New Delhi: The political problems of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) compounded over the weekend.
Not only did it suffer a landslide defeat in one by-election to the Lok Sabha, in another its high profile candidate could manage but a humiliatingly narrow win, even while its critics stepped up their political attacks. In the latest round of allegations to be levelled against the Congress, its law minister Salman Khurshid, despite a vehement denial, is struggling to extricate himself from the damaging allegations of misappropriation of government funds by a charity run by him and his wife Louise for disabled people.
All of this comes in the backdrop of similar charges levelled by activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal against Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Congress party president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi.
In a politically vitiated atmosphere, the latest round of charges, together with the raft of allegations of misuse of office by some cabinet ministers is, as analysts point out, exacting a political price from the Congress. The bad press could further damage the party’s prospects in key elections to the state assemblies of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh where the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holds the upper hand.
“After all this, the Congress is on the backfoot and it would actually have to devise a new counter strategy to deal with it,” said Jai Mrug, a Mumbai-based political analyst. “A mass perception is created that the Congress is losing and that is the worst thing that can happen to any party, especially if it is the ruling party.”
The target of the latest political attack was Congress leader and law minister Khurshid.
On Sunday, Khurshid put up a stout defence and denied any claims of wrongdoing, especially after earlier in the day Kejriwal stepped up pressure on the law minister by posing five questions publicly and seeking his resignation.
Television channel Aaj Tak, run by the India Today group, broadcast a report on 9 October that said Khurshid’s Dr. Zakir Hussain Memorial Trust “forged signatures and stamps of senior officials of several districts in Uttar Pradesh, depriving physically challenged people of their due”. The television broadcaster also claimed to have gathered “documentary evidence” of forgery and false reporting from at least 10 districts in the state.
“This is the first time that the law minister of this country is saying that these pictures are not morphed. These pictures are of a camp held in Mainpuri (in Uttar Pradesh),” Khurshid told reporters while releasing pictures of camps organized by his trust. “The UP government is probing into the mysterious affidavit that is suspected to have carried forged signatures.”
Kejriwal had publicly taunted the law minister earlier in the day and asked whether he would resign and quit politics if some of the so-called beneficiaries of his charity said they haven’t received any benefits from his organization.
“Do you acknowledge that the letter used by your organization to secure grants for next year was fake? As claimed by you, the letter was allegedly signed by former Uttar Pradesh special secretary Ramraj Singh,” said Kejriwal while addressing his supports. “But Singh through media reports has denied signing of this letter.”
Bhaskar Rao, a political analyst, said the UPA government was in a crisis.
“There is nothing new in a government being in crisis. But what is important is what is their strategy to counter it and who is the crisis manager? At present, the Congress party has neither,” Rao said. “They are dealing it in an issue-to-issue based approach and there is no consolidated strategy at all.”
Rao also said the party cadre is unable to come in front in such crisis situations and has “failed” to mobilize its own people. “They (Kejriwal and his supporters) are trying to defame the Congress party by showing that everybody in the party is corrupt. It will result in the division of the Congress party’s support base,” he said.
Sensing an opportunity, the BJP, too, weighed in on the controversy. “These are serious allegations and should be probed,” BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said. “If proven right, adequate action should be taken against the guilty. And if it is otherwise, people levelling wrong allegations should be treated as per law.”
Citing the party’s poor electoral performance in the Jangipur by-election, experts argue that such persistent allegations of corruption could “dent the image” of the Congress.
In the by-election Trinamool Congress, which recently withdrew from the UPA on differences over economic policies, did not contest the seat vacated by Pranab Mukherjee ahead of contesting for the post of the country’s president. Abhjijit Mukherjee of the Congress, son of President Mukherjee, scraped through in Jangipur in West Bengal by a thin margin of 2,536 votes.
Similarly, on Saturday, the Congress party’s candidate also lost the Tehri parliamentary seat in Uttarakhand—a state in which it only recently wrested from the BJP.
The India Today group said it stands by its story. “This is not a matter of debate and opinion. Nor is it a personal attack as it is being construed to be by Mr Khurshid but is in larger public interest,” a release by the group said. “We have no agenda. We are a media house. It’s our job to raise questions. This is an investigation based on hard and incontrovertible facts emerging out of documents of the state and central governments.”