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End in sight to Fernandes boycott

New Delhi, July 24: All indications are that the year-and-a-half Opposition boycott of defence minister George Fernandes could end on Monday after the government conceded its long-pending demand for a discussion on the Tehelka sting operation.

However, the government only went half way to oblige the Opposition: it agreed to have the discussion only in the Rajya Sabha and not the Lok Sabha.

It is reliably learnt that Fernandes has sought time to make his statement on the fidayeen attack on the army camp in Jammu — listed on today’s agenda of both Houses — on Tuesday because “he wants to add something”. Once he makes this statement, the boycott would officially end.

The boycott has been on since October 2001, when Fernandes returned to the cabinet though the Tehelka probe panel had not cleared him. The defence minister had resigned after the sting operation exposed dubious defence deals in March that year.

Parliamentary affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said: “The Opposition wants to have a discussion (on Tehelka) to end the impasse. The government never opposed a discussion, it only had a problem with the language (in which the motion was phrased).”

Swaraj said the upper House would take up for discussion a motion filed by the Congress’ chief whip, Suresh Pachauri, under rule 176, which asked about the progress in the Tehelka investigation and why no action has been taken by the government so far against the guilty.

While the Opposition hoped the motion would cover the area of its specific interest — why Fernandes was re-inducted within months of his resignation when the Venkataswami Commission was still probing the Tehelka exposé — the BJP was keen to avoid a reference to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Swaraj said the Pachauri motion was deemed to be a “no-day-yet motion” — meaning it could be admitted on any date — but if the government agreed, the Rajya Sabha chairperson could bring it on Monday. She said home minister L.K. Advani would reply to the discussion.

The apparent thaw on both sides was believed to be the result of the efforts of Rajya Sabha chairperson Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Lok Sabha Speaker Manohar Joshi, who informally met leaders of various parties in both Houses.

It was learnt that while the Congress, the Left and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) were willing to resolve the impasse in this session, the Samajwadi Party and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) were not. “Therefore, the leaders were approached separately,” political sources said.

Congress sources said the party had an “open mind” and had weighed the use of the boycott against the realisation that critical defence issues — the MiG crashes, the Kargil coffin scam and the fidayeen attack — were getting swept under the carpet because the Opposition was unwilling to hear out Fernandes.

“We will be able to lift the boycott of Fernandes provided there is an opportunity to have a full-fledged debate on Tehelka,” Congress spokesperson Jaipal Reddy said, adds PTI. Reddy said talks were on with the government and the Speaker.

Part of the Opposition’s softening had to do with the government’s insistence that on defence issues, only Fernandes would reply. “We are clear that it is improper for someone else to reply,” government sources said.

At a dinner hosted last night by Shekhawat for Rajya Sabha MPs, BJP sources said the Prime Minister shared his concern about the Opposition boycott of Fernandes with the deputy Prime Minister. At that point, Shekhawat informed him that efforts were afoot at his end to solve the imbroglio.

The government’s refusal to hold a Tehelka discussion in the Lok Sabha could be a sticking point with the Opposition.

But influential sections of the government were reportedly keen to give in to the Opposition on this demand as well so that both Houses could function smoothly for the rest of the session.

This morning, when the Opposition walked out of the Lok Sabha as Fernandes stood to reply, the Speaker said: “I once again appeal to the leaders of the (Opposition) parties that in the interest of decorum of the House, this issue be closed.... I am hopeful that the issue will be closed next week and wisdom will prevail.”

The question on fighter-jet crashes was listed on the request of the Congress’ V.M. Sudheeran and the BJP’s G.J. Javiya.

But when the time came to ask the question, Sudheeran went by his party directive and refused to do so.

Javiya, however, went ahead with the question, prompting Fernandes to answer.

The resultant walkout pushed the Telugu Desam Party’s Yerran Naidu to draw the Speaker’s attention to the boycott.

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