The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Gag off, George spits fire at Sonia

New Delhi, Aug. 18: George Fernandes today made up for his Congress-enforced silence in Parliament by targeting Sonia Gandhi in his speech during the debate on the no-trust motion.

The Congress lifted its 22-month boycott to let the defence minister intervene in the debate.

He refuted all allegations of lack of transparency in defence purchases, the Kargil coffin scam and his ministry’s refusal to hand a vigilance report to the Public Accounts Committee.

All through, the target of his attack was Sonia and he hit where it could hurt the most. “I have only one request to make to the leader of Opposition. If all of us are here to fight corruption, (Ottavio) Quattrocchi (a Bofors payoffs accused) should be extradited to India because this case is pending for a long time. It will be a great job,” he said.

Fernandes accused Sonia of launching a “campaign of calumny against him” over defence deals and national security.

Referring to the purchase of coffins, he said “I am not fit to be a member of the House” if he had made money from jawans’ blood. “If I have spoken a lie, I should be punished. Similarly, if the leader of the Opposition has done so, she should be punished.”

Fernandes then challenged Sonia to show evidence that he and his ministry made money in buying coffins. Dismissing the charge of misappropriating Rs 3,000 crore, he said: “Nobody can buy me. My entire life has been devoted to fighting corruption and today I am branded corrupt.”

“Let me express my views as I have risen to speak after 22 months.” The last 37 years have been spent in the House “not to drink the blood of jawans, but to protect the country”.

The repeated verbal duel between the Congress and Fernandes boiled over when Prabhunath Singh, Samata Party MP, charged at an Opposition member. Trinamul Congress’ Mamata Banerjee and Sudip Bandopadhyay and power minister Anant Geete hung on to Singh’s kurta to stop him in his tracks.

An upset Speaker Manohar Joshi said: “The entire nation is watching you. The television is on. You are leaders of the country. Please behave.”

Fernandes criticised the leaking of the Comptroller and Auditor-General’s report — that pointed out irregularities in defence purchases — to a national daily. “CAG report should be submitted to President, to finance ministry, to Parliament and then defence ministry. This report did not take this route.”

The Congress members said the House could not discuss the role of a constitutional agency without bringing in a substantive motion. The Speaker rejected the objection.

Amid walkouts by the Left and the RJD, some NDA members were heard shouting: “Murti chor, Bharat chhod (Antique thief, quit India).” The reference was to allegations of Sonia smuggling antiques to Italy.

Referring to Operation Parakram of deploying troops along India’s western border, Fernandes said he did not understand “why have the people become angry with the army”.

The Congress demanded that Fernandes withdraw the remark as “we have never commented anything on the army”. “We have only questioned the minister and the government. For God’s sake, do not mislead the nation,” Congress’ Shivraj Patil said.

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