WHEN officers from the Central Bureau of Investigation raided the house of a small-time New Delhi businessman, Surendra Kumar Jain, in May 1991, little did they realize that they would uncover one of the biggest corruption scandals in India's political history.
While searching the house for alleged payments to separatist-minded militants from Kashmir, the CBI discovered a diary detailing $19 million worth of bribes, black-market transactions, and money-laundering operations involving more than 100 senior government officials and politicians from across the political spectrum, including former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
The discovery of the diary and its contents was a political time bomb that exploded on the Indian scene last week. It sent sending shock waves through almost every major party and claimed as its first victims no less than three Cabinet ministers, the leader of the opposition, L. K. Advani, and three other senior politicians.
Although Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao has maintained that the CBI acted entirely on its own behalf by finally obtaining the special permission to prosecute those allegedly involved in the corruption scandal after years of inaction, the timing of the move so close to the general elections has convinced many political analysts here that his motives were political.
If that is the case, then Prime Minister Rao is taking the biggest gamble of his political career by seizing the initiative on the corruption issue before the country goes to the polls in April.
To prove his party's sincerity, he has sacrificed some of his closest supporters and most-able politicians.
But Rao's Machiavellian maneuver is not without its risks. Opposition parties already have tried to draw the prime minister into the scandal by accusing him of receiving nearly $1 million from Mr. Jain "to hush up the case." He also faces a possible revolt within his own ranks from supporters of the three accused Cabinet ministers, as well as the danger of the CBI deciding to charge additional senior Congress Party politicians named in the diary.
A political gamble
"It is no doubt a gamble, which, if it pays, will fetch handsome political returns for the prime minister, while if [it] leads to pandemonium within his party, may turn out to be thoroughly counterproductive," says political commentator Nikhil Chakravarty.
If there is a revolt in Congress Party ranks, it is likely to center around the former human-resource development minister, Madhavrao Scindia, who according to the CBI allegedly received more than $200,000 in bribes. With his longstanding reputation for honesty, strong secular credentials, and considerable support from within the party, Mr. Scindia was regarded as a possible rival to Rao for the post of prime minister.
Rao's game plan already has run into trouble on another front. The decision of the president of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Mr. Advani, to resign on hearing of the charges was in marked contrast to the initial show of defiance by the Congress Party ministers before they, too, finally tendered their resignations last Thursday.
Discrediting the opposition
By sanctioning the charges against Advani, another possible prime minister candidate with a previously untarnished reputation, Rao clearly is hoping to discredit the BJP's anticorruption election platform.
Prior to the scandal breaking, many analysts were predicting a hung Parliament, with the Congress Party and the BJP in a close finish for obtaining the largest number of seats.
The Congress Party's stand on corruption has taken a beating over the last few years.
Opposition parties have also accused it of covering up its own record on corruption by refusing to make public the full text of a report on the criminalization of politics, called the Vohra report. In December, parliament was stalled for 12 days as the Congress Party sought to protect Telecommunications Minister Sukh Ram against charges of irregularities in the awarding of licenses.
Rao can now take comfort from the fact that some of his most vocal critics on the corruption issue are among those facing charges. They include his old rival, Arjun Singh, who led a breakaway faction of the Congress Party last year, and former Janata Dal Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal, who is a a senior member of the opposition National Front.
The only major parties likely to emerge unscathed by the scandal are the Communist Party of India and its offshoot, the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
By his unexpectedly decisive action, the prime minister has also blunted criticism within his party and the press of being a fumbling, lackluster leader without any appeal to the electorate. When the Congress Party was looking for a new leader after the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, Rao was seen as a stopgap leader who would not last more than a few months in power.
Until now, he owed his political longevity to playing the role of a consensus leader who refused to be drawn into contentious issues such as corruption, inter-religious tensions, and the problem of separatism in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir.
According to political analyst Prem Shankar Jha, the roots of political corruption in India lie in the constant hunger of political parties and their candidates for funds to fight elections.
The ban on company donations for election campaigning in 1970, he says, led to the creation of a new class of intermediaries who would arrange, manage, and bank these kickbacks.
"The prosecutions that the government has launched can start the process of undoing the damage that 25 years of corruption have done. But to complete it, Prime Minister Rao must follow up with the establishment of a state fund for financing the expenses of political parties," Mr. Jha says.
If Rao manages to emerge unscathed from the current scandal and allows the law to take its own course, he will be remembered as one of the few politicians in India who not only talked about corruption, but dared to translate that talk into concrete action.
That might be the just the vote-getter the Congress Party needs to see itself through another term in office.