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Top Indian politicians resign amid corruption probes

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By Salil Panchal

MUMBAI – Two senior figures in India’s ruling party resigned on Tuesday under heavy pressure over separate corruption scandals involving apartments meant for war widows and the Delhi Commonwealth Games.

Ashok Chavan, the chief minister of Maharashtra, home to financial capital Mumbai, resigned Tuesday over his alleged role in a housing scam involving apartments reserved for widows that were sold to politicians and military officers.

The chief organiser of the graft-tainted Commonwealth Games in October, Suresh Kalmadi, who emerged as a public hate figure for his role in the fiasco, also stepped down from his position as secretary in the ruling Congress party.

Both politicians had embarrassed Congress, and the Press Trust of India reported that party president Sonia Gandhi had personally directed Chavan to step down.

“Pending enquiry, his (Chavan’s) offer of resignation has been accepted,” ruling Congress party general secretary Janardhan Dwivedi said in a brief statement.

Only three days ago, Chavan was the first person to shake Barack Obama’s hand when the US president landed in India.

Announcements of the resignations came as parliament resumed for its winter session and opposition MPs attacked the government over its corruption record.

India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s state general secretary Vinod Tawade accused Chavan of involvement in a “sin” of grabbing land reserved for war widows.

Eknath Khadse, leader of the opposition in the state assembly said they were satisfied with Congress’s decision, having “admitted to the corruption.”

Defence minister A.K. Anthony has ordered an investigation into the scam, which is estimated to run into several million dollars.

“A CBI probe has been ordered and the investigating agency will take over soon,” defence ministry spokesperson Sitanshu Kar told media in the capital, adding that the probe would “fix responsibility for any lapses.”

The Congress-led government has still to announce a replacement for Chavan, who insisted he was innocent of any wrongdoing.

“I will emerge clean, let the investigations take place,” he told reporters.

“I do not see this as a setback. In politics and public life, there are always ups and downs,” he said, adding he would continue to serve as a Congress party worker in the state.

Chavan took charge in December 2008 from Vilasrao Deshmukh, who was forced to step down in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks in which 166 people were killed by Islamic gunmen in a three-day siege.

Kalmadi, 66, is a veteran MP from the Congress party, and has headed the Indian Olympic Association for 14 years.

“Suresh Kalmadi’s resignation as secretary of the Congress Parliamentary Party has been accepted with immediate effect by the Congress Party,” Congress general secretary Janardhan Dwivedi told AFP.

Dwivedi would not elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Kalmadi’s exit, but the chairman of the Delhi Commonwealth Games has borne the brunt of public criticism for cost overruns, shoddy planning, and graft allegations that tainted the October event.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up a panel in October to investigate the corruption charges.

India has slipped three places to 87th spot in watchdog Transparency International’s ranking of nations based on their perceived level of corruption, partly because the scandal-tainted Games.

Activists have also called for a probe for environmental violations allegedly carried out by the group running the housing project.