India denies phone-tapping
Rupam Jain Nair
New Delhi - India's government on Monday denied tapping the telephones of senior politicians as noisy protests by the opposition brought parliamentary proceedings to a standstill.
Opposition parties united to accuse the government of eavesdropping on senior political leaders and demanded a probe into the scandal reported by a magazine last week.
Home minister P Chidamabaram promised to investigate but denied the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was involved.
"I wish to state categorically that no telephone tapping or eavesdropping on political leaders was authorised by the previous UPA government. Nor has the present UPA government authorised any such activity," he said.
The row comes at a crucial time as the government is seeking support from its allies for a possible vote over high food prices, clear budget and several other key bills.
Outlook magazine reported intelligence officers had tapped the phones of agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat and Bihar state chief minister Nitish Kumar.
The allegations have brought together opposition rivals who could demand a confidence vote on Tuesday.
At least 13 opposition parties, led by the Communists, have demanded the vote against an unpopular hike in fuel prices.
The Congress-led government performed strongly when winning last year's elections and is expected to survive the test, despite two allies quitting the coalition last month over a bill to reserve parliamentary seats for women.
The opposition, however, demanded a statement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the issue.
"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.
Parliamentary proceedings and clearance of key bills in the last two weeks have been stalled over a scandal involving India's junior foreign minister Shashi Tharoor and charges of tax irregularities in the Indian Premier League.
Tharoor resigned a week ago after it was revealed his girlfriend had been given a free stake worth $15m in a new IPL cricket team to be based in his state.
The opposition charged that this was a kickback for putting together the consortium that bought the franchise in the southern city of Kochi. Tharoor denies all wrongdoing.
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.
Advani said the phone tapping reports recalled the time when former Indian Congress premier Indira Gandhi imposed a state of emergency on the country in 1975, censoring the press and jailing hundreds of opposition politicians.
"We must ensure there is no such emergency (rule) in the country," Advani said in his blog on Sunday.