Natwar Singh's removal from the External Affairs Ministry takes the sting out of the NDA campaign against the UPA government, but the latter might be facing one of its worst crises yet.VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi
WHEN the findings of the Volcker Report hit the headlines in early November, there was jubilation in the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The alliance was mid-way through the campaign for the Assembly elections in Bihar and the references in the Report against External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh and the Congress gave an added fillip to its propaganda. The NDA leadership evaluated that whatever the result of the Bihar polls, the Report, its contents and the debate it had started would provide it with a major issue to attack the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in the next session of Parliament, which begins on November 23.
While a mood of optimism prevailed in the NDA, some senior leaders of the BJP and the Janata Dal (United), another major constituent of the alliance, felt that the initiatives in Parliament would help it score political points. The conviction was based on a number of factors. To start with, some of the leaders told Frontline, they expected the government to follow the same pattern of response adopted by France, China, Russia and New Zealand, and brand the report as a "mere hogwash" or at least clear Natwar Singh's name on the reasoning that the charges against him were not "substantiated".
In such a situation, NDA leaders believed, an aggressive campaign could be launched inside and outside Parliament portraying the "moral uprightness" of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi as a sham and "exposing" them as corrupt politicians with shady international connections. They also calculated that once the campaign moved ahead, Natwar Singh would have to step down and thus provide the NDA with a "great political victory" during Parliament's winter session.
All the excitement, however, dimmed a bit after Manmohan Singh relieved Natwar Singh of the External Affairs portfolio but retained him in the Ministry. The BJP persisted with its "nationwide protests" from November 8 to 15 demanding the ouster of Natwar Singh from the Council of Ministers and registration of criminal cases against those named in the report. It promised to continue with its "struggle" in Parliament and branded the Prime Minister's action as a "clever compromise move" and an act of "political cunning".
In spite of all the rhetoric, there is a muted admission within the NDA that the removal of Natwar Singh from the External Affairs Ministry has taken the sheen off its campaign. The response at the ground level to the BJP's week-long protest exemplified this. Reports from across the country showed that even BJP cadre was not exceptionally keen on the campaign programmes. The effort to link Sonia Gandhi directly to the oil-for-food scam on the basis of the allegations made by a non-resident Indian businessman too did not take off because the Congress countered it with the publication of correspondence between Sonia Gandhi and the deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
But this by itself need not ensure a smooth sailing for the Congress and the UPA in the days to come, especially when they face Parliament. Several NDA leaders believe that though their own larger political campaign has suffered some reverses because of the Prime Minister's move, the developments since the publication of the report and the pressure exerted by the NDA have set off a crisis within the UPA and the Congress and the relationship that the latter has with the Left parties.
General secretary of the BJP Arun Jaitley said that with the removal of Natwar Singh the needle of suspicion had pointed at the Congress and the Prime Minister's authority had eroded further. Jaitley argued that the November 7 move was in many ways a "prize of silence" Natwar Singh earned by "creating a public scene". He added that the move could not hide the fact that Natwar Singh had "embarrassed the whole country, the government and his own party".
Evidently, the NDA's plans in the days to come will focus on this dimension. The goings-on in the Congress during the week that the Volcker Report hogged the headlines have imparted some effectiveness to this line. Throughout that period, it was clear that a section of the Congress itself was gunning for Natwar Singh. According to several supporters of Natwar Singh, it included party leaders such as political secretary to Sonia Gandhi Ahmed Patel, Congress Working Committee member Ambika Soni, Ministers Pranab Mukherjee and Mani Shankar Aiyar, and economic policy think-tank member Jairam Ramesh.
Informed sources in the Congress said the situation had prevailed in the party right from day one of the crisis. Those who started an intra-party campaign for Natwar Singh's removal, a senior Congress leader told Frontline, wanted to place all the charges on the Minister and absolve the party, which too was named as a non-contractual beneficiary in the report. These leaders said that Natwar Singh was expendable since he had antagonised several people in the party and had no mass following. The people who were bent upon removing Natwar Singh from the Ministry, the senior Congress leader said, seemed somehow to have got the ear of the Prime Minister too and there was the distinct impression in the party that he wanted Natwar Singh to resign or be moved to another portfolio.
In response, Natwar Singh tried to mobilise support within the non-Congress parties of the UPA such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) as well as among the Left parties, whose support is crucial for the survival of the government. It was in such a situation that Sonia Gandhi took a proactive role and persuaded Natwar Singh to continue in the Ministry without a portfolio. According to supporters of Natwar Singh, there is also the unwritten understanding that he would get back the portfolio if the two inquiries initiated by the Prime Minister gave him a clean chit. But that process will take some time.
In the meantime, political observers and the NDA leadership will keenly observe the tussles in the Congress. The Natwar Singh episode has become one of the most serious manifestations of the political-organisational games played within the Congress. The NDA would certainly leave no stone unturned to expose and aggravate the crisis and thereby recapture its space as a serious Opposition force. It would be equally interesting to see how the Congress and the UPA handle the NDA's manoeuvres. Perhaps an indication of the Congress strategy and tactics on this front will be available when Manmohan Singh carries out the long-awaited Cabinet reshuffle.