Vajpayee vows to 'root out corruption'

NEW DELHI, 25-3-2001: Pledging to "root out corruption," Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told supporters Sunday that bribery accusations against top politicians are a plot to undermine his government.

Vajpayee told about 100,000 supporters in the Indian capital the government was ready for an independent inquiry into the scandal that has rocked the government, but he also said the calls for his resignation by the opposition were a "challenge to war" and he was ready for it.

"We accept this challenge, and we will fight it," Vajpayee said.

He acknowledged corruption was deeply rooted and that it would take time to get to the bottom.

"The malady has been in existence for more than 50 years," he said. "It is wrong to think that we can root it out in three months. We don't say so. However, we are committed to root out corruption."

Vajpayee has been emboldened by the support he received over the weekend from the senior leaders of his party at their national executive meeting. Party leaders conceded that videotapes at the heart of the scandal have dismayed supporters.

The tapes appear to show a host of party leaders, government officials and senior army officers discussing offers of kickbacks and bribes with reporters who posed as arms dealers.

Parliament has been paralyzed over the last week and a half, with the opposition demanding top officials step down. Leaders of two parties have resigned as a result of the scandal.

Vajpayee expressed anger over the opposition's demands, saying an inquiry must be conducted before anyone jumps to conclusions.

"You keep your point of view and prove us guilty," he said. "Baseless allegations will not work, and because of these allegations, you should not stop the proceedings of Parliament."

With five state elections due in early May, the opposition is set to keep pressure on the government.

As Vajpayee addressed his rally,tens of thousands of opposition demonstrators took part in another rally a few kilometers away. They burned effigies of government leaders who they said have lost the moral authority to govern