assam with 11 on board when it crashed in bad weather, the official said asking not to be named.
“Preliminary reports indicate that it could be due to poor visibility,” he said, adding that there was fog and snow in the area of the crash. A spokeswoman for the air force in New Delhi, Priya Joshi, confirmed the crash, but she said there were seven people on board. –Agencies

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