Jeers, a knockout punch and two scribbled quit letters

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By RASHEED KIDWAI in Delhi
  • Published 1.12.08
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New Delhi, Nov. 30: The gathering seethed like Caesar’s Senate baying for top leaders’ blood, and even Manmohan Singh offered to resign.

So did defence minister A.K. Antony and foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, losing their cool as Congress Working Committee members poured scorn on their ministries last night.

Manmohan Singh wasn’t at the receiving end but quickly owned responsibility for the Mumbai terror attack and offered to step down after Sonia Gandhi asked for “hard decisions”. He was at once dissuaded, and eventually ended the day with more responsibility and political authority.

It was Karan Singh who delivered the knockout punch of the night. Seated next to Rahul Gandhi, the senior leader looked directly at the Union home minister and said: “Mr Shivraj Patil, you have to go to save the party. There is no other way.”

The Roman senate had demanded Julius Caesar’s head while he was out fighting in another country, defiant and with an army behind him. Patil, a table’s width away and armed with pen not sword, hurriedly scribbled a resignation letter, and then another.

He held out one towards Manmohan, who refused to take it in front of 40-odd people. After this, Patil didn’t offer the second to Sonia.

Till Karan Singh’s blunt demand, however, Patil had behaved as if it was business as usual. He even mentioned his idea of putting tracking transponders in boats operating in the sea.

It prompted a cabinet minister to whisper: “Look at him! He is all at sea and he is talking about transponders!”

Since the meeting, the Prime Minister has been working on a road map that envisages parliamentary polls sometime around February, sources said.

They added that with P. Chidambaram now home minister, Manmohan was keen to keep the finance portfolio with himself till he could hand it over to Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

The possibility of an “outsider”, former Reserve Bank governor C. Rangarajan, becoming finance minister is being ruled out. Commerce minister Kamal Nath and science and technology minister Kapil Sibal are aspirants but are thought to lack the stature for the job.

Pressure is mounting on Vilasrao Deshmukh to resign as Maharashtra chief minister. His likely successor Prithviraj Chavan, now minister of state in the PMO, kept getting congratulatory calls from industry leaders and politicians today.

Sources close to Manmohan, however, said a lot depended on how the Nationalist Congress Party would react to the suggestion of R.R. Patil’s removal as Maharashtra home minister (and as deputy chief minister). If the NCP rejects the idea, the Congress will find it difficult to sack Deshmukh since law and order was primarily R.R. Patil’s responsibility.

Sonia set the tone for the CWC meeting by saying mere condolences or resolutions would not do. “It is time for action and some hard decisions,” she said in a voice betraying anxiety and strain.

Rahul was more concerned about the response to the Mumbai attack and kept asking how the government was going to tackle Pakistan.

Sources said national security adviser M.K. Narayanan too was in the line of fire but was saved because the Prime Minister did not want to remove two key persons seen as close to 10 Janpath. Besides, Narayanan is to head Manmohan’s latest brainchild, a task force to contain the terrorist and Maoist threats that is to be set up within 100 days from November 24.

Some in the party, however, want to end the practice of having a national security adviser who looks after both external and internal security without being accountable to Parliament.

Rahul’s queries sparked intense debate on foreign policy and Pakistan. As Antony and Pranab bristled at allegations of “failure”, Manmohan calmly responded to the various suggestions.

The CWC hawks suggested snapping of diplomatic ties with Pakistan, ending trade, and even calling off the bus service. Some wondered aloud about a military option, provoking an angry response from Pranab.

The foreign minister reminded the gathering about some “basics”, such as that India and Pakistan were nuclear nations and any “adventurism” would draw global attention. The meeting left it to Manmohan to decide on all diplomatic and military options.

CWC members said the party needed to be aggressive since every leader realised how the Congress was losing face and credibility.

Rahul said he was not concerned about victory and defeat in elections but about the future of the country. This found favour all round.

Patil assured everyone he would not be quitting the Congress. It made many wonder if he had actually been thinking about such an option.