Dealing with Fernandes

Print edition : December 08, 2001

George Fernandes' reinduction into the Union Cabinet turns out to be a major embarrassment for the government as the Opposition effectively boycotts him in Parliament.

DEFENCE Minister George Fernandes has emerged as a major embarrassment for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in the current session of Parliament. In an unprecedented spectacle, the entire Opposition has boycotted him, even during question hour, for what it describes as his immoral re-induction into the Union Cabinet.

Defence Minister George Fernandes with Home Minister L.K. Advani and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh.-V. SUDERSHAN

The shape of things to come became clear on the opening day of the session when the former Socialist was introduced to the two Houses of Parliament. Shouts of "Shame, Shame" greeted him, leaving him speechless. Opposition members followed this up by consistently refusing to ask him questions, taking the stand that they did not consider his position to be legitimate enough to merit a question from them.

The irony of the situation was lost on no one when even the industrialist member K.K. Birla refused to ask him a question in the Rajya Sabha. In the Lok Sabha, on November 22, Communist Party of India member Prabodh Panda refused to ask the Minister his listed question, saying, "I do not wish to ask him any question as the Minister is illegally occupying the chair." Despite repeated pleas by the Speaker, G.M.C. Balayogi, who dubbed the move "unprecedented", Panda stuck to his stand. G. Puttaswamy Gowda of the Congress, who had listed a supplementary, followed suit, amidst vocal support from the entire Opposition.

Fernandes, one of the most vocal parliamentarians, sat speechless flanked by Petroleum Minister Ram Naik and Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj. The Opposition party members, encouraged by the unease in the Treasury benches, kept up the protest. Barring a few of his Samata Party loyalists such as Renu Kumari, Prabhunath Singh and Brahmanand Mandal, no one from the ruling benches chose to speak in his defence. The entire ruling combine sat quietly, leaving the field to the Opposition as the Speaker adjourned the House.

The spectacle was repeated in the Rajya Sabha and again in the Lok Sabha whenever questions listed for Fernandes came up. The Opposition boycotted Fernandes when he rose to make a statement on the alleged violation of Indian air space by a helicopter from the U.S. naval ship John Young before it docked at the Chennai port.

The government, through Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan, let it be known that it could not allow the Opposition to question the Prime Minister's prerogative to choose his team. The government's stand, however, prompted angry rejoinders from the Opposition benches, with members seeking to know whether the Prime Minister was free to induct the forest brigand Veerappan too.

The Opposition moved a censure motion against Fernandes in the Lok Sabha under Rule 184, which involves voting, and it insisted that Atal Behari Vajpayee should explain why he had asked Fernandes to resign in the first place and then under what circumstances he brought him back. The government, on the other hand, stuck to its stand that nobody had the right to question the Prime Minister's prerogative in choosing his team. "Yes, the stand-off will continue. The entire Opposition is united on this issue," said Congress spokesman and Lok Sabha member S. Jaipal Reddy.

ANOTHER issue that figured prominently and embarrassed the government in Parliament was the recent forced entry by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders Ashok Singhal and S.C. Dixit and their supporters into the prohibited area of the makeshift temple in Ayodhya in violation of Supreme Court directives. The Opposition launched an assault on the government, forcing Union Home Minister L.K. Advani to admit that what the VHP did was wrong. Advani made the admission in the Rajya Sabha on November 23, while replying to a calling attention motion moved by the Opposition. The Home Minister said: "I had condemned the incident then, I have no desire to condone it. Whatever the VHP did was wrong, the incident should not have happened." He also said that the State government should take action against those responsible for the security lapse.

The topic generated much heat in the Lok Sabha too, but the Speaker rejected an Opposition-sponsored adjournment notice on the subject on November 20. The notice was jointly given by Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi of the Congress, Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, Somnath Chatterjee of the CPI(M), Raghuvansh Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and G.M. Banatwala of the Muslim League. While rejecting the notice, the Speaker said that though the matter was important enough to merit a discussion in the House later, it did not justify setting aside all government business listed for the day.

The debate in the Lok Sabha on the Ayodhya issue promises to be a heated one, especially since the Supreme Court has directed the Uttar Pradesh government to pursue cases against BJP and VHP leaders, including Advani, Uma Bharati, Murli Manohar Joshi and Ashok Singhal, relating to the Babri Masjid demolition. The VHP has announced that irrespective of the court orders it will go ahead with its temple construction programme after March 12, and the forcible entry into the prohibited area around the makeshift temple may well be a preview of its intended course. Whatever action the Uttar Pradesh government has taken against those responsible for the forced entry has been half-hearted. It has done nothing so far to reopen cases against Advani and others.

With Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh just a few months away, Mulayam Singh Yadav and other members of his party raised issues such as irregularities in the voters' list, atrocities on Dalits as enumerated in a report submitted by the Commission on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and the growing insecurity among minorities in the State.

A landmark of sorts was achieved when the Speaker convened an all-India meeting of presiding officers, Chief Ministers and party presidents in connection with a proposed code of conduct for members to be followed inside legislative bodies including Parliament. It, however, became clear the very next day from members' behaviour that such codes would hardly have any impact, given the rough edges of Indian politics.

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