The return of Fernandes

Print edition : October 27, 2001

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee reappoints George Fernandes Defence Minister well before the Tehelka inquiry is over, raising questions about his professed commitment to setting high standards in public life.

THE reinduction of Samata Party leader George Fernandes as Defence Minister has created a furore in political circles. Many observers have questioned the propriety of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's decision, pointing out that little has changed in the circumstances under which Fernandes quit the Cabinet in March. He resigned in the wake of the revelations made by tehelka.com, with the support of video images, about alleged irregularities in defence deals and the involvement of top political leaders in them. The video tapes, which were first broadcast on a satellite television network on March 13, showed, among other things, the then Samata Party president Jaya Jaitley accepting a "donation" from Tehelka journalists masquerading as middlemen at Fernandes' residence. The K. Venkataswami Commission, which was set up under the Commissions of Inquiry Act to probe the Tehelka affair, is yet to complete its work.

Vajpayee was initially reluctant to ask Fernandes to quit but had to do so following pressure from some of the constituents and supporters of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Some senior BJP leaders were of the opinion that Fernandes had become a political liability and that it would be wise for the Prime Minister to let him go. His exit helped the government salvage its image to some extent, but Vajpayee's stout defence of Fernandes even before the Commission began its work left no one in doubt about where his sympathies lay.

Defence Minister George Fernandes.-R.V. MOORTHY

Contrary to the general impression, however, Fernandes' return to the Cabinet was not contingent on his being exonerated by the Commission. Neither the Prime Minister nor the NDA made any such promise, even though that course of action would have been in line with what the Prime Minister referred to as the highest standards of political conduct in his address to the nation after Fernandes resigned. No one in the government or the NDA believed that the commission would be able to complete its job within four months, the time-frame set by the notification on March 24. The time-frame was fixed with a view to assuaging Fernandes' displeasure.

Informed sources in the commission told Frontline that the four-month period was unrealistic and unfair, considering the magnitude of the task. Section 2(d) of the terms of reference requires the commission to look into all aspects of the making and broadcasting of the allegations. It took nearly three months for the commission to create the necessary infrastructure for its work. In the following months, the screening of the 100-hour original tapes, which were submitted to the commission by tehelka.com, took most of its time. In July, the commission's tenure was extended by four months, that is, up to November 24. According to sources in the commission, it has completed 60 per cent of its work and most of the remaining work will be over before November 24. The commission is likely to seek an extension of its tenure by another month. At present it is holding in-camera proceedings to examine certain defence transactions that figure in the tapes. The original time-frame set by the government, therefore, raises doubts about its motives.

Vajpayee's decision to reinduct Fernandes stemmed from the same considerations that were behind his decision to make him Defence Minister in 1998. Senior BJP leaders conceded in private in March that the Defence portfolio would not have gone to Fernandes but for his insistence in 1998, and in 1999, that he would not accept any other Ministry. The thinking in the BJP at the time was that keeping Fernandes inside the government would be less troublesome than keeping him out. Therefore, it was not Fernandes' return to the government but its timing that is significant. The Venkataswami Commission's tenure was extended in July when Parliament was in session. Reinduction of Fernandes then would have created a furore in Parliament. When the Prime Minister expanded the Cabinet after Parliament's monsoon session, he did not fill the Defence portfolio, which continued to be controlled by External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh. Thus Vajpayee sent signals that he was waiting for an opportunity to facilitate Fernandes' return.

Fernandes had been playing the role of the Prime Minister's informal trouble-shooter. When Vajpayee threatened to resign following Shiv Sena Member of Parliament Sanjay Nirupam's insinuations against his foster son-in-law's family members in Parliament, Fernandes mediated between Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and Vajpayee. He brought the Trinamul Congress and the Pattali Makkal Katchi back into the NDA. He stood by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam when its president M. Karunanidhi and its representatives in the Union Cabinet, Murasoli Maran and T.R. Baalu, were arrested in Chennai in a controversial manner. The role played by Fernandes in these instances ensured that he would not face any opposition from NDA allies to his reinduction in the Cabinet. Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee demanded Fernandes' resignation after the Tehelka revelations as part of her strategy to distance herself from the NDA at the time of the West Bengal Assembly elections in May. Karunanidhi faced the embarrassment of defending Fernandes in March in view of the impending elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly. These two NDA constituents have nothing to lose now by supporting Fernandes' return to the Cabinet.

Sanjay Nirupam told Frontline: "Morality demands that once an allegation is made, the person concerned is kept out of the government till he gets a clean chit. I fully respect Fernandes for his integrity but he should have waited for the commission's decision before he rejoined the government. But this is my personal view. I doubt whether my leader Bal Thackeray would oppose Fernandes' return. They are good friends."

The Telugu Desam Party, which had reservations about Fernandes' continuance in the Ministry in March, is apparently not opposed to his return now.

While Fernandes prepared the ground within and outside the NDA for his return, the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist strikes in the United States came as a blessing in disguise for him. The general consensus that the country should have a full-time Defence Minister, particularly in the context of the U.S. air strikes against Afghanistan, offered an opportunity to Vajpayee to expand his Cabinet. Appointing any other leader as Defence Minister would mean the shutting of the doors permanently for Fernandes. Such a step would have been risky for the government, considering his potential to destabilise it. Sanjay Nirupam said: "Fernandes might have told the Prime Minister that his claim for reinduction could no longer be ignored."

Fernandes' return to the Cabinet coincides with the political rehabilitation of Bangaru Laxman, who resigned as BJP president following the telecast of video images of him accepting Rs.1 lakh from the Tehelka team. Laxman has been appointed Chairman of the Housing Committee of the Rajya Sabha. Also, the BJP leadership has asked him to campaign for the party in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. The RSS no longer considers him a failed pracharak. Its present stand is that Laxman is a gentleman until it is proved otherwise and that he should not be punished twice for the same offence. Laxman shared the dais with Vajpayee at the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha's conference in Agra.

Reacting to the reinduction of Fernandes, Congress(I) spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy said that Vajpayee showed more cynical disregard for political morality than any other Prime Minister in India. The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said that the decision was taken under pressure and it exposed the opportunistic nature of the NDA. In the absence of any overt fissures within the NDA on the issue, the government has got some reprieve, which may last until the beginning of the winter session of Parliament.

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