Senior Congress leader Arjun Singh’s statement in the Rajya Sabha on the Bhopal gas tragedy provides ample evidence of why the former Madhya Pradesh chief minister is referred to as the old fox in political circles. The seasoned politician used the opportunity to clear himself of complicity. But, in the process, he has complicated matters for his party, which has tried its best to keep the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi out of the controversy.
Singh’s statement in Parliament is being interpreted by many of his party colleagues as his take on the matter where he categorically implicated his arch rival and then Home Minister PV Narasimha Rao but cleared the involvement of Rajiv Gandhi in ordering the release of the then Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson.
However, in his carefully-worded statement, which apparently deceived those who vetted it, Singh stated that he had briefed Rajiv Gandhi on the developments in the wake of the Bhopal gas leak. He went on to say that Rao wanted Anderson’s release and there were several calls to the MP chief secretary to do this.
The statement read in conjunction with the earlier interview by the then Foreign Secretary MK Rasgotra that the government had assured safe passage to Anderson leaves little doubt that the Centre was aware of what was happening in Bhopal.
Without suggesting at any point that Rajiv had any role to play in the release of the Union Carbide chief, Singh has virtually indicted the home ministry, which obviously must have acted on a request from the foreign ministry. Those who have watched Congress governments function in the days of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi can vouch that they were hands-on prime ministers.
If one goes by the statement literally and blames Rao, the implication is that the then prime minister was unaware of what his home minister or many other ministers were doing. Obviously, the situation then was not what it is like now.
Out of many political leaders who commented on the issue, it seems only Brinda Karat of the CPI(M) got the matter right. She thanked Arjun Singh for placing on record that he had briefed Rajiv Gandhi about the developments, something that most Congressmen were denying till then.
It is another matter that Rajiv was busy campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections and, therefore, must have left the decisions to his Cabinet colleagues. Interestingly, the present Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, also seems to hold a dim view of Singh’s statement in Parliament when he told members that “safe passage was indeed given, according to Rasgotra. Anderson was allowed to leave according to Arjun Singh. I am in no position to either confirm or dispute these two facts. Each member of the House may draw his own conclusions.’’
Chidambaram had earlier blamed successive governments since 1984 for absolving their responsibilities in the matter and leaving the issue to the judiciary. “Everyone who has been the prime minister and headed a government is in one way or the other responsible and accountable.”
The second politically aimed missile from Singh was directed at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh whom he requested to use his cordial relations with President Barack Obama to get Anderson extradited. By making this request to the PM, Singh sought to contribute to the perception of Singh’s proximity to the US. And if the matter is taken up by Manmohan Singh with Obama, some other embarrassing facts about the Bhopal gas leak could come out.
Arjun Singh’s performance in the Rajya Sabha was also a lesson for many new leaders on how a cleverly-drafted statement can hoodwink many as its stated objectives are different from its hidden agenda. Singh has said what he wanted to convey and, most important, he has tried to clear himself with no concern about the implications for others. He has used two dead leaders to make his claim since they cannot rebut him. But then Singh has always been a class act. Between us.