`Tainted' battle

Published : Aug 27, 2004 00:00 IST

The Lok Sabha witnesses ugly scenes as the Opposition National Democratic Alliance obstructs parliamentary proceedings over the issue of "tainted" Ministers.

in New Delhi

IT was never in doubt that the issue of "tainted Ministers" would become the proverbial mill around the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government's neck. So when the Budget session of Parliament opened on July 5, it was not surprising that the Opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) raised the issue forcefully. But what was shocking was the way in which events unfolded and climaxed. Leaders of the Opposition, adopting an unusually confrontationist attitude, interrupted Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee on many occasions and obstructed parliamentary committees. So much so that the Speaker was forced to express his anguish at a press conference.

In fact, the entire sequence of events, including the sorry spectacle of a Union Minister "disappearing" to evade arrest by the Jharkhand police and the Opposition making a mockery of parliamentary norms, will remain etched in public memory.

The UPA has to accept its adequate share of the blame, but the conduct of NDA Members of Parliament was unjustifiable.

Boycott of parliamentary proceedings by members is nothing new. The Congress boycotted Janata Dal (United) leader George Fernandes after he was reinducted as Defence Minister in the NDA government even as the Tehelka inquiry was on. For almost three years the Congress refused to acknowledge Fernandes. Its MPs used to embarrass Fernandes by first putting questions relating to his Ministry and then not raising them during Question Hour. At times, he was left standing, waiting to answer supplementaries, while Congress members simply kept quiet. The Congress MPs used to stage a walkout the moment Fernandes got up to make a statement. Their protest, however, remained within Parliament.

"We only boycotted the Minister, never obstructed Parliament, the Speaker or the committees. Besides, our protest was based on the CAG [Comptroller and Auditor-General] reports, on the fact that he [Fernandes] was made Minister even as an inquiry was on. This cannot be compared to the conduct of the NDA members now because they want action taken merely on the basis of a police warrant in a politically motivated case even as the person or persons concerned are still to be tried by the relevant courts," said Girija Vyas, chairperson of the Congress' media committee.

In the Tehelka case, "George Fernandes' official residence was shown on the camera as the place where arms dealers were seen offering a bribe to his confidante and Samata Party president Jaya Jaitly, for getting a deal through. Not only that, Jaitly was seen accepting the money and saying that she would speak to him [Fernandes] about the `deal'. The evidence in the Tehelka case was undeniable. Whereas the cases against the tainted Ministers are still to be proved in any court of law," Vyas said.

Pointing out an inherent difference in the situation now and the one that existed when the Tehelka episode broke out, senior Congress leaders say that in the case of Fernandes he was re-inducted into the Cabinet even as the Venkataswamy Commission of inquiry was under way. Moreover, Fernandes had declared that he would not join the government until his name was cleared.

Indeed, what one witnessed during the first half of the Budget session in July far surpassed the Congress' boycott of Fernandes. The NDA MPs at times stooped so low that they even indulged in raucous fisticuffs, in full public view during the Zero Hour proceedings, which are telecast live.

Although it is a fact that the UPA government gave the Opposition the issue of "tainted" Ministers on a platter, the issue would not have lasted long had a Jharkhand Subdivisional Magistrate not issued a non-bailable warrant against Coal and Mines Minister Shibu Soren on July 17. For, the NDA's " boycott" of Soren and four other "tainted" Ministers - Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, Minister of State for Company Affairs Prem Chand Gupta, Minister of State for Heavy Industries Taslimuddin, and Minister of State for Water Resources Jaya Prakash Narayan Yadav - had almost lost its steam after a couple of days.

Although the NDA boycotted the Railway Budget on July 6, its members were back in the House to participate in the subsequent discussions on the Budget as they had to highlight issues relating to their constituencies. Realising that to continue the general boycott against all the five Ministers would become difficult, the NDA altered its strategy to train its guns on Laloo Prasad.

When even that became ineffective, it revived the 1975 Chirudih mob violence case involving Shibu Soren. The charges in the case were not framed against Soren, who was accused of instigating the mob attack, for nearly a decade. In 2002, a fast track court issued a warrant against 52 persons including Soren. But the warrant was not delivered to Soren.

The latest events pertain to the April warrant, about which Soren had no clue. When the Magistrate issued a fresh warrant against Shibu Soren to clear the confusion and the Minister went underground to evade arrest, there was no stopping the Opposition. It launched an all-out attack, demanding details about Soren's whereabouts and his removal from the Ministry.

IN its attacks against the government, the NDA often chided the Speaker for going soft on the issue. The scenes in the Lok Sabha took an ugly turn on July 21 when the BJP Deputy Leader in the Lok Sabha, V.K. Malhotra, demanded to know from the Speaker whether he had received a "leave application" from the "absconding Minister". A visibly upset Speaker replied that there was no provision for grant of leave by the Speaker, which was the prerogative of the House. Somnath Chatterjee expressed his unhappiness at the rudeness shown to him. "I am not here to help the police," he said.

But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members kept up the demand unrelentingly and sought a statement from the Prime Minister. They even staged a walkout when the Speaker started the proceedings.. On July 22, the scenes in the Lok Sabha turned even more acrimonious with BJP-Shiv Sena and Rashtriya Janata Dal members coming close to fist fights in the well of the House. There were repeated adjournments as the Opposition demanded that the government make a statement on the whereabouts of Shibu Soren and take the House into confidence as to how it would deal with this "unprecedented" situation. Amidst all the din, the Speaker allowed Leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani to make a statement on the issue. Advani took the government to task by saying that "it was disgraceful that the government had not dropped a Minister who was absconding". He requested the Speaker to ask the Prime Minister to make a statement and adjourn the House for the day if that did not happen. The Speaker obliged by adjourning the House for the day.

But before that Opposition members, especially those from the Shiv Sena, accused the Speaker of being soft on the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and not allowing them to voice their opinion. "This is no way to run the House," Shiv Sena's Anant Geethe was heard shouting. Remarks like this forced Somnath Chatterjee to comment: "By casting aspersions on the Chair, the member was also demeaning the House." When his pleas to the Opposition to cooperate fell on deaf ears, he said: "It seems the Chair has become totally irrelevant in the House. You don't even allow the Chair to speak."

The attacks on the Speaker did not stop here. The following day, as he was soliciting the Opposition's cooperation, he was obstructed by Malhotra who demanded that Advani be allowed to speak first. Members of the UPA protested against the manner in which Malhotra obstructed the Speaker. As both sides proceeded towards the well, the Speaker adjourned the House.

When the House reassembled at noon, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who is also the Leader of the House, condemned a "section of the Opposition" for obstructing the Speaker in a rude manner. He said: "... the Speaker is the custodian of the rights, privileges, dignity of the House and to prevent him from discharging his duties is gross disrespect to the Chair and to the House. We strongly condemn this behaviour of a section of Opposition members." This resulted in the Opposition members rushing to the well of the House in protest, but the Speaker continued with the exercise of laying of papers and then adjourned the House until August 16.

Deprived of the parliamentary forum, to register their protest, the NDA took the unprecedented step of announcing that it would boycott all the parliamentary committees, standing as well as consultative, to protest against the "confrontationist attitude" of the UPA government. Advani told reporters that since the Prime Minister was "unable to exercise his authority" on the issue of his "missing Minister" the NDA would request President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to "advise" the Prime Minister to sack the Minister. Although the Prime Minister did seek Shibu Soren's resignation on July 25, it seemed as if he had acted under pressure. Although the NDA has given up its stand of not participating in the parliamentary committees, what remains to be seen is whether it will allow Parliament to function because the larger issue of "tainted" Ministers still remains. The BJP described Soren's resignation as a "drama and an eyewash". Party spokesman Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has made the Opposition's intent clear by declaring that its members would not sit quiet until the Prime Minister made a statement on the issue. (Incidentally, Soren surrendered before the court on August 2 and is under detention in a college in Jamatara.)

It remains to be seen how the Opposition will take the issue forward when the House resumes on August 16 and how the government will handle it. The government's task is not easy as is obvious from an honest confession by the Prime Minister that "compulsions of coalition politics" at times lead to such situations.

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