The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Walkout boot on the other foot
- Heptullah leaves House in a huff after Sibal wisecrack

New Delhi, Dec. 12: Najma Heptullah today stunned the Rajya Sabha by playing the role of the Opposition in the House she was presiding over.

The deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha walked out in a huff after an argument with her own party colleague Kapil Sibal, bringing into sharp focus the distance that has grown between her and the Congress over the last two years.

The abrupt — as well as unparalleled — departure came at the end of a long and acrimonious debate between the BJP and the Congress over information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s remarks against Sonia Gandhi on the Ajit Jogi tape scandal.

After the members settled the issue, the House erupted a second time over a resolution that the BJP’s Kripal Parmar planned to move seeking a ban on religious conversions. The matter came up during a discussion scheduled every Friday afternoon on private bills and resolutions.

The Congress’ Pranab Mukherjee had spoken against Parmar’s resolution. Sibal then sent a chit to the deputy chairperson seeking an opportunity to speak. After waiting for some time during which the ruling coalition’s members spoke, Sibal stood up and said: “After you have allowed everyone to speak, give me a chance also.”

The subtle sting — the lawyer in Sibal is known for such surgical strikes — touched a raw nerve in Heptullah and opened the floodgates.

“This is an insinuation. You are always arguing. This is not your courtroom. You cannot argue with me. It is a habit with you,” exploded Heptullah, usually a picture of poise and charm. “I am not chairing the House. I am going to adjourn the House,” she said and headed to the exit.

As she strode out, members on both sides of the House stood up in disbelief. Congress veterans like Manmohan Singh, Mukherjee and Ambika Soni gathered around Sibal. In the bustle, a few other Congress members went up to Sibal and shook hands with him.

For several minutes after Heptullah stormed out, the members waited in the House, wondering whether it was in session or had been adjourned for the day. For the House to be adjourned, an explicit announcement has to be made, usually by the presiding officer — in this case Heptullah.

The suspense ended but without Heptullah when the House secretary-general, Yogender Narain, made the mandatory announcement: “The House is adjourned till Monday.”

It is well known in political circles that there is no love lost between Heptullah and the Congress high command headed by Sonia Gandhi.

Several Congress leaders feel that the Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson, who has been in the House for more than a decade, is tilting closer to the BJP. Another reason for scepticism among the Congress faithful is her rapport with Sharad Pawar, a known Sonia-baiter.

The Congress was reluctant to give her a fresh lease of life in the Rajya Sabha. Rubbing salt into the wound, the party chose not to back her for the Vice-President’s post when it fell vacant. Heptullah had stopped attending party meetings for the last two years.

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