The Congress' handling of the storm over the Volcker report has exposed its vulnerability to the Opposition National Democratic Alliance's concerted campaign on the issue.VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi
THE developments in Parliament on December 9 gave clear hints about the political power play between the government and its allies and the Opposition on the Volcker Committee Report. Consolidation and expansion of political gains was the name of the Opposition game while the singular focus of the treasury benches was on damage control. Interestingly, the strategy of both sides seemed to be centred around the resignation of K. Natwar Singh, former Minister of External Affairs, from the Union Cabinet.
The contention of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on December 9 was that the sequence of events and revelations on the "Iraqi Oil-for-Food scam", leading to Natwar Singh's forced resignation from the Cabinet, justified an inquiry by a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) encompassing all the "Indian connections" to the scam, including the Congress which leads the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
The government side, on its part, pointed to the sequence of events leading to Natwar Singh's resignation as proof of its "intent to get to the truth" and maintained that the UPA was doing "everything required for a correct and just probe" and that there was no need for any fresh initiatives such as a JPC inquiry.
As the day unfolded, with the inevitable commotion and walkout by the NDA members in the Lok Sabha, there was little doubt that the tussle inside and outside Parliament would be centred around the demand for a JPC inquiry. Presenting the government response, Defence Minister Pranab Kumar Mukherjee questioned the logic of the demand. He asked why a JPC probe was necessary when a full-fledged inquiry by the Justice R.S. Pathak Committee was under way. He pointed out that the "scope of the inquiry authority is very wide'' as it was not only empowered under Section 11 of the Commission of Inquiry Act but also had provisions to obtain additional powers.
Mukherjee also said that the inquiry authority had already started collecting and analysing relevant material and was looking at all the relevant facts. He complained that the Opposition was constantly making new demands on the mechanism of inquiry. "Sometimes they demand a CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] inquiry, sometimes they want FIRs [first information reports], sometimes they call for a JPC, and this is not acceptable to the government."
THE NDA, however, is not unlikely to give up its tactic of coming up with new demands. Senior Janata Dal (United) leader Prabhunath Singh told Frontline that "such innovation on slogans is an effective instrument to maintain public focus on the issue". So what started with the demand for the removal of Natwar Singh evolved into calls for Sonia Gandhi's resignation from the UPA chairperson's post and then the insistence on a JPC probe. Other demands are likely to come up whenever the NDA perceives a slackening of the momentum in its campaign.
Indeed, the NDA seems to regard its present offensive on the Volcker report issue as its most effective strike at the ruling UPA since the formation of the Manmohan Singh government. An NDA leader said: "The government and the leadership of the Congress have baulked in the face of this campaign and nothing shows this more than the manner in which Natwar Singh was initially removed from the Ministry of External Affairs and later dropped from the Cabinet itself."
Talking to Frontline, BJP leader M. Venkaiah Naidu expressed the same view. He said that going by the logic of Natwar Singh's removal, the government should constitute a JPC probe and Sonia Gandhi should resign as UPA chairperson. "One of the points highlighted by the leadership of the Congress and the government in connection with the steps taken against Natwar Singh was that there were new charges against him in the context of Aneil Matherani's revelations. It was after Matherani's revelation, that [Natwar] Singh had given the green signal for oil vouchers, that he was unceremoniously dropped from the Congress Steering Committee [CSC] and virtually told to resign from the Ministry. Going by the same logic, Sonia Gandhi must also resign because there are new revelations against the Congress leadership too." Venkaiah Naidu also harped on Matherani's claim that he had informed the Congress leadership of the "role" of Natwar Singh and his family in the "Oil-for-Food" scam "long before he made it public" through a media interview.
THE Congress' official position is that Natwar Singh's resignation had nothing to do with the Matherani's revelations. Priyaranjan Das Munshi, Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting and Parliamentary Affairs, told Frontline that Natwar Singh resigned to facilitate smooth functioning of Parliament. "The BJP and the NDA were hell-bent on disrupting the functioning of Parliament on the basis of the Volcker report and we wanted to prevent it. Natwar Singh's resignation was a result of this thinking," he said.
Das Munshi's reasoning is not credible even to sections of the Congress, let alone the Opposition parties and neutral observers. A Lucknow-based Congress member asked: "Would the leadership take an extreme step, such as that of dropping the Minister from the party's principal decision-making body [the CSC] and humiliating him publicly through sarcastic statements if all they wanted to do was stall an Opposition game plan?" Union Minister Kapil Sibal, talking about Natwar Singh's removal from the CSC, had said that the senior Minister was not taking the hint to resign from the government.
The manner of Natwar Singh's exit has made the public more aware of the political, ideological and personal rivalries within the Congress. One opinion is that the recent events were the fallout of the personal animosities between leaders such as Pranab Mukherjee and Natwar Singh, while another view is that a pro-United States group in the Congress ensured that he had to go.
In any case, the perception of there being divisions within the Congress has only strengthened the NDA's conviction that it should carry on with its campaign on the Volcker report. The Congress' handling of the issue has made it feel that it can carry out an effective campaign, targeting even Sonia Gandhi.
The Congress leadership, however, feels that with the departure of the "Natwar Singh embarrassment", the party is capable of taking the battle to the NDA camp on the basis of the Volcker report itself. The allegations by some Congress members, including the Member of Parliament from Varanasi Rajesh Mishra, about a "close relative" of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee being involved in Oil-for-Food deals, apparently mark a beginning in this direction. Notwithstanding the optimism, it remains to be seen how far such broad allegations would help the Congress. That some of the UPA's own allies, including the Left, are not entirely convinced about the Congress' techniques and strategies to counter the allegations in the Volcker report, is also bound to weaken a Congress offensive.