Aug. 21: Ambassador Ronen Sen lurched into a storm today as angry lawmakers disrupted Parliament and demanded his recall from Washington for likening them to “headless chicken”, though the diplomat claimed he had journalists in mind, not politicians, and apologised for his comments.
BJP and Left MPs moved privilege notices in both Houses while central coalition partner RJD embarrassed the government by joining the Opposition chorus in the Lok Sabha.
According to an interview published on a website, Sen had rounded on critics of the civilian nuclear deal with the US. “It has been approved here by the President, and there it’s been approved by the Indian cabinet,” the portal quoted the envoy as saying in Washington.
“So why do you have all this running around like headless chicken, looking for a comment here or comment there, and these little storms in a teacup'”
Foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee said he had spoken to Sen, who said he made the comment during an off-the-record conversation, speaking in his “personal capacity”.
Journalist Aziz Haniffa, however, said “at no point of the conversation did the ambassador specify that it was off-the-record”.
Sen later offered “unqualified apologies” but could not placate the MPs back home.
“Recall will not be enough as his clarification is worse than the interview. We want Mr Ronen Sen to be summoned to Parliament’s bar and be admonished,” BJP leader Sushma Swaraj told a news conference.
CPM general secretary Prakash Karat, who has warned of “serious consequences” if the Congress-led regime goes ahead with the deal, said the government should recall Sen.
“We have an ambassador in Washington, who seems to be the ambassador of President Bush, not the ambassador of India,” he said in Hyderabad. “And if the government has any self-respect, it should immediately recall him.”
Karat and his comrades have virtually put the government on notice on the deal, which has raised fears that the Hyde Act, a US domestic law which calls for terminating cooperation in the event of a nuclear test, would compromise India’s sovereignty.
Asked to comment on Sen’s clarification, I&B minister Priya Ranjan Das Munshi said “those who treat media as headless chickens, their brains have become a vegetable”.
Sen, however, said a number of comments were either “misunderstood or misquoted or quoted out of context”.
“For instance, I did not say that the Hyde Act could not be renegotiated, but said the bilateral agreement could not, in my view, be renegotiated. With reference to the Hyde Act, I had expressed my assessment it would not be amended in the foreseeable future,” Sen said.
Sen may have also touched a raw nerve with comments like those opposing the deal were “insecure” even so many years after Independence. “I am really bothered that 60 years after Independence, they are so insecure — that we have not grown up, this lack of confidence and lack of self-respect.”
The issue came up in Parliament in the morning itself, forcing adjournments in both Houses. Although Mukherjee read out Sen’s clarification at 2pm, angry Opposition MPs, aided by the Left and “third front” members, forced the chair to adjourn proceedings.
RJD members joined the protest, saying the ambassador was speaking like a spokesperson for the US.
Two hours later, when Mukherjee read out the clarification in the Rajya Sabha, senior BJP leader Jaswant Singh voiced concern at the way the government was using bureaucrats to suppress opposition to the deal. The House adjourned soon after.