New Delhi: On the day Congress president Sonia Gandhi put the government on notice over corruption, the Supreme Court decided to get to the bottom of the phone-tapping controversy involving lobbyist Niira Radia by asking the government to confidentially disclose the name of the person who made the complaint on the basis of which the recording was sanctioned.
Addressing the Congress Parliamentary Party, Gandhi said: “It is a painful fact that corruption seems to be widespread and I feel strongly that it is our responsibility as well as that of each and every political party to together seriously devise a way, a mechanism, to curb this growing menace.”
Defending party: Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Gandhi, however, provided crucial political support to the government’s stance of not agreeing to an inquiry into corruption by a joint parliamentary committee (JPC), especially because the opposition, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had not allowed Parliament to function after the government rejected its demand for a JPC.
She also sought to revive party morale and engage in political damage control by focusing on Congress leadership in pursuing redistributive justice through a series of social welfare programmes. “It is for us all to take the message of these programmes to the four corners of the country and wherever necessary to put pressure on state governments and local administrations to ensure that their benefits reach the people,” she said.
Analysts were not convinced by the statement.
“You have not shown any willingness or commitment to deal with the situation,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president, Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank. “Simply commenting on the system will not help.”
Gandhi was speaking on the concluding day of the winter session of Parliament, which managed to function only for 5.5% of its scheduled time—the least productive session in 25 years.
The winter session was adjourned sine die on Monday after 22 days and will now reassemble for the budget session early next year.
Gandhi defended the government’s actions and said: “It is abundantly clear that the government is determined to get to the root of the matter. It is preposterous to suggest that the government has something to hide or it is shying away from the investigation.”
The opposition had demanded a JPC to inquire into several corruption charges including the alleged irregularities in the second-generation (2G) spectrum allocation. The government, however, rejected the demand arguing that the parallel inquiry over the corruption allegations was already happening. It was referring to the public accounts committee, a parliamentary body that is examining the Comptroller and Auditor General report into the 2G allocation, an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and another probe by retired Supreme Court judge Shivraj Patil.
Saying that the Congress had always stood for transparency and probity, Gandhi pointed out that it has asked ministers and chief ministers to step down even when no charge has been established or no misconduct had been proved. The Congress forced former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan to resign over the allotment of houses in the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society in Mumbai, meant for widows of Kargil war victims.
Vehemently criticizing the opposition for disturbing Parliament, Gandhi accused the BJP of indulging in “double speak and double standards” on the issue of corruption.
Arguing similarly, parliamentary affairs minister P.K. Bansal said: “Never before in the history of Indian Parliament has a complete session been washed out without transacting any business. This is violative of all the rules of business and ethics. It is rather criminal.”
To be sure, the Lok Sabha did manage to pass without debate an additional spending for around Rs 45,000 crore and introduce three new pieces of legislation.
Meanwhile, the opposition is seeking to generate political mileage from the current situation and proposes to take the issue to the people. The BJP and its allies are meeting on Tuesday to chart out their strategy for the upcoming months. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is seeking to unite the opposition in a rally in the national capital on 22 December. It has also indicated that the blockade could continue in the budget session if the government doesn’t concede its demand.
“But the question on whether the opposition will be able to benefit remains because their own credibility is at stake,” Mehta said.
Meanwhile, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance could come under fresh pressure after the apex court directed it to disclose, in a sealed cover, a copy of the complaint on which clearance was given to tap Radia’s phone. The government, in its affidavit filed last week, had submitted that the tapping had begun after then finance minister P. Chidambaram received a complaint on 16 November 2007 that Radia had built a business empire of Rs 300 crore in nine years and that “she was an agent of foreign intelligence agencies” and indulging in “anti-national activities”.
The court was hearing a petition filed by Tata group chairman Ratan Tata seeking a ban on the further publication of transcripts of private conversations between him and Radia.
Nikhil Kanekal and PTI contributed to this story.