Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj.
THE Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) credentials and commitment as the principal opposition party of the country have been repeatedly questioned in the past seven years, the period in which the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has held the reins of power at the Centre. Recent developments in Parliament and outside have revived the debate on this issue, underscoring doubts, expressed by several observers and politicians, about a tacit understanding between the ruling dispensation and the main opposition as a whole or at least between some leaders on the two sides.
Two issues, in particular, highlighted this aspect. One, the manner in which Sushma Swaraj, the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, reacted to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's statement following the Supreme Court verdict quashing the appointment of P.J. Thomas as the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC). Two, the apology tendered by former Deputy Prime Minister and BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani to Congress president Sonia Gandhi for the allegation made in a BJP document that Sonia Gandhi and her late husband, Rajiv Gandhi, had stashed away money in secret Swiss bank accounts.
Sushma Swaraj responded to the Prime Minister's statement in the Lok Sabha with uncharacteristic moderation. It was she who had demanded that the Prime Minister should own responsibility for the appointment of the CVC in Parliament. But after the Prime Minister responded saying that he had no hesitation in admitting that it was an error of judgment and that he took full responsibility for the appointment of Thomas, the BJP leader said “the issue should be considered closed” and “let matters rest”.
Advani, on his part, was responding to a letter he received from Sonia Gandhi questioning the claims made in a BJP Task Force report titled “Indian Black Money Abroad in Secret Banks and Tax Havens”. Sonia Gandhi stated in the letter that “the report contains reckless and baseless allegations against me and my family, including my late husband and mother-in-law”. She also added that Advani had quoted from the “baseless” report and this had pained her considerably. Advani responded immediately by expressing his regret for causing any hurt to her and her family. He stated that he had believed the allegations contained in the report to be true since there had been no denial from her immediately after its publication.
The actions of both Sushma Swaraj and Advani have caused considerable dismay within the BJP and, more so, among other Hindutva organisations of the Sangh Parivar. This was reflected in the manner in which Arun Jaitley, the BJP's leader in the Rajya Sabha, raised several questions about the Prime Minister's statement on the Supreme Court judgment on the CVC appointment and placed his dissatisfaction on record in the House. This was in stark contrast to Sushma Swaraj's expression of satisfaction over the Prime Minister's statement in the Lok Sabha.
The thinking within Hindutva organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was that the BJP leaders had virtually let the two senior-most Congress leaders off the hook at a time when they were facing great political embarrassment even in Parliament. It was this line of thinking that compelled BJP president Nitin Gadkari to issue statements with nuanced interpretations of the actions of Advani and Sushma Swaraj. Gadkari's own effort was to assert that the party was indeed an effective principal opposition and deny that there was any tacit understanding between the leaderships of the BJP and the Congress.
Commenting pointedly on Sushma Swaraj's “let matters rest” statement, Gadkari made it clear that there could be no closure of the CVC issue as far as the BJP was concerned. “The CVC issue is not over. We are not satisfied.... We will take the issue to the people's court now. We will take the Prime Minister's reply to the people,” Gadkari said. Asked pointedly whether this was the line taken by the party, he asserted that “I am the president of the party” and that what he espoused was the party line. Gadkari also maintained that the BJP stood by the task force report. His argument was that Advani had not negated the contents of the report but had only shown decency in behaviour because Sonia Gandhi had been personally hurt by some of the references.
More than meets the eye
However, despite such assertions, a number of political observers and even associates of the Sangh Parivar believe that there is more to it than meets the eye. A senior RSS functionary from Lucknow, who spoke to Frontline on condition of anonymity, pointed out that the BJP's main argument throughout the CVC controversy was that forces outside the government had a role in the appointment of Thomas. “Now, despite all the assertions by Gadkari, no BJP leader is probing this dimension seriously or highlighting it. Of course, Jaitley did raise some points in this connection, but there seems to be no clear-cut plan to take this forward. In such a situation, even Jaitley's protest in the Rajya Sabha has only the value of internal bickering at the top of the BJP. On the whole, a large number of RSS activists across North India are convinced that the BJP leadership is generally soft on the Congress, particularly on the Gandhi-Nehru family,” he said.
He also added that the current context had revived the debate within the Sangh Parivar about an “out-of-turn service” accorded to Sonia Gandhi on the citizenship issue during the A.B. Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.
“It was a piece of legislation enacted during the NDA regime that literally demolished the BJP's and the Sangh Parivar's own objections to Sonia Gandhi's political role on the basis of her citizenship. And it is indeed mysterious how the legislation got passed in Parliament during the NDA regime.” The RSS functionary's reference was to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2003, which was passed in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, on December 22 and 18, 2003, respectively. The Bill got presidential assent on January 7, 2004, in a matter of two weeks, which is considered to be relatively quick as far as Rashtrapati Bhavan proceedings on matters of Bills are concerned.
The main purposes of the Bill as delineated in the Objects and Reasons appended to it were the creation of a new category of citizens called Overseas Citizens to grant dual citizenship to the Indian diaspora and the introduction of a scheme for compulsory registration of every citizen of India and issuance of national identity cards. However, by the time the Bill was passed and it received presidential assent, Section 5 of the earlier Citizenship Act had been deleted though it had not been overtly stated in the Objects and Reasons. Section 5 referred to a category of citizens called Citizens by Registration, which included foreigners who married Indian citizens. It had stipulated that foreigners who married Indian citizens could be granted Indian citizenship subject to certain conditions and restrictions.
Essentially, this clause reiterated the difference between naturalised citizens and native citizens. This was considered to be an important legal obstacle to people such as Sonia Gandhi occupying constitutional or elected positions of power. In fact, the BJP and the other components of the Sangh Parivar had repeatedly pointed to this clause in all their campaigns against Sonia Gandhi on the citizenship issue. Yet, Section 5 was quietly repealed during NDA rule.
Long-standing observers of national politics, such as A. Surya Prakash, had termed this as “NDA's perfidy on the Foreigner Issue” as early as April 2005. Surya Prakash had also wondered “why the Section was removed by stealth” and “who in the government was batting for Ms Gandhi”? The BJP leadership had chosen not to respond to these queries.
However, similar questions have started doing the rounds within the Sangh Parivar in the context of Sushma Swaraj's response on the CVC issue and Advani's apology to Sonia Gandhi. According to the Lucknow-based RSS leader and many of his associates in the Sangh Parivar in different parts of North India, the inefficacy of the BJP on these issues has made sections of the RSS seek a more proactive line in terms of day-to-day politics.
What concrete forms it will take is to be seen. However, there is little doubt that the CVC and the apology episodes will mark another turning point, albeit a not too pronounced one, in the overall context of the Sangh Parivar's political initiatives in contemporary times.
(Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address)
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