India to probe spying allegations involving PM candidate Modi

Gujarat's chief minister and Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) speaks during a convocation ceremony at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University (PDPU) earlier this y
Gujarat's chief minister and Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) speaks during a convocation ceremony at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University (PDPU) earlier this year. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (AFP) - The Indian government on Thursday launched a probe into allegations that a former close confidant of opposition prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi had ordered police illegally to spy on a woman.

The move to investigate the alleged 2009 surveillance just months before general elections provoked outrage from Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which slammed the probe as a "witch hunt".

"The Cabinet has approved a proposal to set up a Commission of Inquiry .. to look into the incidents of physical/electronic surveillance in the states of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, and the National Capital Territory of Delhi, allegedly without authorization," a government statement said.

Mr Modi, the chief minister of western Gujarat state since 2001 and now a prime ministerial candidate, is leading in opinion polls ahead of the ruling Congress party just months before elections due by May.

Mr Modi has been crafting his image as a pro-business reformer who can revive India's flagging economy as head of a corruption-free, efficient national government.

But the allegations, contained in 267 audio recordings released to two investigative websites last month, could potentially damage that reputation.

The websites said the recordings included telephone conversations in which Mr Modi's former junior home minister in Gujarat orders a police officer to track the woman.

In the phone calls, the minister purportedly asks the surveillance to be carried out for his "saheb" - a respectful Hindi word for boss. Mr Modi is not named.

Three units of the Gujarat police allegedly used their powers to tail the woman as she visited shopping malls, the gym and even her ailing mother in hospital.

Last month Mr Modi's Gujarat government ordered its own investigation into the allegations - which the Indian media have dubbed "snoopgate".

The BJP blasted the new inquiry ordered by the Congress-led central government, calling it a "clear case of political vindictiveness" and "a witch-hunt".

"Clearly it is the fascist Congress... that has taken such a decision. (The) BJP shall meet all the challenges and fight at every platform," BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman said.