The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Rivals see Singh’s unseen face
Budget row blows up into tantrum storm

We handed the memo to him, but he threw it on the table.

The 13 words uttered by George Fernandes — and disputed by the Congress — have sucked Manmohan Singh, who has come to personify the vanishing virtue of decorum in public life, into an unlikely controversy replete with accusations rarely levelled against a Prime Minister.SSS

The mounting tension between the Congress-led coalition and the BJP-led Opposition broke through an already-fragile ceiling when the Prime Minister declined to accept a memorandum given by a delegation headed by Opposition leader .K. Advani today.

The memorandum contained a slew of suggestions and comments on the Finance Bill, which the Opposition could have articulated had it allowed a discussion on the general budget.

Singh told the seven-member delegation that as the NDA had already made up its mind not to let the House function and facilitate a discussion, there was no point in him considering their memorandum.

“The Prime Minister wanted to convey the message that the real forum to discuss the budget and budget-related issues is Parliament. These things cannot be discussed casually in the Prime Minister’s office,” parliamentary affairs minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, who was present at the meeting, said later.

Once the Opposition leaders came out of room no. 9 in Parliament — the Prime Minister’s office in the House — the issue took a bizarre turn with Fernandes dropping the bombshell and Congress leaders vehemently denying it.

Such was the bitterness of the exchange that at one point of time, the NDA, which had earlier agreed to the passage of the budget without a discussion, threatened to go back on its word.

But highly placed BJP sources said the Opposition was unlikely to do so. A phone call from the parliamentary affairs minister to Advani and the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Jaswant Singh, has apparently softened up the BJP.

Whether the Prime Minister threw the memorandum or not is a matter of dispute. But his refusal to accept the memorandum has forced the political establishment to stop dead in its tracks and reassess its reading of the Prime Minister, whose mild manner has lulled the Opposition into believing that he has no stomach for bare-knuckle confrontations.

Giving his version of the morning meeting with the Prime Minister, NDA convener Fernandes said: “First, we exchanged namaskars. Then the PM asked us to take our seats. We handed the memo to him, but he threw it on the table, saying he will have nothing to do with it. We tried to explain, Advani tried, but he was in no mood to listen.”

Fernandes’ account was embellished with details from other members of the delegation who insinuated that Singh’s “anger” was the outcome of his “extreme frustration” with two cabinet colleagues who, they alleged, “secretly conspired” with the NDA to have the budget passed without a discussion.

Sources close to Singh said he was “furious” with the NDA for stalling the House and forcing the “unprecedented” decision of passing the first budget of the new government without a debate.

Some of his “anger”, they said, spilled over in his first interaction with industry yesterday. He said that never in the history of any government was the first 100 days characterised by the “daily turmoil” Parliament was being subjected to.

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