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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 20 New Delhi May 7, 2016

Tables Turned on BJP in Chopper Deal Debate

Saturday 7 May 2016, by SC


They had come prepared to put the Opposition Congress on the mat. ‘They’ meaning the new nominated member in the Upper House, Subramanian Swamy, and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar in particular. But what happened at the end of the four-and-a-half-hour-long debate on the AgustaWestland helicopter deal in the Rajya Sabha was entirely different. As Hindustan Times noted,

Ruling party speakers were at their wit’s end in the face of a concerted counter-offensive by Congress veterans such as A.K. Antony, Ahmed Patel, Anand Sharma and Abhishek Manu Singhvi.

The BJP members in general, and especially Subramanian Swamy, charged the erstwhile UPA Government with having changed the specifications of flying altitude and cabin height of the helicopters under scrutiny. With biting sarcasm Swamy quipped that it was probably done for the benefit of the Congress’ Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, the six-footer Ghulam Nabi Azad. But in the same breath he decreed that such changes made the UPA leaders liable for prosecution.

But Swamy cut a sorry figure when he remained silent as Singhvi revealed that those changes were carried out under the directive of the Principal Secretary of former PM A.B. Vajpayee, Brajesh Mishra, and thereafter Antony asserted that those changes had met with Mishra’s approval.

Antony, who was in charge of the Defence portfolio in the UPA Government, took the Treasury Benches by surprise when he came out uncharacteristically blunt and eloquent:

Complete the cases, blacklist the company, take strongest action against whoever has taken the money... if you have evidence, take action, prosecute, but don’t threaten us.

And his words did carry conviction as he is known to be a person of impeccable honesty and probity (which even his political opponents in the BJP cannot refute).

Only last week he was quoted in these columns as having affirmed:

We had initiated the process to blacklist AgustaWestland, its parent company Finmeccanica and all its subsidiaries. We also initiated proceedings for encashing bank guarantees and recovered an amount of Rs 2068 crores. Three helicopters of AgustaWestland have remained confiscated with us.

This he had highlighted to draw the contrast with what the Modi Government did: “it invited the company to participate in Make in India events and even allowed it to bid for contracts”.

Even Ahmed Patel delivered a good speech in the Rajya Sabha seeking to expose Swamy’s real game.

That the BJP MPs felt uncomfortable after the debate was quite visible in their faces. The Indian Express quoted an unnamed ruling party member as having given the following explanation for the poor performance of the BJP in the Upper House discussion on the subject:

(Bhupendra) Yadav (who initiated the debate) gave a soft speech and Swamy could not mention names of Congressmen. It seems my party has fallen between the Jaitley line and the Swamy line on AgustaWestland.

While that may well be true, what Hindustan Times observed in a bid to proffer a political analysis is doubtless more significant.

The debate on the chopper scam was taking place at a time when the ruling party faced many uncomfortable questions in Parliament, be it the imposition of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand, considerable dip in employment generation, and last but not the least, the alleged foreign policy flip-flops. That might be one of the reasons for the isolation of the BJP on this issue as regional parties chose to back the Congress or maintain an equidistance during the debate.

Politically the isolation of the BJP can no longer be brushed under the carpet.

May 5 S.C.

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