New Delhi: Congress president Sonia Gandhi led the ruling party’s defence on Thursday when Parliament resumed its Budget session as the Opposition attacked the government over last week’s ambush of security forces by Maoist insurgents in Dantewada.
Fighting criticism: Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s combative posture against the BJP allegations surprised many party leaders. Kamal Singh / PTI
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pounced on perceived divisions within the ruling party over the tactics to adopt in tackling the Naxalites, pointing to the criticism of home minister P. Chidambaram by Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh in a column he wrote in The Economic Times on 14 April.
The Dantewada debate deflected attention from another controversy—minister of state for external affairs Shashi Tharoor’s involvement with the Kochi Indian Premier League team. A statement expected to be made by him was delayed owing to the discussion on the Maoist attack.
Gandhi personally orchestrated the aggressive tactics in the Lok Sabha in the absence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is away on state visits overseas.
Replying to a six-hour-long discussion in the Lok Sabha, Chidambaram said the Dantewada incident would make the government “more determined, more resolute and more fearless” and at the same time “more compassionate and more concerned about the poor”.
The Congress, which has 207 members in the Lok Sabha, was provoked by senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha’s remark that the ruling party had joined hands with the Maoists in states such as Andhra Pradesh. Congress members disrupted proceedings, leading to two adjournments in the Lok Sabha.
Congress president Gandhi was seen briefing the party’s members of Parliament (MPs) in the interval, advising them to take a forceful stance against the Opposition attack.
The party president’s combative mood surprised many party leaders.
“It was one of those rare occasions the Congress president was visibly angry and provoked,” said a party MP present in the Lok Sabha. “She did not want the party MPs to ignore the Opposition allegations.”
The insurgents killed 76 security personnel in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district last week, the worst Maoist attack since Independence.
“We stood by the government. But is the Congress party with the government? Is the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) with the government?” Sinha asked the treasury benches.
Digvijay Singh had criticized Chidambaram for his “rigid” approach and “intellectual arrogance” in dealing with the Naxal issue in his newspaper article.
The BJP used his statements to attack the government in the Rajya Sabha as well.
“We don’t need a government which tries to pull down its own home minister; what we don’t need is a divided government... The home minister is under gherao from his own party,” said Arun Jaitley, Opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha.
Jaitley also criticized railway minister Mamata Banerjee, leader of UPA ally Trinamool Congress, for her remarks against the Union government’s anti-Naxal operations in West Bengal.
Chidambaram defended the Union government’s strategy.
“I had said that to counter the menace of Naxalism, we need a strong head, a stronger heart and enormous staying power,” he said. “I believe that the government has all three qualities.”
The UPA will have to walk a tightrope during the session that ends 7 May to ensure that allies support the government’s economic Bills in their current form.
The Opposition and 13 other parties, including some that had extended outside support to the government, have threatened to bring cut motions against the Finance Bill to protest an increase in fuel prices.
If any such cut motion is passed, the government will have to resign, a condition of all money Bills.
A Congress minister said the party was not anticipating any major trouble for the government.
“It is true that the arithmetic is slightly tricky. But we do not think there would be any threat to the stability of the government,” he said. “The situation will be better by next week and the government will be able to push our legislative agenda.”
Although the Opposition was silent on Tharoor, the minister was prepared with a statement to clarify his position in Parliament, said a Congress leader.
Senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad said his party has asked for a zero-hour discussion on the IPL controversy on Friday.
Santosh K. Joy contributed to this story.