The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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George throws down probe gauntlet

New Delhi, May 30: Taking the high moral ground, George Fernandes is hoping to turn the tables on the government by challenging the Prime Minister to start an immediate inquiry into the coffin controversy and prove his guilt.

Fernandes, whose term as defence minister was dogged by scandals, has always maintained his innocence and wants to make a political point of this by asking for a time-bound inquiry.

Soon after his successor Pranab Mukherjee told reporters that he would look into specific charges if brought to his notice, Fernandes wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking for another look by the new government into the purchase of coffins for soldiers who died during the Kargil war.

Fernandes is bitter about the relentless campaign of the former Opposition. They had boycotted him in Parliament over his reinduction as defence minister before an inquiry into the Tehelka sting operation could get over, and the scandal over coffins allegedly bought at exorbitant rates.

The bitterness is reflected in Fernandes’ letter to Singh. “You are aware that for the past two years I have been subject to attacks by members of the Congress, Left and the Rashtriya (Janata) Dal parties, both inside and outside Parliament, on matter of the purchase of reusable caskets by the army to transport the bodies of the martyrs from the battlefield to their homes.

“This vituperative campaign was a regular feature in their election speeches at all levels…” Fernandes wrote.

“I would like to be the first to demand an immediate and speedy inquiry into the ‘specific’ matter of the purchase of reusable caskets by the army headquarters. The inquiry should not take too much time, say two weeks, since the material is easily available with the army headquarters and it will not be a cumbersome task to establish whether I or anyone else has made illegal money out of this stalled procurement.”

The former defence minister, popular with the armed forces for making it a point to spend time with soldiers in Siachen and other frontier areas, added that the Congress’ “vicious” campaign against him was also “an indirect attack on the army” and needed to be cleared.

Fernandes, who has always been better as an Opposition leader than a sober minister, would now make the best of his position and carry on an attack against the new government that is as relentless as the former Congress-led Opposition’s.

The NDA convener said the allies would meet on Tuesday to take stock of the post-election political changes and work out the Opposition gameplan for the coming Parliament session. “The NDA will be a very strong and very united Opposition,” he said.

Fernandes also gave a hint of Opposition strategy by questioning Sonia Gandhi’s constitutional position.

He claimed that army officers and senior bureaucrats, bound by the Official Secrets Act, were reporting to the Congress chief on security matters.

Newspapers, he claimed, had spoken “of officials” trying to get “plum postings” by advising Sonia on security matters.

The “axis” between 10 Janpath and the PMO and Sonia acting as an “unconstitutional” authority in “influencing” the Manmohan Singh government are thus expected to come under attack by the BJP and allies.

Fernandes also needled the Congress-led Centre for not consulting the Opposition before making CPM leader Somnath Chatterjee the Lok Sabha Speaker. He claimed it was the norm to take the Opposition into confidence over the Speaker’s selection.

Fernandes, however, did not say if the NDA would put up a candidate against Chatterjee. He only said that by convention, the deputy Speaker’s post was reserved for the Opposition. The NDA government had given it to P.M. Sayeed of the Congress in the 13th Lok Sabha.

Fernandes gave sufficient hint to suggest that the Opposition was determined not to give the government a customary honeymoon period.

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