Publication of WikiLeaks cable leads to calls for Indian prime minister’s resignation

A WikiLeaks cable suggesting Indian government payoffs to lawmakers to secure support for a controversial nuclear deal in 2008 rocked the parliament Thursday, when opposition parties demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The leaked cables, published in The Hindu newspaper, claimed that Singh’s government used cash to win a crucial vote in parliament in 2008 following a debate on the controversial civilian nuclear agreement between India and the United States. The cable quoted an American diplomat, Steven White, saying a Congress Party aide showed an embassy staffer the cash available for the payoffs.

The newspaper report created an uproar in parliament, and angry opposition leaders said the government had no right to stay in power any longer.

Sushma Swaraj, a lawmaker with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said the report brought “shame to the nation.” Both houses of parliament were adjourned amid a din of shouting.

The WikiLeaks disclosure is the latest corruption charge to besiege Singh’s government in the last six months, implicating several officials.

The nuclear deal with the United States was bitterly opposed by several parties, including the Communist members in Singh’s coalition government. To survive after several Communist Party members withdrew their support, Singh had to face a crucial vote of confidence.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, responding to the attacks in parliament, described the leaked cable as “a correspondence between a sovereign government and its mission abroad, and it enjoys diplomatic immunity. Therefore, it is not possible for the government to either confirm it or deny it.”

Arun Jaitley of the BJP countered by pointing his finger at Mukherjee and saying, “You are guilty of a cover-up. Diplomatic immunity may be available to U.S. diplomats, but the same immunity can’t be used by Indians in India.”

The cable, dated July 17, 2008, was sent by White, charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, and titled, “Political bargaining continues prior to key vote in parliament.” It said that a Congress Party political aide named Nachiketa Kapur told an embassy staff member that about $ 2.5 million was paid to opposition lawmakers in return for their votes.

The cable said Kapur claimed that “money was not an issue at all, but the crucial thing was to ensure that those who took the money would vote for the government.” According to the cable, Kapur then showed the embassy employee “two chests containing cash . . . for use as pay-offs.” The cable said the chests held about $11 million.

In an interview with the Times Now news television channel, Kapur said, “I vehemently deny this malicious allegation.”

Rajiv Shukla, a Congress Party lawmaker, defended the government in an interview. “Quoting WikiLeaks in Indian parliament is ridiculous, frivolous and trivial,” he said. “No government in the world recognizes WikiLeaks. The allegation has got no basis.

“I dare the opposition leaders to say that they treat every word of WikiLeaks as the holy scriptures, the Bhagwat Gita, Bible and Koran,” Shukla said. “They will not because tomorrow WikiLeaks can leak something against them, too.”

Shukla pointed out that the lawmakers mentioned in the cable as Kapur’s cash recipients had eventually voted against Singh in the parliament vote. “This demolishes the allegation,” he said.

In June 2008, three opposition lawmakers also had displayed wads of cash in parliament and said they were offered money to abstain from voting. Singh’s coalition won the vote of confidence, 275 to 256.

The Hindu newspaper published another WikiLeaks cable on Tuesday that said an outspoken, pro-Iranian petroleum minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, was replaced by a pro-American minister in 2006, ahead of President George W. Bush’s visit to India. This also embarrassed Singh in parliament on Wednesday.

lakshmir@washpost.com

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.
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