Debating India

CONGRESS

The Big Snub

Friday 22 April 2005, by GUPTA *Smita

Pranab is a pariah in the party after his clean chit to Fernandes on Kargil

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Narendra Bisht

Sources say that when Mukherjee launched into an explanation, saying a supplementary affidavit on the matter was in the pipeline, a terse Sonia told him that there was no point justifying anything now as the "damage" was done.

Later that day, at the fag end of a cabinet meeting, Union rural development minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh raised the Fernandes issue. He pointed out that for three years, the Congress and other parties had made irregularities in purchase of arms and coffins an issue while they were in the Opposition. Instantly, he was supported by Bharadwaj, Union water resources minister Priyaranjan Das Munshi, MoS for personnel Suresh Pachauri—all Congressmen. And MoS for company affairs Prem Chand Gupta of the RJD read out parts of the offending affidavit. Sources now say that the Left Parties—with help from the RJD and the "blessings" of the Congress—are going to raise the issue in Parliament when the budget session resumes on April 18.

So why did Mukherjee, to whom the Congress party looks for advice on all matters political, bungle? Was he duped by his officers, as he claims? Party sources say they find this hard to believe. For one, the defence minister is not new to politics or governance. He is also known to meticulously examine files and couldn’t have let a sensitive affidavit pass without scrutiny. As allegations fly, Mukherjee remains tight-lipped on the issue, only repeating that he has not given a clean chit to Fernandes.

Meanwhile, Congress insiders point to some curious facts. Fact one. The law ministry’s original first affidavit had talked of action against erring officers, and the present defence secretary Ajai Vikram Singh was special secretary (defence procurement) when the BJP’s Jaswant Singh briefly held charge of the defence portfolio after Fernandes quit in the wake of the Tehelka scam. Fact two. Justice Phukan exonerated Fernandes at that time on the basis of a probe conducted by a special investigating team headed by the present commissioner of Delhi police, K.K. Paul. His wife, Omita Paul, a former Indian Information Service officer, is known to be close to Mukherjee. She is currently consultant in the defence ministry looking at procurement.

This is not the first time Mukherjee has defended Fernandes. Soon after the UPA took over, on June 9, 2004, in a suo motu statement in Parliament, Mukherjee had responded to reports in a section of the media that delay in air strikes had cost more casualties during Kargil saying: "The time taken for giving clearance to deploy air power was not the reason for higher casualties". The statement sought to clear the air over the army’s stated position that delay in using air power had cost many lives. Mukherjee’s statement understandably drew praise from Jaswant Singh and Fernandes.

The Congress’s stance at present is that Fernandes has only been exonerated of the charge that defence purchase procedures were violated, as the emergency situation of Kargil permitted a change in the 1992 rules. Ajai Vikram Singh offered this explanation: "All the cases with the cag, Central Vigilance Commission and the cbi are still very much open. Till these bodies come to a conclusion, there is no question of giving a clean chit to any person." And Congress media committee chairperson Ambika Soni stressed that the deals exposed by Tehelka and the coffin scam were still being investigated.

The party went into damage control mode on April 5, when the story broke. Sonia Gandhi asked her political secretary Ahmed Patel to call Mukherjee to ask him to issue a corrective statement. Patel’s call went through around 8 pm but Mukherjee’s statement was issued after 10 pm which meant that it went largely unreported in the press. So, the damage had been done.

The question doing the rounds in the Congress is: will Mukherjee have to pay for having caused such acute embarrassment to the party? Will he retain his job when the prime minister effects some changes in his cabinet next month? No one has the answer.

In the Congress, everyone—from the juniormost party worker to the highest echelons in the leadership—is aghast at George Fernandes being given a clean chit.

And the man being widely held responsible for bailing out Fernandes is Union defence minister Pranab Mukherjee. The discomfiture of Congressmen is understandable.

"Right through the years the NDA was in power, the coffin scam, the post-Kargil arms purchases and the Tehelka sting operation was central to our campaign against that government. It is like the BJP giving Ravana a clean chit after using the Ram plank for years," says a senior cabinet minister.

For Mukherjee, these are trying times. On March 29, when the cabinet committee on security met, an open-ended, six- year contract for the French-made Scorpene submarine (see box) came up for discussion. The deal had to be shelved after Union finance minister P. Chidambaram raised objections. Government sources said this was done with the concurrence of the prime minister who had discussed the issue with Sonia Gandhi.

Today, Mukherjee stands isolated in the Congress and the UPA. Statements from party spokespersons have been more in the nature of damage control than a defence of his action. According to sources, since Mukherjee neither consulted Manmohan Singh or anyone in the party or discussed it at the cabinet committee on political affairs, he is now pretty much on his own.

Worse, Union law minister H.R. Bharadwaj took the unprecedented step—apparently after it was cleared by the party leadership—of publicly putting Mukherjee in the dock. He told a TV channel: "The law ministry had cleared a draft affidavit and it was sent. But there they (defence ministry) changed it. In fact, the attorney general was so unhappy that he wrote a letter to the defence secretary."

This led to the filing of the second supplementary affidavit—intended as a "corrective"—by the defence ministry on April 13. But even this is seen as having come too late by Congressmen. The way the issue has played out has not just given Fernandes a political advantage but it may also ensure, Congressmen fear, that he gets off the hook legally, too. Says B.K. Garg, counsel for the petitioner in the pil to which the defence ministry filed the two affidavits: "Since the earlier affidavit has not been withdrawn and the second one contradicts it, it amounts to perjury. We will file an application regarding this in the Supreme Court."

Clearly, the two affidavits do contradict each other. The first states that decisions taken during the Kargil conflict, including relaxation in the procedure for procurement of weapons and other materials, were in keeping with the exigencies of war and "in no way violated any of the financial rules of the Government or the Defence Procurement Procedure, 1992." The second affidavit runs counter to this: "The government is committed to take strict action against officers/authorities including the former Defence Minister, if it is found that the excuse of Kargil was taken to make purchases with a motive to personal benefit in violation of rules and regulations."

It isn’t just the Congress that is upset at the turn of events. On April 5, after a meeting of the Planning Commission, Union railway minister Laloo Yadav attacked Mukherjee, saying he found the clean chit given to Fernandes inexplicable. A shaken Mukherjee later telephoned Laloo to explain his position and even went so far as to say that he was willing to resign on the issue. He claimed the affidavit was drafted without his knowledge by officers in his ministry.

But this explanation sounded so lame that it needed a wheelchair. At the UPA-Left coordination committee meeting on April 8, Left leaders raised the matter with UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.

Sources say that when Mukherjee launched into an explanation, saying a supplementary affidavit on the matter was in the pipeline, a terse Sonia told him that there was no point justifying anything now as the "damage" was done.

Later that day, at the fag end of a cabinet meeting, Union rural development minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh raised the Fernandes issue. He pointed out that for three years, the Congress and other parties had made irregularities in purchase of arms and coffins an issue while they were in the Opposition. Instantly, he was supported by Bharadwaj, Union water resources minister Priyaranjan Das Munshi, MoS for personnel Suresh Pachauri—all Congressmen. And MoS for company affairs Prem Chand Gupta of the RJD read out parts of the offending affidavit. Sources now say that the Left Parties—with help from the RJD and the "blessings" of the Congress—are going to raise the issue in Parliament when the budget session resumes on April 18.

So why did Mukherjee, to whom the Congress party looks for advice on all matters political, bungle? Was he duped by his officers, as he claims? Party sources say they find this hard to believe. For one, the defence minister is not new to politics or governance. He is also known to meticulously examine files and couldn’t have let a sensitive affidavit pass without scrutiny. As allegations fly, Mukherjee remains tight-lipped on the issue, only repeating that he has not given a clean chit to Fernandes.

Meanwhile, Congress insiders point to some curious facts. Fact one. The law ministry’s original first affidavit had talked of action against erring officers, and the present defence secretary Ajai Vikram Singh was special secretary (defence procurement) when the BJP’s Jaswant Singh briefly held charge of the defence portfolio after Fernandes quit in the wake of the Tehelka scam. Fact two. Justice Phukan exonerated Fernandes at that time on the basis of a probe conducted by a special investigating team headed by the present commissioner of Delhi police, K.K. Paul. His wife, Omita Paul, a former Indian Information Service officer, is known to be close to Mukherjee. She is currently consultant in the defence ministry looking at procurement.

This is not the first time Mukherjee has defended Fernandes. Soon after the UPA took over, on June 9, 2004, in a suo motu statement in Parliament, Mukherjee had responded to reports in a section of the media that delay in air strikes had cost more casualties during Kargil saying: "The time taken for giving clearance to deploy air power was not the reason for higher casualties". The statement sought to clear the air over the army’s stated position that delay in using air power had cost many lives. Mukherjee’s statement understandably drew praise from Jaswant Singh and Fernandes.

The Congress’s stance at present is that Fernandes has only been exonerated of the charge that defence purchase procedures were violated, as the emergency situation of Kargil permitted a change in the 1992 rules. Ajai Vikram Singh offered this explanation: "All the cases with the cag, Central Vigilance Commission and the cbi are still very much open. Till these bodies come to a conclusion, there is no question of giving a clean chit to any person." And Congress media committee chairperson Ambika Soni stressed that the deals exposed by Tehelka and the coffin scam were still being investigated.

The party went into damage control mode on April 5, when the story broke. Sonia Gandhi asked her political secretary Ahmed Patel to call Mukherjee to ask him to issue a corrective statement. Patel’s call went through around 8 pm but Mukherjee’s statement was issued after 10 pm which meant that it went largely unreported in the press. So, the damage had been done.

The question doing the rounds in the Congress is: will Mukherjee have to pay for having caused such acute embarrassment to the party? Will he retain his job when the prime minister effects some changes in his cabinet next month? No one has the answer.

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