Indians Gripped by Tale Of High-Level Corruption

The central figure in a huge stock scandal points his finger at Prime Minister Rao

IN recent weeks many of India's urban elite have found a new drama competing with their favorite soap operas - "The Bold and the Beautiful" and "Santa Barbara," US reruns broadcast by satellite here. The news has been full of reports of the life and times of "Big Bull" Harshad Mehta, especially his allegations that he paid Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao 10 million rupees ($330,000) for political patronage.

Normally, the allegations of a man like Mr. Mehta, the central figure in a $1.6 billion bank securities scandal, India's largest, would have carried little weight. But Mr. Rao's crisis managers have appeared so inept in handling the stockbroker's allegations that many Indians are willing to believe that some sort of transaction took place.

Grilled for more than nine hours last week by members of a parliamentary committee probing the securities scam, Mehta stuck to his allegation against the prime minister.

Reacting to the latest evidence, Rao has told interviewers that he had rejected the opposition's demand for his resignation. "The entire contents of [Mehta's] affidavit are false. I do not recollect having met him. And I think the matter should rest at that," he said.

But the issue appears unlikely to go away. Ever since Mehta made the charge June 16, the government has fumbled, providing ready ammunition for an increasingly powerful opposition.

Mehta claimed that the payment was made in Rao's house, where Mehta and his brother had been taken by a late parliamentarian from Rao's ruling Congress Party, Satpal Mittal, and Mittal's industrialist son, Sunil.

It took Rao's campaign managers nearly a week to produce security logbooks indicating the prime minister was not at home when the meeting was supposed to have taken place. Many Indians thought the logbook entries had been manipulated.

Sunil Mittal's assertion that the meeting never took place was met with the same degree of skepticism.

Mehta said that he had taken two thirds of the cash in a suitcase to the prime minister's house, a point that journalists immediately questioned, quoting bankers who said that so much cash could never be crammed into one suitcase.

Borrowing the melodramatic style of the Bombay film industry, a Mehta press conference June 28 featured a videotape on how to stuff the requisite amount of rupee bills into a suitcase.

Mehta also produced what he said was an audio tape of a telephone conversation with Mr. Mittal, which apparently referred to the meeting in the prime minister's house.

The tape consists mainly of efforts on Mehta's part to remind Mittal of the trip, and enlist Mittal to remind the prime minister of the "donation" and his "obligation" to the broker. Mittal's part of the conversation consists mostly of grunts and his pleading inability to do anything more to help Mehta.

The conversation allegedly occurred when Mehta had already been implicated in the stock market scam, and had spent 100 days in jail before being bailed out. The audio tape is not admissible evidence in court until its authenticity can be established. Similarly Mehta's original charge was little more than an allegation; he insists he will produce more evidence as needed.

Nonetheless Indian opposition parties have demanded Rao's resignation based on the charge.

Jaswant Singh, deputy leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition party, and a member of the parliamentary group investigating the stock scandal, says, "It is most distressing that allegations of this nature against the prime minister of the country should have descended to the level of such undignified denials and counter-allegations."

The parliamentary committee may ask Rao to step down.

Defenders of the prime minister dismiss Mehta's allegations as attempts by a criminal to save his own skin. And that viewpoint has won much support.

But few Indians doubt Mehta could have bribed the prime minister - another indication of Indians' pervasive mistrust of their political leaders.

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