The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Letter bomb ticks on Jaswant

New Delhi, Aug. 2: A notice for breach of privilege against Jaswant Singh in the Rajya Sabha cast a shadow today over his continuation as leader of Opposition in the Upper House.

The BJP scurried to defend the former foreign minister. Vijay Kumar Malhotra, the party’s deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, said: “There is no immediate move (to replace Singh). But I cannot predict what is going to happen tomorrow. I can’t say anything even about myself. As of now, Jaswant Singhji is the LoP in the Rajya Sabha, just as I hold a position in the Lok Sabha. How do I know whether I would remain there in future'”

The Congress went on the offensive with party MP V. Narayanaswamy and CPM’s Prasanta Chatterjee moving the notice against Singh under Rule 188.

The MPs alleged that Singh misled the House by tabling a letter attributed to former US envoy Harry Barnes as proof of existence of a spy in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s office. The letter, purportedly sent to a Senator, referred to nuclear testing, deployment of Prithvi and “other steps”.

When a document is tabled in the House by any member, it tantamounts to authentication by the MP. But doubts have since been raised about the authenticity of the letter with Barnes denying that he wrote or received such a letter.

It is on the basis of this suspicion that the Congress MP has moved the privilege notice. The Congress has alleged that the letter is fake. Sources said former law minister Ram Jethmalani has been sent to Washington on the mysterious letter’s trail.

The filing of a privilege notice alone does not mean Singh is in trouble. A long-drawn procedure lies ahead: it has to be first admitted by the Rajya Sabha chairperson, a post now held by Vice-President and former BJP chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat.

If that hurdle is crossed, the House will discuss the charge and decide by voice vote whether the notice should be sent to the privileges committee, which will recommend if any action needs to be taken. The House has to again vote on the recommendation to enforce it.

If Shekhawat does not admit the privilege motion, the Congress would figure out other ways of targeting Singh, sources said. A meeting is reportedly scheduled tomorrow to discuss an alternative strategy.

So far, the BJP has stoutly backed Singh. However, the tide could turn if Singh fails to authenticate the letter. Sushma Swaraj, the party’s deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha, told The Telegraph that the BJP has taken Singh’s word “at face value”.

“He is our leader in the House. When he says that he has evidence enough to authenticate the letter, the party believes him. It is not for us to question him.”

On Barnes’s stance, Swaraj said: “It is a secret letter. Nobody owns up such letters. He (Singh) says he can authenticate the letter and we believe him.”

Much to the disappointment of the Congress, Shekhawat did not allow Narayanaswamy to mention the content of the notice in the House.

At a meeting in the chairperson’s chamber at 10.30 am, Narayanaswamy said he should be allowed to mention the matter in the House. But BJP members opposed the demand.

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