It was a thaw that began in the morning chill when finance minister Pranab Mukherjee drove to senior BJP leader LK Advani’s Prithviraj Road residence on February 7.
Mukherjee knew he didn’t have an easy task on hand. With a General Budget to prepare, present and get passed, the issue was bothering him.
A rankling souring in ties between the government and the Opposition had seen a 23-day winter session of Parliament go for a toss. He didn’t want a similar fate for the budget session starting February 21.
They had talked earlier, but hadn’t got anywhere. He thought a face-to-face with Advani, the NDA’s working chairman and BJP’s tall figure, could break the logjam.
In fact, Mukherjee didn’t spend more than 15 minutes with Advani but it changed the mood instantly. As Mukherjee left for his house, Advani was ringing up his colleagues to say the ice was cracking on the issue of setting up a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) probe into scams that have come to light.
“Yes, our meeting did make a difference,” Advani told Hindustan Times. “When Mukherjee and I discussed the issue briefly, both of us were clear on our intentions. We wanted Parliament to function normally. At the same time, corruption is an issue that cannot be brushed aside lightly when there is one scam after another. It’s an issue of governance and not who wins or loses.”
Advani said Mukherjee seemed to agree with his view that a JPC probe was not and “should not” be a matter of defeat for the government or victory for the Opposition.
“We have to boost public confidence in our governance. It will go down in history as a collective response from Parliament towards cleaner governance,” Advani made this point again at the February 8 meeting between Mukherjee and the Opposition leaders.
Does it mean things will be smooth now?
No, there are still differences to be sorted out before the budget session starts. Mukherjee is due to have another round of discussions with the Opposition leaders before that.
While the government may be amenable to a JPC on the 2G spectrum and the Commonwealth Games scams, it is against a JPC looking into the Adarsh Society land scam.
Advani, however, insisted it was a piece of the defence land that was turned over to builders in collision with army and state officials. But Mukerjee said it was not a central issue.
"This issue may now become a matter of debate when Parliament begins," conceded Advani to Mukherjee.
What exactly transpired between them on February 7 may still be under wraps. Those close to Mukherjee said he thought Advani's 'saner counsel' would always prevail on the BJP when some of its leaders might like to keep the battle going. Mukherjee's impression after meeting Advani, as an insider said, was that the Opposition didn't want a repeat of the winter session, when nothing was transacted. But they also didn't want to give up on the demand for a JPC.
Contrary to Congress expectations, the Opposition ranks did not split on the issue. Both sides needed a face-saver. So when Mukherjee hosted lunch for the top Opposition leaders the very next day, much to the surprise of the latter, he wrapped up by saying, “No price is higher than what would ensure smooth running of the House.”