India's Congress Party on Wednesday named a new chief minister for the western state of Maharashtra, a response to a corruption scandal in the state that the party feared could become a major distraction as it tries to advance big-ticket legislative proposals in Parliament's winter session.
Prithviraj Chavan, left, and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, center, attended the first day of the winter session of the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, on Tuesday.
Congress Party officials said Prithviraj Chavan, who is currently minister of state in the Prime Minister's Office, will take over as head of Maharashtra's government. Mr. Chavan told reporters he accepted the job "with all humility" and that Congress would put "the state's interests ahead of its own interests."
He will replace Ashok Chavan, who stepped down Tuesday amid a storm of controversy following news reports that he allowed apartments in a Mumbai housing project intended for war heroes and widows to go to politicians, bureaucrats and their relatives, including some of his own kin.
Mr. Ashok Chavan told reporters Tuesday that he resigned at the request of Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, and that his removal wasn't an acknowledgment of guilt. "The truth will come out in the investigation," he said.
In a lesser but still significant move, Member of Parliament Suresh Kalmadi resigned from a key Congress Party post after several months of allegations—made mostly in media reports—that he mismanaged the recently completed Commonwealth Games sporting event in New Delhi. Mr. Kalmadi couldn't be reached for comment, but in the past he has denied wrongdoing.
The changes are seen as an attempt by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's ruling party to clean house and ensure that any potential wrongdoing by some of its members doesn't interfere with its legislative objectives. The leading opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has pushed Mr. Singh's government to take strong action against officials involved in the Commonwealth Games and Maharashtra housing controversies.
"It's a signal from the government that they'd like to complete as much business as possible without unnecessary distractions," said C.V. Madhukar, director of PRS Legislative Research, a research organization that tracks activity in India's parliament.
Among Congress's major legislative priorities are to improve food security, streamline land acquisition, increase cooperation with foreign universities and overhaul corporate governance. Mr. Singh's government has struggled to enact its agenda despite being re-elected to power last year with a strong mandate, as opponents have been able to galvanize opposition against major proposals.
Allegations of corruption by bureaucrats and politicians aren't unusual in India. Public officials regularly are accused of charges such as bribery, falsification of government documents and misuse of government funds. But for Mr. Singh, widely regarded as a man of integrity, the drumbeat of scandal that's building up in his party is a growing risk.
The resignation of top Congress officials came the same day U.S. President Barack Obama departed India after a three-day visit that touted growing economic and strategic ties between the countries. It was Mr. Chavan who greeted Mr. Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the airport in Mumbai Nov. 6.
Janardhan Dwivedi, secretary general of the Congress Party, said Mr. Chavan's resignation has been accepted "pending inquiry."
India's defense ministry said in a statement Tuesday it has asked the country's Central Bureau of Investigation to investigate the housing matter and "fix responsibilities for any lapses."
Mr. Prithviraj Chavan faces the challenging tasks of addressing the Maharashtra scandal and running a coalition government in the state, something he said he's had experience with at the national level while serving in the prime minister's office.
"I've been fortunate to see the pain and stress of running a coalition from close quarters," Mr. Chavan told reporters. Among his high-profile assignments in the prime minister's office was to usher nuclear liability legislation through India's parliament this summer and then respond to the complaints of American nuclear equipment suppliers about the law.
Congress Party officials wouldn't comment on why, specifically, Mr. Chavan stepped down or whether he had transferred apartments to his relatives. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee told reporters, "We went on certain reports, general perceptions" and "based on certain facts."
The BJP said the Congress Party moves weren't a serious-enough effort to tackle corruption. BJP President Nitin Gadkari accused Congress of running "the most corrupt government in the history of the country."
The Adarsh Housing Society, a high-rise apartment complex in an upscale Mumbai neighborhood, was built on land transferred to private developers by the Indian Army and was supposed to be for war veterans and widows after India's 1999 border battle with Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region, according to reports in the Times of India newspaper and other publications. Those reports allege Mr. Chavan played a key role in opening the facility up to civilians and officials with no connection to the 1999 conflict.
A spokesperson for Adarsh Housing Society couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
Mr. Kalmadi, who served as chairman of India's Organizing Committee for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, was blamed for the tardy preparations for the event, along with construction miscues and huge cost overruns. New Delhi's tax authorities and investigators are probing whether companies paid off public officials to get Games-related sports equipment and infrastructure contracts.
Mr. Kalmadi has relinquished his post as the secretary of the Congress Parliamentary Party, the group of elected Congress Party members of parliament, but he will keep his seat and he remains president of the Indian Olympic Association, a spokesman for the IOA said.
Congress Party officials didn't say why he resigned.