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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 19 New Delhi April 30, 2016

Bengal Polls, Uttarakhand, Chopper Deal

Saturday 30 April 2016, by SC



The fifth phase of the West Bengal State Assembly elections is taking place day after tomorrow, that is, on Saturday, April 30, and the campaign for that phase of polling has come to an end this evening. The most significant event in the last few days in the Bengal polls has been a joint public meeting in Kolkata’s Park Circus Maidan yesterday addressed, inter alia, by Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi and former West Bengal CM and CPM leader Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. This is the most striking consequence of the Left-Congress seat-adjustment in the State—something really unique considering the fact that the Left and Congress are engaged in a bitter fight in the Kerala Assembly polls being held simultaneously this time around. Both Rahul and Buddha concentrated their attacks on the ruling Trinamul Congress with Rahul highlighting the alleged underhand collaboration between the TMC and BJP and Buddha urging the electorate not to vote for the BJP as that would in effect help the Trinamul. These were by and large unconvincing; what was underscored more effectively was by Congress MP Sachin Pilot in Kolkata today—he pointed out that the BJP was contesting a large number of constituencies in order to cut the (anti-TMC) votes of the Left-Congress combine and help the TMC in the process.

The coming together of the Left and Congress has definitely affected the chances of the TMC’s return to power; yet the TMC, rather CM Mamata Banerjee’s personal prestige and popularity should not be overlooked. Despite a series of scams that have hit it badly, the ruling party in the State still retains public support especially in the countryside where it has indeed done some development work which cannot be characterised as inconsequential—Mamata’s road-show in South Kolkata today was doubtless impressive, having been attended by all sections. The BJP too is actively campaigning in several areas for its candidates among whom Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s grand nephew, Chandra Bose, has a fighting chance against Mamata in her Bhowanipur seat where Mamata’s one-time mentor Priya Ranjan Das Munshi’s wife, Deepa, is also contesting and can take away a big chunk of votes. West Bengal once again is in the throes of a political upheaval—whether it can lead to a change in governance will be known only on May 19 with the counting of votes.

Meanwhile the second phase of Parliament’s Budget session got off to an anticipated stormy start on April 25 with the issue of imposition of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand stalling the proceedings of the Rajya Sabha for two consecutive days mainly by the Opposition Congress which was incidentally backed by the Left, Samajwadi Party and BSP—all of them demanded an immediate debate on the subject. The Treasury Benches, and Leader of the House of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in particular, stoutly defended the Centre’s action while opposing a debate on the plea that the matter was pending in the Supreme Court.

Then yesterday came the Supreme Court verdict on the issue. While ruling out a floor test in the Uttarakhand Assembly on April 29 (as directed by the State High Court) in a bid to ascertain if the CM continued to enjoy majority support, the Apex Court asked if the Centre could consider the reported failure of the passage of the appropriation bill, disqualification of MLAs by the Speaker and delay in the floor test as valid reasons for imposing President’s Rule. While extending its stay on the High Court’s order of lifting President’s Rule, it said it would take a decision on the Centre’s appeal against quashing President’s Rule by May 13. The SC, quite appropriately, maintained: “Article 356 is a rare phenomenon... if a government is in minority, floor test has to happen as a natural corollary...ultimately, if we sustain President’s Rule, then also floor test will have to happen.”

Thereafter came the news report of an Italian Court of Appeals order naming former IAF Chief S.P. Tyagi as allegedly having received bribes for the purchase of 12 AgustaWestland helicopters during the tenure of the UPA Government, and referring to Congress President Sonia Gandhi and other top Congress functionaries; the Court had handed prison terms to former chiefs of AgustaWestland’s parent company Finmeccanica and AgustaWestland. This reised a storm in Parliament yesterday with Subramanian Swamy, the newly-nominated member of the Upper House, naming Sonia Gandhi and linking her to the AgustaWestland deal by mentioning the allegations made by middleman Christian Michel. Swamy’s statement in the Rajya Sabha infuriated the Congress members so much that some of them menacingly rushed towards the Treasury Benches. Marshals promptly stepped in and positioned themselves between the two sides to prevent any untoward incident and the Deputy Chairman instantly adjourned the House.

Outside the Parliament House, Sonia said:

I am not afraid of anyone cornering me as there is no basis to that. All accusations they are throwing at us are false. Where is the proof? They are lying... this is part of a strategy of character assassination which we have known these people to indulge in. The government is there for the last two years. What are they doing? Inquiry is there, why don’t they complete it? Complete it as soon as possible, impartially, so that the truth will come out.

And former Defence Minister A.K. Antony pointed out:

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.

However, as Antony charged, the Narendra Modi Government took a different course: it invited the company to participate in Make in India events and even allowed it to bid for contracts.

Indeed the Rs 3600 crore AW 101 helicopter deal for VVIP choppers was annulled by the UPA Government in 2014 and the guarantee money confiscated after allegations of payoffs ran into hundreds of crores. The UPA dispensation did take a firm stand in the matter and the allegation against Sonia Gandhi does not carry conviction. Moreover, as The Times of India has editorially observed,

The tragedy is that if Courts of Appeal in Milan had not taken up the matter, it could easily have been swept under the carpet. The Italian court has sentenced Giuseppe Orsi, chief of AgustaWestland’s parent company Finmeccanica, to a four-and-a-half year jail term. In stark contrast, the NDA Government claims that investigations are now at an advanced stage, but it doesn’t appear close to finding the guilty even after two years in office.

In the meantime several major developments have taken place—the India-Pakistan Foreign Secretary-level talks in New Delhi on April 26 wherein the discussions were expectedly frosty (even if the two sides decided to remain in touch) with Pakistan raising Kashmir, terror and accusing India of seeking to defame Islamabad in international fora over Masood Azhar; the strong action taken by the JNU authorities against those students who had been charged with sedition and suffered imprisonment following the February 9 meeting held in the University on the anniversary of Afzal Guru’s execution; and the hideously flawed investigation into the 2006 Malegaon bombings that has raised seriously uncomfortable questions following the release of the “guilty”.

All these are highly disturbing; no less disturbing than what happened in Uttarakhand and the slugfest over the AgustaWestland chopper deal.

April 28 S.C.

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