The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Coffingate backfires

New Delhi, April 5: The Congress-led government today gave what is being perceived as a clean chit to George Fernandes on the Kargil coffin scam, virtually shooting down one of its own primary weapons in campaign 2004 and spreading disquiet among allies.

The government today told the Supreme Court in response to a public interest litigation that purchases of military equipment made for the Kargil war of 1999 were above board, indirectly absolving the former defence minister of charges that cash was made out of coffins for soldiers.

As Opposition leader, Sonia Gandhi had seized on the corruption charge with alacrity and made it an issue during the poll campaign.

Fernandes responded today with an expected whoop of victory but what hurt the Congress more was a fusillade from the CPM, which had boycotted Fernandes in Parliament citing the Tehelka and Kargil scandals.

CPM politburo member Sitaram Yechury asked the Congress to clarify which position it took was 'right'. 'Now they (the Congress) should clarify whether they were wrong at that time or whether they are right now. They should say on what basis are they taking a stand now. It is they who have to clarify,' Yechury added.

Several other allies are also said to be upset and some of them have pointed out that this is the second time the government has come to the defence of Fernandes.

Shortly after taking over, defence minister Pranab Mukherjee had said he was not considering a blanket probe into a succession of deals struck under his predecessor.

He also practically absolved the earlier administration on the timing of air strikes in Kargil. Today's clean chit is a clear signal that the defence establishment is unwilling to open a Pandora's box.

Fernandes, who had threatened to file a defamation suit against Sonia, ruled out filing such a case. 'It is too late now. We will take the matter to the people's court.'

The Congress said the affidavit in the court cannot be construed as a clean chit. 'It is a stand by the bureaucracy. Besides, no decision has been taken by the court,' the party said.

Late tonight, the defence ministry termed reports of the clean chit 'unjustified and unwarranted'. The ministry conceded that the affidavit said the purchases did not flout rules ' the main allegation was that the coffins were overpriced ' but added that it was only a part of the statement.

In the second part, the ministry said, the affidavit 'made the significant point that the comptroller and auditor-general had made valid points which had been duly noted and action was being taken'.

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