Congress in damage control mode

Congress in damage control mode

New Delhi: The Congress sacked senior leaders Ashok Chavan and Commonwealth Games (CWG) organizing committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi from their respective posts as Maharashtra chief minister and secretary of the Congress parliamentary party in a move targeted at giving the government a breather from relentless attacks by the Opposition that accuse it of being the most corrupt government to rule India.

Analysts say the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) will now come under pressure to take similar action against some key ministers in the cabinet, including telecom minister A. Raja, and that doing so would mean alienating key allies in the coalition such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to which Raja belongs.

The Congress’ move, described by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee as being prompted by “perception" and “certain facts", may have taken the wind out of the sails of the Opposition, added the analysts. The opposition parties had planned to make corruption an issue during the month-long winter session that began on Tuesday.

“It was a smart political act," said B.G. Verghese, political analyst and visiting professor at Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank. “Politically it’s a step forward and it will silence the Opposition to some extent."

Kalmadi was asked to quit from his post in the wake of serious allegations against him in his capacity as the head of the committee that organized the recently concluded CWG in Delhi. Chavan, meanwhile, came under fire for his alleged role in the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society scam in Mumbai, where flats originally meant for families of soldiers killed in the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan were allotted to politicians and senior defence officers.

Although taken aback by the Congress’ move, the Opposition, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), attacked the government over various scams and said that despite the resignations they would not let the issues “die down". They also raised the issue of the telecom scam where new entrants were allegedly allowed to enter the second generation (2G) wireless telephony business on favourable terms.

“The entire nation has been ashamed. Though he (Chavan) has resigned, mere quitting the post of chief minister is not enough. An independent probe is required. The government owes an explanation to the people," said Communist Party of India (Marxist), leader Basudeb Acharia.

Leader of the Opposition, BJP’s Sushma Swaraj, echoed that sentiment and said that apart from the scams mentioned by Acharia, there were “major scandals" even in the government’s flagship programmes such as the national rural employment guarantee scheme and its highway projects. “Those scams will have to be discussed in the session," Swaraj insisted. Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav said all those involved in the scams should be brought to book.

The Left parties had moved an adjournment motion on the corruption issue on Tuesday.

Referring to Raja, who has been accused of corruption in the allotment of 2G spectrum, some Congress leaders said the resignation by partymen should set an example for the allies. “Something has to be done as the Opposition will not let Parliament run once the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General of India) report is tabled," said a minister in the UPA government. CAG has submitted the final report on 2G spectrum allotment that may have caused a loss of up to 1.76 trillion to the exchequer. The report is expected to be tabled this week.

However, Congress spokesperson Jayanti Natarajan told reporters that the “matter is in focus for long, but it is sub judice and until a decision comes, it is difficult to comment... The ultimate prerogative will be of the Prime Minister; they (DMK) are coalition partners." The 2G scam is the subject of a case currently before the Supreme Court.

DMK has 18 representatives in the Lok Sabha.

Verghese said that the government should follow the political act of resignations with a proper investigation and punish the guilty if it wants to save face.

Maintaining that it would discuss all issues in Parliament, the Congress also hinted that it would counter BJP’s attack by talking about Karnataka, where ministers in the BJP government have been accused of corruption.

Meanwhile, Chavan’s resignation has left the party with the tough task of finding a replacement. Two senior leaders, defence minister A.K. Antony and Mukherjee, met Congress president Sonia Gandhi in the morning to discuss the situation. The top leaders of the party were expected to meet later on Tuesday, as were party legislators in Mumbai. However, the legislators are likely to authorize Gandhi to take a decision. Among the names making the rounds as potential replacements are those of Central ministers Prithviraj Chavan, Sushil Kumar Shinde and state leaders Balasaheb Thorat, Radhkrishna Vikhe Patil and Hardvardhan Patil.

PTI contributed to this story.