Climbdown and confusion

Print edition : April 28, 2001

The Congress(I) now wants a JPC to probe the Tehelka issue and would not allow Parliament to work until the demand is met. Is this part of a strategy meant for the Assembly elections in May?

IS the Congress(I) engaged in shadow-boxing with the Bharatiya Janata Party on the Tehelka issue? It seems so. The fact that in the post-recess Budget session of Parliament the party suddenly veered round and started demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the allegations makes its real intentions suspect. This is particularly so in view of the fact that the government has ordered a judicial probe into the affair after it failed to bring about a consensus among the Opposition parties. Now, when the other Opposition parties have decided to await the report of this probe and want to have a discussion on the Budget in Parliament, the Congress(I) continues to stall the proceedings.

The party stalled Parliament for days on end when the government was pleading with it to accept a JPC. It insisted on the resignation of the government and the Prime Minister. When Parliament went into a month-long recess, the Congress(I) had announced that it would take recourse to "other forms of protest like holding rallies and meetings" to highlight the Tehelka issue, and would not stall Parliament.

Faces of a campaign at a Congress(I) rally in New Delhi.-S. ARNEJA

Why did the Congress(I) change its stance? The other Opposition parties believe that it wants to avoid a discussion on the Budget. The Railway budget was passed in a record 15 minutes with a voice vote and without any discussion, and the general Budget awaits a similar fate, they say. The leaders of the Left parties say that in any discussion on the Budget, the Congress(I) would have to spell out its own economic policies, which could prove embarrassing for it for two reasons: the party has no economic policy at the moment, and some of the economic policies being pursued by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government were in fact initiated by the Congress(I). They cite the instance when the Congress(I) was put in the dock by Disinvestment Minister Arun Shourie during a parliamentary debate on the disinvestment of Bharat Aluminium Company Ltd (Balco). Quoting various documents, including the Congress(I)'s manifesto, Shourie sought to prove that the NDA government was only following the disinvestment policy that was set in motion by the Congress(I) government earlier.

There is also a perception that the Congress(I), along with the BJP, is trying to protect the interests of some corporate houses that have been given extraordinary tax benefits. The Congress(I)'s strategy, say the Left parties and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), suits the BJP too because the government would be only too willing to avoid a discussion on the Budget, especially in view of the Assembly elections in May. A discussion on the Budget, the government fears, would bring out some of its glaring "anti-people" measures.

The Left parties and the S.P. have dissociated themselves from the Congress(I) in the post-recess session. Except the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the party has no allies on the JPC issue. The rest of the Opposition is in favour of a discussion on the Budget. Mulayam Singh Yadav, S.P. leader and convener of the People's Front, said: "They should give up their obstinacy and allow a discussion on the Budget. After all, we too have agreed for a discussion on the Budget before it is passed by Parliament." The People's Front is of the opinion that the Congress(I)'s demand for a JPC probe is "unreasonable", especially when a judicial probe is on and its report is expected in four months. The Front, especially its Left constituents, view the Congress(I)'s insistence on a JPC as part of its strategy to project itself as the real alternative to the NDA in the Assembly elections. According to them, the Congress(I)'s calculation is that the political gains from this strategy would offset the losses it might suffer by creating a logjam in Parliament and climbing down from its demand for the resignation of the government. In fact, when asked why the Congress(I) was insisting on a JPC, a senior Congress leader retorted, "What do we gain if we give up the demand?", making it clear that all this is a part of broader strategy.

Senior Congress(I) leaders say that the stalemate in Parliament is as much a trouble for the ruling alliance as it is for their own party. "If it is a logjam, it is a logjam for them (BJP) too," said S. Jaipal Reddy, the party spokesman.

The party's climbdown, according to them, would be viewed by the people as an indication of its keenness to unravel the truth. And, they hope, the people will not take kindly to the government's refusal to appoint a JPC and the insistence on getting the Budget passed without a discussion. Senior Congress(I) leader Kamal Nath said: "The government is seen to be on the run. They are seen as trying to prevent the truth from coming out which a JPC would do."

It looks almost certain that the logjam in Parliament will continue. "We have climbed down from our earlier demand for the government's resignation, there cannot be any further withdrawal," said Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, hurrying out of a meeting with Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi, on April 19. The Speaker, who is said to be upset about the lack of discussion on the Budget, had invited her for a discussion to find a way out of the stalemate. "The government is being unreasonable. It is trying to bulldoze its way through Parliament. This is not acceptable to us," she said. She said that when the Congress(I) demanded the government's resignation, it offered to form a JPC, but now it was going back on its words. "Now that we have climbed down and agreed for a JPC, they are refusing even that. This is not acceptable to us," she said.

The government appears to be equally adamant. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan said in the Lok Sabha: "Propriety demands that we should await the (Justice) Venkataswamy Commission's report." He said: "It is unreasonable for the Congress to demand action even before investigations are over".

The government has put on the Congress(I) the entire blame for not allowing a discussion on crucial budgetary proposals, saying the matter would be taken to the people and they would decide who was at fault. This is important for the BJP in the present context because the Congress(I) has declared a 5-0 victory for itself in the elections to the Assemblies of four States and the Union Territory of Pondicherry. It is the Congress(I), and not the BJP, that has high stakes, in these States and any campaign projecting a negative image of the Congress(I) would affect its prospects. But Congress insiders believe that the Congress(I) stands to gain politically despite the climbdown and the general impression that it is in a fix on the issue of a parliamentary discussion on the Budget. "We will go to the people and tell them that the government was running away from the truth because a JPC would bring everything out," said Jaipal Reddy.

The sudden hardening of the Congress(I) stand appears to have been prompted by reports of the government having ordered a preliminary inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the charges made by Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy against Sonia Gandhi. One of the allegations is that Sonia Gandhi's family (the Maino family) received money from the KGB from Indo-Soviet trade deals, and that a part of this money was used to finance the campaign of the Mainos' "favourite" candidates in the 1989 parliamentary elections. In support of his charge, Subramanian Swamy has cited a letter written by a former KGB chief, Viktor Chebrikov, to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This letter has become available now after the KGB archive was opened up after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Among the other charges made by Subramanian Swamy relate to the alleged smuggling of Indian art items out of India by the mother and sister of Sonia, their alleged link with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to smuggle these items out, and their association with the outfit even after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Subramanian Swamy first made these allegations late last year, but the government took note of it only after the Tehelka scandal broke out. It was in mid-March that the "charge-sheet" submitted by Subramanian Swamy to Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Minister of State for Personnel, was referred to the CBI. Although the Prime Minister has said that there is no CBI inquiry against Sonia Gandhi at the moment, senior CBI officials have gone on record as saying that the charges have been forwarded to them for a preliminary inquiry.

The upbeat mood in the Congress(I) after the Tehelka expose has subsided following its poor performance in the two Assembly by-elections in Uttar Pradesh. Faction feud has aggravated in the U.P. unit of the party. At the party's rally in Allahabad on April 9 to highlight the Tehelka affair, supporters of Pramod Tiwari, Congress(I) Legislature Party leader, beat up the supporters of Rita Bahuguna Joshi, who organised the rally. Reportedly irked by the unexpected success of the rally, Tiwari's supporters pushed their rivals off the dais. It was a free-for-all at the venue.

A sad state of affairs indeed for a party that is seeking to re-establish its supremacy at the national level. And if anyone is to be blamed for the mess, it is the party itself.

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