The murder in India of the wife of an up-and-coming politician has not only dominated the newspaper headlines but prompted a national debate about the apparent links between crime and politics. The details of what's become known as the Tandoori murder are particularly grotesque. But it's the political connections of the principal suspect which have aroused most controversy, as Andrew Whitehead in Delhi explains:
Just occasionally, a particularly gruesome crime arouses more than simply a wave of public revulsion and prurient reporting, and touches a deep underlying concern about the way a country is government. Delhi's Tandoori murder has sparked-off exactly such anguished soul-searching. India's most talked about murder for at least a generation has unleashed a fierce debate about the way in which criminals appear to be knocking at the portals of political power.
Before saying more, it's important to emphasise that the chief suspect, Sushil Sharma, has publicly proclaimed his innocence. indeed, he says he's been framed by a political rival from within his own party, the ruling Congress party. Indian justice accepts the principle that a man is innocent until proven guilty - a dictum which even the most sober and serious-minded Delhi newspapers have chose to overlook in their frenzied news coverage of the case.
The murder victim was Sushil Sharma's twenty-nine year old wife, Naina Sahni. One evening, at the beginning of the month, an alert policeman spotted a small fire at a smart open-air Tandoori restaurant in central Delhi. The customers had all been ushered out at short notice; the staff paid off for the evening. Beyond the shuttered gates, smoke was billowing from a big Tandoori oven. Inside was the charred and dismembered remains of Naina Sahni.
Sushil Sharma and some friends had, it seems, secured the concession for the government-owned restaurant through political connections. Mr Sharma was extremely well connected. He was for five years the president of the local Delhi branch of the Youth Congress - and made himself indispensable to a series of very senior politicians in India's governing party. He was one of those happy to pay court and provide favours, in return - it seems - for help in his business career and, one assumes, the hope of political advancement. The newspapers have suggested that Naina Sahni herself bestowed favours on ministers and others. Sushil Sharma was apparently recommended, unsuccessfully, by his ministerial friends for a seat in Parliament.
The Youth Congress has always had a rather unsavoury reputation. Youth political movements, you might imagine, are the home of young, energetic idealists. Many of those who have risen to the top of the youth wing of India's ruling party have a fairly crude approach to politics. I remember going to a Delhi discotheque in the company of a Youth Congress leader. When he became embroiled in a row with a stranger about a seat, he pulled out a pistol.
Even after the murder, Sushil Sharma was able to summon help from his high-placed friends. A lawyer in Madras, at the other end of India, was asked by an unnamed politician to help this missing Mr Sharma. He approached a local judge and secured anticipatory bail for the fugitive, who did not appear in person and gave as his address a centre for astrology. That gave him immunity from arrest for two weeks. The bail was revoked following public outrage - and Mr Sharma, his head shaved after having visited a Hindu pilgrimage site, was arrested the same day.
Government ministers have since been queueing up to declare that they've only had the slightest acquaintance with Sushil Sharma, and no intimacy at all with his late wife. It all has the makings of a messy political scandal. With a general election less than a year away, the timing for the Congress party could not be much worse.
But as the Times of India reflected in a front-page editorial: 'it's not the Congress party alone which is afflicted by the presence in its ranks of a large number of functionaries who are not fully conversant with the norms of civilised life. Almost every party, regional and national, has thugs and goons ever ready to settle scores violently.'
India's always had its ample share of corrupt politicians and ministers on the make. Criminals have often been able to shelter behind very well-placed political friends. But increasingly those criminals have not been content with indirect access to power - more and more are securing election and achieving office themselves.
India's home minister recently remarked that there were plenty of state-level ministers who police were compelled to salute but should be putting behind bars. One noted political commentator recently described India as the most daring and difficult experiment in democracy in the modern world. He lamented that an experiment can easily fail when the politicians who are supposed to lead it turn out to be its saboteurs.