Phone tapping row likely to hit India parliament

Nov 30, -0001
NEW DELHI: A row over charges government agencies secretly tapped telephones of senior politicians is likely to paralyse India's parliament on Monday, possibly spelling fresh delay for the budget and other key bills.

The tension comes just as the government is seeking to secure its allies' support for a possible vote in parliament over high food prices. The government would fall if it loses the vote.

The controversy is the latest blow for a coalition that was expected to capitalise on its re-election to promote policies to boost investment and ailing infrastructure as well as reform welfare and subsidies.

Instead, a slew of crises has distracted it, upstaging even routine parliamentary business like passing the budget and discussion on crucial reforms legislation.

The phone tapping charge has united the opposition, which said it will demand a statement from the government on Monday.

"In the garb of tracking terror, the government is tracking politicians and even their cabinet ministers," said Rajiv Pratap Rudy, spokesman of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

A magazine report said last week that senior politicians, including two from the government, had their mobile conversations listened into, sparking allegations intelligence agencies were being used to spy upon political rivals.

The government has still to officially react to the allegation, but officials in the prime minister's office said the matter was being looked into.

The government already faced heavy protests over its handling of a worsening Maoist insurgency, while rising food prices and fuel price hikes had prompted the opposition demand for a special parliamentary vote.

A probe into India's popular multi-billion dollar cricket league has ensnared senior politicians and billionaire businessmen in a growing scandal also hurting an already weakened Congress-led government.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee cancelled a trip to Washington for an International Monetary fund meeting last week in order to firefight and muster support for the special vote.

Some Indian TV stations said on Sunday that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh might skip a South Asian leaders' summit in Bhutan this week in view of political developments at home. His office denied this.

The special parliamentary vote will make Congress nervous, given that two of its allies pulled out of the coalition last month to protest a controversial women's bill. This has dangerously thinned its parliamentary support.

But most experts expect the government to win. Bond and stock markets are unaffected, with traders anticipating the government will survive.

However, the vote, plus the cricket and phone rows, have reduced the chances of the government getting key bills passed.

It is trying to pass the budget and reform legislation with a thinner majority. Among other legislation, the government is eyeing passage of a bill allowing foreign universities to set up campuses on Indian soil and another to cut its stake in the State Bank of India.

It has already put on ice until it reaches a political consensus a bill to open its $150 billion civilian nuclear sector. AGENCIES

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