A leading Protestant bishop has endorsed widespread calls for the resignation of India's ruling federal coalition following revelations on a Web site last week of government corruption.

"The present government should resign immediately," says Bishop Z. James Terom, moderator of one of India's leading denominations, the Church of North India (CNI).

Referring to the corruption scandal that has rocked the nation, the CNI bishop, of Chota Nagpur, said in a telephone interview from his office in Ranchi, in eastern India, that the revelations were "very unfortunate."

On March 13, Tehelka.com, A New Delhi-based Internet news service, released videotapes proving corruption in the Indian military and at a senior level in the government.

The four-hour video showed senior defense officials discussing personal payoffs as they finalized defense purchases. The residence of George Fernandes, federal defense minister, was made available, according to the video, for meetings with supposed arms dealers who were willing to pay bribes.

Bangaru Laxman, president of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)—the Hindu party which heads the federal coalition—is shown on one video storing banknotes which had been given to him by reporters posing as arms dealers. To make matters worse, the BJP president states a preference for U.S. dollars rather than rupees for his payment.

The tapes were recorded on hidden cameras by a Tehelka news team posing as agents of "West End International"—a fictitious company. The video also raises questions about a relative of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and senior officials in the prime minister's office.

Laxman resigned within hours of the video being telecast by Indian news channels. George Fernandes stepped down March 15 reportedly under pressure from various quarters, including smaller parties in the coalition.

Opposition parties are demanding the resignation of the prime minister and the government. Parliamentary proceedings have been stalled over the scandal since the tapes became public. However, the ruling coalition has simply promised to set up a commission of inquiry headed by a Supreme Court judge.

Bishop Terom told ENI: "It is almost a week since the drama started. But nothing has happened." The proposed inquiry was, he said, "an eyewash" and a ploy by the government "to buy time."

Describing the controversy as a "black spot in Indian history," the CNI moderator said that "by the time the commission [of inquiry] is appointed, all the evidence [of corruption] will be destroyed or doctored. Under the same government, nothing will come out." Archbishop Oswald Gracias, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, told ENI that while the exposure of corruption had "shocked everybody, the government is being very defensive."

The archbishop added that although the church would not publicly call on the government to resign, it did not "approve" of a proposal by Prime Minister Vajpayee that it was up to Parliament to decide what should be done.

"A vote [in Parliament] is not the answer to the problem. The question is one of morality," Archbishop Gracias told ENI from his diocesan office in Agra, 100 miles south of New Delhi. The government's reaction showed it was acting as the "government of the [coalition] parties" trying to save its reputation rather than as the "government of the country or of the people."

(A nation-wide opinion poll by the Asian Age daily newspaper after Tehelka released its video showed that 60 percent of the public wanted the government to go.)

T. Thomas, general secretary of the National Council of YMCAs of India, told ENI that the Vajpayee government might have the "legal right" to continue in office, "but on exemplary moral grounds, the government should resign."

Ambrose Pinto, executive director of the Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute, in New Delhi, told ENI: "We cannot let the government indulge in corruption and [then] whitewash it, using all the machinery at its disposal."

Related Elsewhere

The Tehelka.com investigation and fallout continue to unfold.

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