New Delhi: The opposition forced the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) into a tight corner by demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, after a set of US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks suggested that the Congress had paid bribes to win a crucial vote of confidence in July 2008.
The trust vote had been triggered after the Left parties withdrew support when the UPA government refused to give up on the civil nuclear deal with the US. It left the government, then in its first term, short of a parliamentary majority.
The fresh charges against the government come just weeks before the Congress braces for its first serious electoral test, in five assembly polls, after its unexpectedly easy electoral win in the 2009 general election. It also puts the spotlight on the civil nuclear deal at a time when the fallout over damage to a nuclear facility in Japan has triggered a worldwide debate on the efficacy of nuclear power.
Singh, who had made a bold political gambit for the passage of the India-US civil nuclear deal in 2008, was targeted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led opposition and the Left parties. “The contemporaneous evidence stares in the face of the political morality of this government. The UPA-I survived on the political strength of sin. The Prime Minister has no moral authority or legitimacy to lead the government of the day. He must quit forthwith,” said a statement issued by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.
While the Left parties did not seek inclement action, they were equally harsh in their observation.
“The Prime Minister must come and explain. Today was his day in the Rajya Sabha and he was not present,” Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury said.
The Hindu newspaper on Thursday, citing US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, said Nachiketa Kapur, allegedly an aide of Congress Rajya Sabha member and former Union minister Satish Sharma, told a US diplomat they had a war chest of Rs50-60 crore to bribe lawmakers in 2008. The WikiLeaks report said Kapur had showed the diplomat two chests of cash and said four lawmakers of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), an Uttar Pradesh-based party whose members of Parliament (MPs) voted against the UPA in July 2008, had been paid Rs10 crore each to secure their support. Both Sharma, believed to be close to the family of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, and Kapur denied the reports. RLD chief Ajit Singh said the WikiLeaks claims were “utterly baseless”.
The government’s defensive response, wherein it sought to deflect the issue on grounds of a technicality, only strengthened the hand of the opposition. While Singh was not present in the House, most ministers preferred a low profile.
Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, however, said in the Rajya Sabha that the reports could not be confirmed nor denied. “(The reports are) correspondence between a sovereign government and its missions abroad enjoys diplomatic immunity... Therefore, it is not possible for the government to either confirm it or deny it...”
Mukherjee claimed that since the matter pertained to the life of the previous House, it could not be discussed in the 15th Lok Sabha.
Analysts do not see an immediate threat to the government, but say the opposition would mount further pressure on the UPA, which has already been mired in a series of corruption charges and controversies.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research (CPR), a Delhi-based think tank, said, “Technically it’s true that a diplomat has made these claims. But...the revelation has come in an environment where there is a perception that the corruption is widespread.”
Singh, keen to finalize the nuclear deal, had ignored the opposition from the Left parties, who supported the UPA from the outside. Consequently, the 62 Left MPs withdrew support to the government, forcing it to seek a trust vote. The UPA survived narrowly with the backing of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and others. A section of the BJP had alleged that some MPs had been offered cash to change their vote and had, in Parliament, brandished currency notes that allegedly had been offered to them.
A charged-up opposition blocked the proceedings of both Houses of Parliament leading to repeated adjournments, but the Lok Sabha approved the demands for grants for 2011-12, completing the second phase of the three-stage budgetary exercise, amid a walkout by the entire opposition.
The Left parties, along with the Telugu Desam Party, the SP and the Janata Dal-Secular, demanded that “criminal culpability” of those involved should be investigated.
Senior Congress leader Kishore Chandra Deo, who headed a parliamentary panel that probed the 2008 “cash-for-votes” scam, allegedly involving some Lok Sabha MPs, said certain aspects such as trail of money must be investigated. “I had recommended investigation into certain issues like trail of money by agencies like income-tax department and revenue intelligence, who are equipped to probe,” he said.
However, CPR’s Mehta added that the BJP also would have to explain why the party, which had raised the issue dramatically in Parliament, had been silent over the issue so far. “There was the case, but was never explained satisfactorily,” he said.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at CPR, said the WikiLeaks cable has just brought “more evidences” to the allegations of bribes during the 2008 trust vote. But he added: “The nuclear deal (between India and the US) is back to sharp focus, especially after the Japan nuclear crisis (in the wake of 11 March tsunami). Its (the deal’s) future is more troubled now.”
Putting up a brave face, the Congress rejected the demands for Singh’s resignation. Hailing Singh as a “spotless Prime Minister”, party spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said reports on US diplomatic cables were “unverified leaks without any corroborative authentication” and “outlandish allegations not worth dignifying with a response”. Singhvi, who attacked The Hindu report as “irresponsible journalism”, said when asked if his party would file a defamation suit against the English daily: “All political or other ways are open... We are not giving (a) clean chit to anybody.”
PTI contributed to this story.