Maneka and some manoeuvres

Print edition : December 08, 2001

MANEKA GANDHI is back in the news, courting yet another controversy. Indira Gandhi's younger daughter-in-law was divested of the Culture portfolio barely 78 days after she was entrusted with it, given independent charge of the relatively low-profile Ministry of Programme Implementation and Statistics, in a minor but surprise reshuffle of the Council of Ministers by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on November 18. The Culture portfolio was given to Tourism Minister Jagmohan, who had been eased out of the Urban Development Ministry not so long ago under pressure from the Bharatiya Janata Party's Members of Parliament from Delhi, as his anti-encroachment and demolition drive in the national capital had proved to be an embarrassment for the party.

Maneka Gandhi.-M. LAKSHMANAN

Maneka, who apparently took her responsibilities a little too seriously, described it as a "bolt out of the blue". Now she may have to "sit at home". She asks: "Jaoon to jaoon kahan? (Where do I go even if I want to) - because the Ministry of Programme Implementation and Statistics has no office. Maneka Gandhi has not taken charge yet.

There are indications that Maneka Gandhi is in no mood to remain in the NDA. If she quits the alliance, that would mean some trouble for the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh elections. She is reportedly planning to field over 50 candidates in and around her Lok Sabha constituency of Pilibhit where she wields some influence. "I have always been on my own and I do have plans for the U.P. elections," Maneka Gandhi told Frontline but refused to discuss the portfolio issue. "I don't want to talk about it. And in any case, you people write only what you want to, not what I tell you," she said, miffed at certain comments that appeared some the newspapers and magazines immediately after the reshuffle.

Although she has not said it in so many words, Maneka Gandhi has certainly hinted that Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi could have had a hand in her removal because she had referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) report about the misappropriation of funds in the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). The alleged misappropriation took place when the centre was headed by Sonia Gandhi, who was removed from the post of chairperson of the IGNCA two years ago. The CAG report, submitted three years ago, was gathering dust. This is one of the first things that Maneka did after taking over as Culture Minister. When asked about this, Maneka Gandhi said: "The media have trivialised the entire issue by dubbing it a bahu vs bahu fight. It is a much larger issue and involves swindling to the tune of Rs.600 crores, which was ten times the amount involved in the Bofors scandal and it was surprising nobody was doing anything about it."

Indicating that there was trouble in store for the NDA government, Maneka Gandhi said: "The larger issue involved is not the battle for supremacy between bahus. There cannot be any comparison with her (Sonia Gandhi) because she has just entered politics and I have been a Minister six times. The issue is whether this government is working. Is the Prime Minister interested in letting his Ministers work? The moment you take your work seriously you are pushed out, but there are Ministers who don't come to office for months and yet nothing happens to them. I personally know of Ministers who never come to office for days."

Many reasons were cited for Maneka Gandhi's shifting. One was that she had stepped on too many toes. She not only suggested the removal of Sonia Gandhi as chairperson of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, but also rubbed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) the wrong way by giving permission for an M.F. Husain exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art. Yet another reason cited was that she had taken up with the South Korean Ambassador the issue of Korean nationals' preference for dog meat after residents in the Maharani Bagh area in New Delhi, where she lives, complained of the disappearance of stray dogs. Several Korean diplomats live in the area. Sources in the government said that this incident caused a minor diplomatic row and that the Prime Minister was upset about it.

The immediate provocation, however, appeared to be the following. The inauguration of the first IGNCA building was due on November 19, which Sonia Gandhi would have attended as a member, sitting among the audience, while Maneka Gandhi, being the Culture Minister, would have occupied a place on the dais. According to sources, Sonia Gandhi conveyed her inability to attend the function. The Prime Minister, in order to keep the Congress(I) president in good humour in return for possible support to get various Bills passed in Parliament, obliged her by shifting Maneka Gandhi. Although the Congress(I) refuted the allegation, the charge acquires some credibility if the subsequent events are taken into account.

The turn of events however, cheered the non-Congress(I) Opposition, and the People's Front and the Nationalist Congress Party invited Maneka to join them. For Maneka, the time to announce a decision has apparently not arrived yet. "Yes, I do have invitations from so many of them. I am in quite happy a situation. I will take my time in deciding," she said.

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