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"Where is the proof?" asked the PM

Polluting Parliamentary Democracy. That was the title of my column last week, in which I had written: “We do not know what is going to happen in the Lok Sabha on July 22.

Written by Sudheendrakulkarni |
July 27, 2008 5:34:52 am

Polluting Parliamentary Democracy. That was the title of my column last week, in which I had written: “We do not know what is going to happen in the Lok Sabha on July 22. However, one thing is widely known. Dr Manmohan Singh’s Government, unsure of its survival, has been desperately trying to stitch together a majority by indulging in the worst kind of horse-trading New Delhi has seen. In his obsession to secure the nuclear deal at any cost, the ‘incorruptible’ PM has blessed dozens of corrupt deals.”

We now know what happened on July 22. The UPA Government won a slender victory. But the entire world came to know how the trust vote was won. It is instructive to recall that a former Prime Minister, P V Narasimha Rao, was convicted in a trial court on charges of bribing a few MPs of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in a bid to convert his minority government into a majority government in the no-confidence motion he faced in 1993. What happened in 2008 is a cash-for-votes scam bigger than the JMM scandal by a monstrous order of magnitude.

In the run-up to the vote on July 22, the whistle about horse-trading was being blown by several NDA and non-NDA opposition leaders. The nation was stunned when CPI leader A B Bardhan said that the “ongoing rate” for purchasing the loyalty of a non-UPA MP was Rs 25 crore. A perceptive cartoon in The Hindu showed how a government promising nuclear power for every Indian home had stooped to using “horse power” to save itself.

In the run-up to the trust vote, media and political circles were abuzz with reports of how many and which MPs belonging to the BJP, Shiv Sena, BLD, Akali Dal, JD(S), TDP and other non-UPA parties would switch sides. Senior leaders of the Congress and Samajwadi Party were openly making claims to this effect. One SP leader, after parading a BJP defector before the media, boastfully said, “We have opened the first card. When we will open our other cards on July 22, many will be taken aback.” Several opposition parties were indeed taken aback, most of all the BJP, by the number of turncoat MPs in their ranks.

When one opposition MP after another fired accusations of horse-trading in the trust vote debate, the Prime Minister weakly asked, “Where is the proof?” Silence would have been a safer option for him, for he certainly could not have been unaware of what the wheelers and dealers were doing. The “proof” came in a dramatic manner in the closing hours of the debate. Three BJP MPs — Ashok Argal, Mahavir Baghora and Fagan Singh Kulaste — displayed inside the House bundles of currency notes, allegedly paid to them by a top SP leader as a token amount of one crore rupees for abstaining from the trust vote. In normal circumstances, their unparliamentary act would have invited severe punishment from the Chair. But they have claimed to have acted as whistle-blowers to expose the ‘votes-for-notes’ conspiracy to save the Dr Manmohan Singh’s Government.

A reputed TV news channel conducted a sting operation to record the MPs’ whistle-blowing operation. The MPs, who have already given a graphic account of the alleged bribery trail in their petition to the Speakers, also claim that the channel had assured them about the telecast of the recorded tape “soon”. Why the channel failed to do so has raised serious questions about its journalistic ethics. Certainly, no news channel conducts a sting operation about horse-trading for the edification of the Speaker! Or was its decision not to telecast the programme before the trust vote also a part of the plan to save Dr Singh’s Government by fair or foul means?

In the absence of the tape being telecast, legitimate doubts have been raised in the minds of ordinary people about the authenticity of the BJP MPs’ charges. The BJP must do everything to establish its credibility in the matter. On the other hand, public pressure is mounting on the channel to telecast the tape in an un-doctored form. After all, in this age of RTI, the people have a right to know what exactly happened in this most sensational political scandal.

The onus has now shifted to the Speaker to conduct a speedy and impartial inquiry and punish the guilty. The alacrity with which Somnath Chatterjee disqualified as many as 11 MPs for their role in the “cash-for-questions” scandal in 2005, exposed by another sting operation by the media, would certainly become a benchmark to judge his conduct in probing the far more serious “cash-for-votes” scandal.

If the Speaker’s probe proves the whistle-blowers’ charges in respect to the alleged mastermind of the bribery scandal, in what light will that outcome cast the victory of Dr Manmohan Singh’s Government? The Prime Minister will have no option but to step down by accepting moral responsibility for the tainted votes that ensured his survival in office. Therefore, isn’t it all the more important that the Speaker conduct his probe fairly and complete it expeditiously? Failure to do so would make India look increasingly like a banana republic. Only strong pressure from all democracy-loving Indians can prevent this tragedy.

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