The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Amarinder on clash course

New Delhi, Nov. 30: Relations between the Congress high command and Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh have hit a new low with the latter’s move to file a challan against state minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal in the alleged embezzlement of Rs 20 lakh from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund in 1996.

Amarinder defended his decision, saying when his government had launched a “crusade” against Akalis in the state, he could not have applied a different yardstick for a Congress leader.

Bhattal, however, cried foul, alleging that the Punjab chief minister was settling political scores in view of her growing popularity. A former chief minister, Bhattal was an aspirant when Amarinder pipped her to the top post.

The Congress central leadership is upset with Amarinder for keeping it in the dark before giving the nod to the state vigilance bureau to proceed against Bhattal.

Without going into the merit of the case, AICC functionaries said Amarinder should have taken the party into confidence before taking action against Bhattal. Such a course would have helped the high command to take “suitable action”, they added.

AICC sources, however, admitted that there was a question mark over Bhattal’s continuation in the Punjab government. “How can you have a minister in a government whose conduct is being probed by the state vigilance bureau'” asked an AICC functionary, adding that the Congress had a “long and glorious” tradition of setting examples of probity in public life.

This is the third instance of Amarinder’s clash with the AICC. During the Congress’ Mount Abu conclave, the Punjab chief minister had virtually contradicted party chief Sonia Gandhi, saying there was nothing wrong in disinvesting profit-making PSUs.

The next issue related to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee elections, where Sonia made a public statement restraining Amarinder from interfering in the SGPC polls.

The Punjab chief minister has since been seeking an audience with Sonia, but the AICC chief has not found time to meet him. A few days ago, Amarinder had come prepared with a note on disinvestment to clarify his position but 10, Janpath referred him to AICC general secretary in charge of Punjab, Mohsina Kidwai.

Sources close to Bhattal made it clear that the agriculture minister in the Amarinder Cabinet had no intention to step down on account of the vigilance department filing a challan against her. Bhattal argued that it was no government inquiry that had indicted her and that the vigilance department had merely acted on a complaint from a private party.

The Bhattal camp alleged that the entire case was “politically motivated” and aimed at easing her out of the ministry. Bhattal is now threatening to camp in Delhi to seek “justice” from the Congress chief.

Sonia, currently in the UK, will return on Sunday and is likely to take a view the next day. The state Congress unit feels it is a “needless controversy” that would undermine the prestige of the party.

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