It was not Rahul Gandhi, supposedly ready to play a bigger role in the party and government, but Congress President Sonia Gandhi who strongly rebutted Bharatiya Janata Party leader L K Advani’s charge that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was an ‘illegitimate government’because of its conduct in the 2008 trust vote, when cash was believed to have been paid in return for votes for the government.
Rahul Gandhi kept quiet and stayed seated as Advani tore into the government’s handling of the Assam riots. It was Sonia Gandhi who remonstrated with Advani and signalled to the ministers in the government to contradict him when he made the charge. By contrast, Rahul spoke only when surrounded by the electronic media outside the House. Making his reluctance to comment clear, he only said: “Advaniji is a senior person. He knows what he is saying.”
Sonia Gandhi demanded Advani “withdraw” his statement. Advani said he was referring to the 2008 trust vote episode in Parliament and not the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. “My comments were on the confidence vote and not on election. Those who were whistle-blowers were sent to jail,” said Advani, but his words cut no ice with the treasury benches.
The fact that Sonia Gandhi was angry at the remark and gesticulated was a sufficient signal for her ministers and partymen to be on their feet.
Human resource development minister Kapil Sibal and parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Kumar Bansal demanded the BJP apologise. It was the first day for Sushilkumar Shinde as Leader of the Lok Sabha. It seemed Gandhi made it a point to show the UPA would not take things lying down.
Subsequently Shinde’s words on the floor of the house had the Congress president thumping her desk in appreciation. He said, “Advaniji is a senior leader and we respect him. I think he should withdraw his words. This is an insult to the entire House.”
Later Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told reporters in Parliament, “The remark is disgraceful and unfortunate.”
Ethnic violence in Assam dominated the opening day of Parliament on Wednesday. Both Houses were adjourned several times as the Opposition benches attempted to put the Congress-led government on the mat over the handling of the violence, demanding the Prime Minister, who is also an MP from the state, make a statement.
BJP members themselves conceded that Advani’s remark seemed to have derailed the BJP agenda on hauling up the government over the Assam violence.
“He was probably trying to clarify the remarks he made in his blog and then target the government over the Assam issue but obviously the omission of the mention of the 2009 elections led to confusion,” said a BJP leader outside Parliament.
When the House reconvened, Advani continued to attack the government for turning a blind eye to the influx of Bangladeshi migrants, stating “the first step (to exclude infiltrators) is disfranchisement of the Bangladeshis and then their deportation”.
Responding to Advani’s charge, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Paban Singh Ghatowar regretted the former had focused on illegal migration instead of talking about rehabilitation of persons affected by violence in Assam.