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Corruption and caste politics: Opposition candidate for UP steps down

BJP suspends Babu Singh Kushwaha, alleged to be involved in a multimillion-dollar rural healthcare scam, but even to be considered a candidate says a lot of the realities of caste-based politics in India.

NEW DELHI // India's main opposition party has suspended a corruption-tainted former minister just days after he joined the party.

Babu Singh Kushwaha was drafted into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) last Tuesday to stand in next month's state elections in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and considered a bellwether for the general election in 2014.

But yesterday, the party announced that it had accepted Mr Kushwaha's offer to step down until he could prove he was not involved in a multimillion-dollar rural healthcare scam.

In a letter to BJP, the president, Nitin Gadkari, wrote: "I do not want the BJP to suffer because of the propaganda against me. So, until I am proved innocent, I will keep my BJP membership in abeyance."

His selection had caused a deep rift within the BJP at a time when the country is gripped by anti-corruption protests.

Mr Kushwaha was one of a dozen members sacked last month from his former party, the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party, for alleged corruption.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is looking into massive irregularities in the allocation of funds for the National Rural Health Mission that began in 2005-06.

The state family welfare department, which administered some of the funds, was led by Mr Kushwaha from 2007 until last April. During his tenure, two chief medical officers, who were in charge of approving expenditures, were murdered in mysterious circumstances. Both were shot to death while out on morning walks.

The CBI has named Mr Kushwaha as a key accused in its corruption investigation. His home and offices were among over 100 locations raided last week. Several arrests have been made, including a former director-general in the family welfare department, SP Ram.

That Mr Kushwaha would even be considered a potential candidate by the BJP says a lot about the realities of caste-based politics in India.

Mr Kushwaha was still seen as a valuable asset due to his status as a leader of Other Backward Classes - a grouping of several lower castes who make up a powerful voting bloc in Uttar Pradesh.

For all the recent hype around the anti-corruption campaign led by the social activist Anna Hazare, regional politics in India remains beholden to caste and community affiliations, as well as power and wealth.

"Caste loyalties give social sanction to corruption," Arun Jaitley, the BJP's leader in the upper house of parliament, was quoted as saying in the Times of India yesterday. "It's an unfortunate phenomenon and corruption has survived because of this."

For many in the BJP, Mr Kushwaha's selection was simply too brazen an act of realpolitik.

It chimed badly with the national party's often shrill denunciation against recent corruption scandals. The BJP's patriarch and former president, LK Advani, recently completed a tour of the country, also known as a yatra, designed to highlight his party's anti-corruption credentials.

Mr Kushwaha's appointment "was unfortunate timing", said Sanjay Kaul, the Delhi-based spokesman for the BJP.

"But the reality of Indian politics is that you have to address different audiences. All the media chatter among English-speaking middle classes in Delhi has no impact on real politics in places like UP where Kushwaha's influence works.

"A state party has its own aspirations - it can't be directed purely by the national party."

Mr Kaul argues that every party turns a blind eye to corruption in order to win elections, and that the CBI's sudden decision to start investigating Mr Kushwaha is a direct result of his decision to join the BJP.

"The fact is that if the corruption charges don't hurt the BJP in the election, all this will be immediately forgotten by all parties. Winning elections will always be more important."


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