Sonia gag stifles Congress boom
US test-ban push turns to nudge
DMK heartache for Rajiv killers

New Delhi, Oct. 26: 
Hobbled by Sonia Gandhi?s directive to maintain decorum at all costs, the Congress today delivered only a whimper of a protest on Bofors on the floor of Parliament, staging a low-decibel walkout and virtually gifting Round One of the Bofors battle to the BJP.

A large section of the party expressed utter dissatisfaction at the way the floor managers had handled the show, pointing out that the BJP-led government had not been given a fitting response for having included Rajiv Gandhi?s name in the chargesheet.

The government rejected outright the Congress demand to delete Rajiv Gandhi?s name, saying the aggrieved party was free to approach courts for remedy. Information and broadcasting minister Arun Jaitley cited the examples of assassins Beant Singh and Dhanu, whose names, like Rajiv Gandhi?s, had figured in the second column of a chargesheet though they were dead.

Congress MPs Mani Shankar Aiyar, Girija Vyas, Jagmeet Brar and Pawan Bansal, who wanted to stall proceedings and force a discussion, were dissuaded from launching a full-throated protest on orders from Sonia. Aiyar quietly withdrew a motion seeking a debate under rule 193 which does not provide for voting.

The leaders later said that inept handling had left the field clear for the government to twist the knife deeper into the festering Bofors wound.

Sonia, who was not present in the Lok Sabha during the day, was forced to hold a series of meetings in the evening to pacify agitated MPs, but refrained from spelling out the strategy the party would adopt. Congress chief whip Priya Ranjan Das Munshi said: ?We will decide on tomorrow?s strategy after seeing the list of business for Wednesday.?

As Congress floor-managers struggled to formulate a strategy in the Lok Sabha, the government remained adamant on not conceding any ground to the main Opposition party.

Jaitley, who handled the Bofors case during V.P. Singh?s regime as additional attorney-general, made it clear that there was no question of deleting Rajiv Gandhi?s name.

?The law is very clear. The government has no right to delete from or add any name to a chargesheet. It is not the government of the day but only the investigating agency or the investigating officer who has to decide. No government or minister can decide this,? he said.

External affairs minister Jaswant Singh echoed Jaitley in the Rajya Sabha, refuting the Congress charge that there was political impropriety in naming Rajiv Gandhi. He said investigations had reached a ?delicate? stage, and documents relating to kickback recipients were expected anytime from Switzerland.

Congress MPs, realising that the party had given the BJP a walkover, asked the high command to choose between maintaining party image and mounting a protest.

?We cannot stall the House without rushing to the Well of the House. Moreover, what about protesting on the streets? There are about 10 Congress-ruled states. How is it that there is no protest anywhere in favour of our revered leader Rajiv Gandhi?? an MP asked.

Some senior Congressmen said the leadership should make up its mind whether it wants to make Bofors a ?political issue? or fight a ?legal battle?. A Congress Working Committee member said that if party spokesmen Kapil Sibal and Ashwani Kumar were regarded the best bets to fight the battle, there was little point in calling on party workers to come out on the streets.

The issue was raised in the Lower House during Zero Hour, with angry Congress MPs demanding immediate deletion of Rajiv Gandhi?s name from the chargesheet. Sonia?s deputy, Madhavrao Scindia, alleged that the former Prime Minister?s name had been ?dragged in without any shred of evidence?.

Dissatisfied with Jaitley?s reply, the Congress and its allies, including the ADMK, staged a walkout. They also objected to Jaitley being fielded in the impromptu discussion on grounds that he had been a prosecutor in the case in the early Nineties.

Jaitley refuted ADMK leader P.H. Pandian?s contention that this was the first instance of a dead person being named in a chargesheet in a criminal case.

The information minister said it would be a sad day for jurisprudence if it were accepted that there should be no reference to the motive, participation and conduct of a dead person just because he was highly placed and his supporters were very influential and powerful.

The minister added it would also be wrong to decide whose name should be excluded from or included in a chargesheet on the basis of political discussion.    

New Delhi, Oct. 26 
Changing tack from pressuring to gentle persuasion, the United States today said it was pleased with the Indian leadership?s efforts to build a national consensus on signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and made it clear that it was not linked with the proposed visit of President Bill Clinton early next year.

Washington assured Delhi that it would soon lift the remaining sanctions imposed after last year?s nuclear tests and said there was no move to resume arms supply to Pakistan in the near future.

The visiting US energy secretary, Bill Richardson, who had recently expressed disappointment at the ?lack of progress made by India? on non-proliferation, said: ?I am pleased by the statements by the Indian Prime Minister and foreign minister that attempts were being made to work out a national consensus on signing the CTBT. It?s a sensible strategy.?

The US Senate?s recent refusal to ratify the treaty has bolstered the Indian argument that a national consensus is necessary before it can sign up. Though India does not lose anything by signing the CTBT, it is using the plea of forging a national consensus on the issue to strengthen its bargaining position with the US. Lifting of sanctions is one of the conditions but Delhi would also like to have access to sophisticated and dual-use technology before it signs the treaty.

Indicating the US? keenness to improve and strengthen relations with India, Richardson, who is the first Cabinet-level minister to visit here since the tests, met Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee for half-an-hour and handed over a letter from Clinton. Though the details of the letter were not divulged, it focused on the immense potential in bilateral relations.

In Washington, Clinton yesterday signed a Bill, giving him authority to waive sanctions imposed on India and Pakistan following their nuclear tests. US officials, however, assured India that there was no move to resume arms sales to Islamabad immediately. It now depends on Clinton whether he will lift the remaining sanctions on India or use it as leverage to get Delhi?s signature on the CTBT.

Though Richardson said the CTBT was not linked to Clinton?s visit, he made it clear that Washington would like to see progress on the issue. He said: ?All existing waivers are going to continue ... Our relations with India on the economic field will grow.?

Richardson said Clinton?s visit would further strengthen bilateral ties ?in many areas?, including trade and energy. ?We will have very strong relationship on solar energy, electrification and other scientific areas,? he said.

Richardson and foreign minister Jaswant Singh signed an agreement for joint cooperation in energy and environmental issues to foster private sector energy ventures and to attain sustainable economic development.

Richardson held wide-ranging talks with the foreign minister. Apart from the nuclear non-proliferation issue, the developments in Pakistan were also discussed. Richardson said the US was concerned that there was ?no fixed timeframe? for restoration of civilian rule in Pakistan.    

Chennai, Oct. 26: 
As the Bofors controversy erupted in Parliament, chief minister M. Karunanidhi waded into a potential political minefield down south, saying he favoured grant of clemency to the four sentenced to death in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.

What began as a run-of-the mill press conference slid into the assassination quagmire today when Karunanidhi said: ?I have always been against the death sentence. Whatever the heinous crime one is convicted for, he or she should be sentenced to a life term. That will give them an opportunity for introspection and to reform themselves over a period of time.?

Pressed whether his remarks applied to the four condemned in the Rajiv case, Karunanidhi said: ?They very much do.?

The chief minister?s personal views on the issue would not have raised eyebrows but for the fact that the mercy petitions of the four on the Vellore jail death row ? Nalini, Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan ? are now lying before Governor Fathima Beevi.

Governors, who have the power to commute the death sentence, usually go by the recommendation of the respective state governments. With Karunanidhi taking a public stand against the death sentence, an unexpected dimension has been added to the case.

Karunanidhi?s initially casual comment at the press conference, originally scheduled to announce certain administrative decisions, could also prove embarrassing to the Vajpayee government, which is now fighting to fend off charges of bias against the former Prime Minister.

BJP vice-president J.P. Mathur said in Delhi that ?Karunanidhi has raised an important issue. But a sort of consensus has to be developed at the national level before my party can give its reaction.?

Karunanidhi?s statement could revive the controversy that reached a flashpoint when the Jain Commission, which looked into the assassination, made some critical references to the DMK, and set off a chain of events leading to the fall of the United Front government.

Later, the Vajpayee government had taken the DMK off the indicted list following the discovery of an error. But, ever since, Karunanidhi has been cautious and had welcomed the Tada court verdict which sentenced all the 26 accused to death. Asked whether the verdict was harsh, Karunanidhi had said then: ?Rajiv?s killing too was a terrible act.?

The public statement today is also being seen as an attempt by the DMK to keep its allies in good humour. Karunanidhi?s two allies, the MDMK and the PMK, have often been accused of being supporters of the Lankan Tamil Tigers, who masterminded and executed Rajiv?s assassination plot. The two parties are also reported to be lobbying for clemency to the four prisoners.    

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