NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Junior Foreign Minister Shashi Tharoor, among the country’s few younger, reformist politicians, faces calls to resign after opposition allegations of corruption in winning a $333 million bid for a cricket league franchise in India.
Tharoor is among a handful of political leaders watched closely for their ability to push an agenda to modernise India against conservative figures in the ruling Congress party focused more on political expediency.
The controversy is expected to figure in parliament when it opens on Thursday, possibly delaying house proceedings, including ratification of the budget and debate on key reforms bills.
While the opposition wants Tharoor to step down until the controversy is resolved, a lack of strong backing from his own party may signal a backlash from elderly Congress leaders against younger politicians trying to push new thinking in the government.
Tharoor, a former high-flying U.N. official, has denied any wrongdoing in the awarding of a tender for the cricket team, saying he was only a “mentor” for the winning consortium because the team was based in his home state Kerala.
“I have neither invested nor received a rupee for my mentorship of the team. Whatever my personal relationships with any of the consortium members, I do not intend to benefit in any way financially from my association with the team,” he said on Tuesday.
On Wednesday Sonia Gandhi, Congress chief and the power behind the government, met senior ministers to discuss Tharoor, a day after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he would make a decision once he returned to India and studied the facts.
If Tharoor resigns it could be seen as victory for Congress conservatives, whose guarded, vote-driven politics are often seen as hindering efforts at making painful economic reforms to lift millions out of poverty and keep pace with growth in rival China.
The controversy erupted after Lalit Modi, the chief of the Indian Premier League, said the winning consortium allotted stakes worth about $15 million for free to a woman Indian media identified as Tharoor’s girlfriend Sunanda Pushkar.
Modi said Tharoor had called him to ask that the shareholding details of the consortium not be revealed. Tharoor denies this and has not commented on the nature of his ties to Pushkar.
Since winning a sweeping re-election last May the Congress-led coalition has seen the rise of figures like Tharoor, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh and Trade Minister Anand Sharma, appointed to push a modernisation agenda against more traditional figures within the left-of-centre Congress party.
This is, in part, in keeping with the Congress’s longer term view where Tharoor and other younger leaders are the hope for Sonia Gandhi’s 39-year-old son Rahul, widely expected to take over as prime minister before the next election in 2014.
Opposition parties have accused Tharoor of abusing his office to win the tender and called for a probe into whether he had any financial involvement.
Pushkar said she was not a proxy for the minister.
The billion-dollar Indian Premier League has come to be one of the world’s richest sporting tournaments, with Bollywood stars and billionaire tycoons among team owners.
Tharoor is no stranger to controversy. A first-time minister since May last year, he has made headlines with his flamboyance and trendy way, espousing on Twitter political views that have often grated against the conservative views of party elders.
Editing by Paul de Bendern and Jerry Norton