Stand-off and strategy

Published : May 12, 2001 00:00 IST

Engaged in a war of words with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, Sonia Gandhi is determined to take the fight to the President, and the people.

THE daggers put away by the Congress(I) for a brief while to allow the smooth passage of the Finance Bill in Parliament, have been drawn again. The renewed acrimony between the party and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government over the issue of a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the Tehelka disclosures climaxed on April 27, when in his concluding speech in the Lok Sabha Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee hit out at it for stalling parliamentary proceedings. Vajpayee said the party had no right to talk of probity and morality in public life since on these issues it could find itself in the dock. As the proverbial last straw, Vajpayee rejected the demand for a JPC probe, although at an earlier meeting with Sonia Gandhi he had said he would consider it with an open mind. "An open mind," he sough to clarify in a mocking tone, "does not mean an empty mind. We have our own yardstick and are following that." Regretting the use of foul language in Parliament by Opposition members, he said in his 40 years in Parliament he had never heard such abuse.

Although Sonia Gandhi sat through the speech calmly, she gave vent to her anger when Union Home Minister L.K. Advani made an attempt to greet her after the House was adjourned sine die. Obviously flabbergasted, Advani tried in vain to calm Sonia Gandhi down even as she, in an uncharacteristic style, fumed: "In this very House you crucified my husband (Rajiv Gandhi). It was in this very House that you called my mother-in-law a chor. Now you are calling my children thief. I am tired of his (Vajpayee) sermonising on how the Opposition should behave. He cannot have double standards, one for himself as the Leader of the Opposition and another for us." She was seeking to remind Advani of the campaigns the Opposition, with Vajpayee as its leader, had run against members of the Nehru-Gandhi family. She also reminded the Home Minister that it was nothing unusual for the Opposition to stall proceedings on issues of national importance. "You stalled Parliament on a number of occasions: for 19 days on Maruti, for 18 days on Bofors, 14 days on Jayaprakash Narayan's Navnirman andolan and 13 days on Sukh Ram.....but (you) are giving sermons to us now for stalling Parliament.. This will not go without a fight. We will not take things lying down."

It took two days for the stunned Prime Minister to react. On April 29, in a one-page statement, he expressed pain at Sonia Gandhi's "emotional outburst", saying: "I fail to understand how my speech provoked such an angry and personalised outburst from the Leader of the Opposition. Such episodes lower the prestige of Parliament." He also refuted Sonia Gandhi's charges that as Leader of the Opposition he had ever allowed the use of abusive language against anyone. "I refute Shrimati Gandhi's charge that we in the BJP allowed the kind of abusive language which was used against us, to be used against Indiraji and Rajivji. As the Leader of the Opposition and even as an ordinary MP I had always stood up to stop the use of derogatory and unbecoming remarks in Parliament," he said. He rejected Sonia Gandhi's charge that the government was vindictive towards her and her family members. "It is unfortunate for Shrimati Gandhi to have alleged that the government is vindictive towards her and her family members. The allegation is baseless," he said, hoping for better and more constructive cooperation from her in future both inside and outside Parliament.

But this was not the end of the slanging match. BJP president Jana Krishnamurthy joined Vajpayee in the ring and described Sonia Gandhi's outburst as "one of the saddest days in recent times, which lowered the dignity of the House." Unrelenting in his attack, he said: "We expect the Leader of the Opposition to rise to higher level. Parliament is not the place to settle personal scores." He further said that the Congress(I) owed an explanation to the nation for playing such a negative role in Parliament when the Finance Bill was to be discussed and passed.

A provoked Congress(I) has decided to "take the fight to its logical conclusion". And as the first step in this direction, it plans to approach President K.R. Narayanan later in May with a memorandum seeking the dismissal of the NDA government, after apprising him of the murky disclosures in the Tehelka tapes.

According to party general secretary Oscar Fernandes, who was especially deputed by Sonia Gandhi along with Arjun Singh to brief the media, the party has been forced to seek the President's intervention because the government has closed all other options normally available to Opposition parties. "The memorandum will be presented to the President around May 20, after the present round of campaigning for the Assembly elections," he said. The draft memorandum, a copy of which is available with Frontline, says the party is approaching the President "with a deep sense of anguish and anger at the callous indifference and brazen reaction of the Central government presided over by Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the exposure of corruption indulged by important functionaries in the BJP-led Central government."

The memorandum tells Narayanan that a cloud of suspicion hangs over the government since its senior functionaries and persons who enjoyed the highest confidence of the Prime Minister have been seen "bartering away the national security by openly asking for and accepting money to fix defence deals." It further says that the taped conversation indicates involvement at the highest level, even hinting at the Prime Minister himself being a beneficiary. "Unless the persons seen accepting bribe are booked as per the law of the land and are forced to reveal the entire chain of corruption, nation will feel insecure," the memorandum says. Accusing the government of inaction, it says the Prime Minister's response proves that the government wanted to ignore the whole affair, and instead of punishing the guilty it would like to reinstate them. "The nation expected that the Prime Minister would assume moral responsibility and immediately resign, that he would ask CBI to launch formal investigation, arrest and question those involved, and to file FIRs (first information reports), that he would forthwith remove those officials in the PMO (Prime Minister's Office) who are prominently mentioned in the tapes as being the principal actors in the corruption, that he would readily agree for a JPC. However, he has done nothing,"

The memorandum goes on to list other scams, such as the ones in the telecom and banking sectors, saying all these are hurting the economy. Directly accusing the Prime Minister of shielding the guilty, the memorandum delivers the final blow by saying that the "Prime Minister is keen to protect the guilty" and that "he knows more than he is willing to admit." It adds: "He is putting his party above national interest and desperately trying to save his government at the cost of grave damage to national security." It says the Congress(I), as the principal Opposition party, wanted to discuss the matter in Parliament, and the least the government could have done for that was to launch CBI investigations, file FIRs, and agree for a JPC.

Saying that "national security and well-being of our armed forces is too important to be sacrificed at the altar of partisan politics," the memorandum urges the President to use his constitutional authority to dismiss the government.

"We have been forced to take this step because the government's game plan was to scuttle everything," says Oscar Fernandes. According to him, the Prime Minister's turnaround on the issue of JPC was an act of betrayal. "But it is he who is the loser because he has lost credibility, he has lost face. This only proves that we were after all right in stalling Parliament and demanding action first because the crime was so obvious," Fernandes said. Now it is not the question of the Prime Minister's "moral responsibility but his direct involvement". It was not the Congress(I) that first raised the accusing finger but the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief and an RSS pracharak, by attacking the officials of the PMO. "Can the PMO be any different from the PM? Is it possible that the Prime Minister would not be aware of the goings on in his own office? The Prime Minister's silence only proves that he is deliberately ignoring the issue because he is personally involved in it," Oscar Fernandes said.

The Congress(I) is busy distributing a charge-sheet against the government, a la Subramanian Swamy. While the Tehelka disclosures find top priority in the charge-sheet, other issues - such as the customs scam, the stock market scam, the telecom scam, inaction on farmers' problems, the disinvestment scam and the overall slowdown in the economy - also figure in the list. "This charge-sheet is distributed to every household. We are now taking the fight to the people, making them see why the government should go. This time the fight will be taken to its logical conclusion," Fernandes said. "The ease with which terrorists infiltrated the Red Fort, the ease with which foreign defence agents have gained access to the ruling party's headquarters, the PMO and the Defence Minister's office and residence, all go to prove that this government is a danger to the country's security and integrity. Now it is for the people to decide whether they want such a government."

But the Congress(I) seems to be getting isolated in its larger fight. Although other Opposition parties have sympathised with Sonia Gandhi they have chosen to be mere spectators in the war of words between her and the Prime Minister.

Says a senior Congress(I) leader: "In a democracy it is not necessary for all the Opposition parties to agree on everything. The question is whether corruption in defence deals is not a serious enough issue, whether the Congress(I) would not be failing in its duties as the principal Opposition party if it allows the issue to rest where it is at the moment, whether it has not been proved that the country's security is being compromised by this government. Since we have been taken for a ride by the Prime Minister on this issue, we will take it to the people and they will decide."

From Parliament the fight has now reached the streets.

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