The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Samata sniffs plot to harass George

New Delhi, Nov. 25: The Samata Party has alleged a conspiracy behind the media “leak” on Justice K. Venkataswami’s appointment as chairman of the Authority on Advance Rulings of Excise and Customs in May.

The Samata feels it was a deliberate attempt by “someone” in the BJP or the Cabinet Committee on Appointments to “sabotage” an early clean chit to party leader George Fernandes in the defence scam that Venkataswami was probing before he resigned from the Tehelka panel.

“Venkataswami was appointed chairman of the finance ministry post six months ago but the news was leaked just when the winter session of Parliament began. Somebody wanted the issue to rock the House and create a situation where Fernandes has to wait for a longer time to get off the loop,” a Samata source said.

If the Samata sniffed sabotage, the Opposition, too, smelt a rat. Despite the assurance of finance minister Jaswant Singh in the Rajya Sabha that the government was committed to completing the investigation, the Opposition was not satisfied and demanded a joint parliamentary committee probe into the scandal. “We have fears of dilatory tactics,” leader of the Opposition Manmohan Singh said before leading a walkout.

Highly-placed sources said the government is not in favour of a JPC and would wait for the Chief Justice to suggest another person who could head the inquiry panel. “In case no name comes from him, the government would look for another judge to head the commission,” the sources said.

On behalf of the government, attorney general Soli Sorabjee had called on Venkataswami to ask him to withdraw his resignation, but in vain. The issue is likely to be brought up in Parliament tomorrow.

According to Samata sources, the commission did not find anything against Fernandes. “He is not in the tape. He will not be in the line of fire,” said a senior party MP.

“Even if you appoint a new judge tomorrow, he will take at least three-four more months to clear the name of the defence minister,” said a senior leader, adding that a JPC was not a “comforting proposition” either.

If a JPC is set up, it would have 60 per cent of its members from the National Democratic Alliance and 40 per cent from the Opposition. The trouble is it would have to start the inquiry afresh and there is no guarantee against motivated leaks by Opposition members. They can also delay proceedings and thus get a chance to embarrass Fernandes and his party for a longer period of time, the Samata leader said.

The Tehelka commission had almost completed its probe and was to have given its report in January. Venkataswami had completed all depositions and cross-examinations. Only arguments were left, which were to begin from today. To save time, the retired Supreme Court judge had asked for written arguments and the whole exercise barring the final verdict would have been over within a fortnight.

Now a new judge will have to study the cross-examination reports, depositions and arguments. Tehelka journalists were asked about 9,000 questions besides the 2,000 that were posed to others involved in the exposé. “The next three months will go in readying these materials,” the leader said.

A senior Cabinet minister said the government does not see any logic in going for a JPC probe as the inquiry would have to start from scratch. But if another judge is appointed, he could start from where Venkataswami left off.

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