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Cong rushes to shield Sonia, Singh

New Delhi, Jan. 16: The ‘Q’ is back on the political stage, so it’s time for the Congress to mind its Ps.

Five days before the Hyderabad plenary, the party faces three major tasks: “protect” Manmohan Singh’s image, distance Sonia Gandhi from the Quattrocchi factor and see how 10 Janpath “loyalist” H.R. Bhardwaj can be retained as law minister without compromising the Prime Minister’s or the party chief’s position.

The Congress, on a moral high since the BJP found itself ensnared in sleaze and the Samajwadi Party got embroiled in the phone-tap controversy, has realised the boot is on its foot as Bofors accused Ottavio Quattrocchi bounced back into India’s political psyche.

Its problem was compounded by a statement released by the Italian businessman from Milan that said: “I am the victim of a political campaign waged by a political party against the Gandhi family.”

The BJP promptly seized the statement as “proof” of its charge that Quattrocchi had a “long-standing connection” with the Gandhis.

Congress spokesman Anand Sharma said he would “not make” any comments on Quattrocchi’s statement. “There is a long list of those who say they are close to the Gandhi family. We don’t know how many are really close and how many merely claim to be.”

The Congress’s case is that Sonia, from the day she entered politics, has made clear that the law must take its own course in the kickbacks case. “She said it in her first public meeting at Sriperumbudur and she iterated it when releasing our manifesto before the last Lok Sabha elections. There is no ambiguity on her part,” said a senior leader.

Asked if Sonia and the Prime Minister knew how and why the freeze on Quattrocchi’s London bank accounts was lifted, Sharma said: “The Congress and its president do not interfere in the functioning of any ministry or government agency. There is no question of being privy to or influencing a government decision.”

As for Singh, he said, there is “not just a ministry but also an agency” (the CBI) that is involved. “The PM is a serious leader but he also acts with great restraint. Arun Jaitley (the BJP spokesman) can ask all kinds of questions because in the NDA regime, the PM and the deputy PM constantly interfered in the working of other ministries and agencies. This PM is restrained.”

But Congress sources admitted that though the Bofors issue had run “out of steam”, the “very hint” of an “Italian link” had put them on the defensive. They said the dilemma was that if the Congress was to articulate its views on the scams haunting the BJP and the Samajwadi Party in the political resolution to be moved at the coming plenary, it needed a moral leg to stand on.

The Prime Minister, they said, always fought shy of controversies, whether it involved the governor and the President’s offices in Jharkhand and Bihar and the Nanavati Commission’s report on the 1984 riots that implicated several Congress leaders.

The suggestion he was “kept in the dark” on something which involved not just the law ministry and the CBI but a “third sovereign country” was something Singh would not take kindly to, the sources added.

Equally, getting rid of a senior minister, ostensibly under BJP pressure, would do little good to the party and the government, they said.

Bhardwaj riposte

Bhardwaj, who is at the centre of the Quattrocchi controversy, tonight blasted reporters who asked him if he would quit.

Le lo mera isteefa (take my resignation).... You people are insulting me. I will not talk to you,” the law minister said.

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