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Walmart probe row

New Delhi, Dec. 11: The government today agreed to order an inquiry into allegations that retail giant Walmart spent millions of dollars on lobbying to enter Indian markets, but differences over the nature of the probe forced disruptions in both Houses of Parliament.

While the Opposition demanded a time-bound investigation by a joint parliamentary committee (JPC), the government appeared reluctant and was thinking of announcing some sort of a probe tomorrow. The Congress leadership, which met this morning, felt the JPC demand was aimed at keeping the issue alive politically to undermine the government’s recent victory in the FDI vote.

“The government is as much concerned as the House and has no hesitation in having a probe into this,” parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath said.

He promised to announce a mechanism for the probe later in the day but the plan got derailed as the Opposition stuck to the JPC demand. The BJP said it was also open to a judicial inquiry.

The issue also reached the Supreme Court, which agreed to take up on January 22 a plea for a directive to the government to produce before it Walmart’s purported disclosure statement in the US Senate.

The retail major reportedly said it spent close to $25 million (about Rs 125 crore) since 2008 on lobbying US lawmakers, including on issues related to “enhanced market access for investment in India”.

In Parliament, Opposition members accused the government of accepting bribes for allowing foreign retailers, while some even claimed Walmart had manipulated the FDI vote.

Information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari said the BJP was making allegations without verifying the facts.

“The Opposition believes one part of the Walmart statement but disbelieves the other part,” Congress spokesperson Rashid Alvi told a news conference. “They disclosed the lobbying expenses but also said nothing illegal had been done and no bribe was paid in India.”

Walmart’s India partner, Bharti Walmart, denied allegations that it had spent money in India to gain market access. A statement it issued yesterday said: “These allegations are entirely false. The expenditures are a compilation of expenses associated with staff, association dues, consultants and contributions spent in the US. Our Washington office naturally had discussions with US government officials about a range of trade and investment issues that impact our businesses in the US and worldwide and disclosed this in accordance with the law.”

But Opposition MPs launched into the government. CPI’s Gurudas Dasgupta said: “my heart beats in shame as I am an Indian.”

The Biju Janata Dal’s Tathagata Satpathy said it was a “shame that the people claiming themselves to be governing this country are mired in corruption, (and had) dirtied their hands and soul because of the diktats of some foreign country”.