/ 26 April 2011

Delhi Games chief arrested as telecoms case widens

Indian police arrested the former chief organiser of the Delhi Commonwealth Games on Monday as part of a crackdown on corruption, embarrassing the government as it fights major state polls.

Suresh Kalmadi, also a senior lawmaker from the ruling Congress Party, was sacked in November after Games organisers were accused of manipulating contracts and inflating bills in an event which was meant to showcase India’s rise as a global power but was instead beset by problems.

Hours after his arrest on Monday, Kalmadi was suspended from the Congress Party, a party spokesperson told Reuters.

In a separate case, the daughter of a key ally in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government was among those charged on Monday with taking bribes in a multi-billion dollar telecoms licensing scandal, which may strain the coalition and weaken its chances at the ballot box.

Kalmadi’s arrest puts under renewed scrutiny the $6-billion sporting event last October which became embroiled in rows over leaking stadiums, filthy athletes’ accommodation and inflated tenders for equipment including treadmills and toilet paper.

He was booed during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, which was broadcast around the world.

“This is an embarrassment for Congress. They have been trying to avert it for as long as possible, and now they will try to confine the damage to Kalmadi, who now seems to be seen as dispensable,” former magazine editor Swapan Dasgupta said.

“I am sceptical they will be able to contain the damage.”

Tougher anti-graft laws
Singh’s government has been roiled by a series of corruption scandals since the middle of last year that have stymied its agenda for economic reform, and undermined business sentiment in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

The scandals have sparked a wave of public anger against the coalition government. A social activist, who threatened to fast until death to press the government to pass tougher anti-graft laws, drew support from thousands in a nationwide campaign.

Kalmadi was arrested “for conspiracy to show favour to a private firm based in Switzerland in awarding the contract for timing, scoring and results systems at inflated prices of 1,41-billion rupees [$31-million]”, said a spokesperson for the Central Bureau of Investigation, Dharini Mishra.

Kalmadi has denied any wrongdoing.

Kanimozhi, the daughter of the regional Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party’s head and herself a lawmaker, was among those charged with handling bribes along with several business executives.

Charges in telecoms investigation
Police on Monday also filed charges against two more executives from DB Realty, whose parent DB Group is the Indian joint venture partner of the UAE’s Etisalat, and the managing director of a South Indian television channel owned by the DMK party.

Police had earlier charged three telecoms firms, a former telecoms minister and six corporate executives with a range of crimes in the licensing scandal that a state auditor said may have deprived New Delhi of $39-billion in potential revenue.

The South India-based DMK party is a member of Singh’s government, helping it maintain a slim majority in Parliament. The telecoms scandal could drain support for the state coalition in the staggered election, results of which are due on May 13.

The DMK, which has denied any wrongdoing, has threatened to pull ministers out of the government if members of the family that heads the party were charged, according to media reports.

The DMK had also threatened to withdraw from the government in March in a row over seat-sharing arrangements in the Tamil Nadu election.

However, analysts question whether the DMK would act on such a threat, given that it needs Congress’s clout in the state as much as Congress needs the DMK’s 18 seats to maintain its federal majority.

“Congress will have braced for this,” said Manoj Joshi, comment editor at the Mail Today newspaper. “They have a mutual interest in hanging together, no matter what, at this juncture.”

Police investigating the telecoms case say companies connected to the DB Group funnelled millions of dollars to a television channel owned by the family that runs the DMK party.

Those charged in the case have denied any wrongdoing. — Reuters