The Prime Minister's Office had written eight letters between November 2007 and February 2008 to the petroleum ministry, asking it to expedite clearances of gas for Shipping and Transport Minister T.R. Baalu’s family-owned companies, the Opposition alleged on Friday. Opposition members raised an outcry in the Rajya Sabha, demanding Baalu’s resignation.
Baalu had admitted in the House on April 23 that he had “put in a word” with the petroleum minister for allocation of gas to his firms.
The BJP-led NDA also put up a novel protest — they remained silent during the question hour, with fingers on their lips to register their disapproval of Chairman Hamid Ansari’s decision to turn AIADMK leader V. Maitreyan out of the House on Thursday. Maitreyan had tried to demand from the prime minister a response to Baalu’s stand.
Raising slogans, they disrupted the pre-lunch and post-lunch proceedings leading to two adjournments. Later, the House was adjourned for the day after passage of the Central Universities Laws (Amendement) Bill, 2008.
“The NDA and AIADMK members would remain silent till the chairman expunges the order to send V. Maitreyan out of the House from the records. Otherwise, we would not participate in the proceedings when the chairman would be in the chair,” BJP leader S.S. Ahluwalia said.
SP leader Janeshwar Mishra requested the chairman to withdraw the disciplinary order. “The sword of discipline should not be used to curb democracy,” he said, backed by JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav.
Chairman Ansari said his action was not punitive.
“Nobody was punished, castigated or condemned… Attention of a hon’ble member was drawn to a rule with which he complied. The day is over and so is the matter.” Ansari’s clarification failed to move the NDA members who did not ask questions listed against their names, despite being present in the House.
Later, BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad, waving what he said were copies of the letter written by the PMO, demanded a clarification from the PM.
In the Lok Sabha, Speaker Somnath Chatterjee disallowed NDA members who sought to raise the issue. Deputy Leader of Opposition V.K. Malhotra said since the PMO was involved, an inquiry should be conducted. JD(U) member Prabhunath Singh alleged that there was a “scandal” and wondered whether a notice was required to raise the issue of a “scandal” too. Talking to reporters later, Prasad accused the PMO of committing political impropriety by “pursuing the commercial interests of a private company”. “Why should the PMO write as many as eight letters to pursue the commercial interests of a private company? This raises serious questions of political impropriety,” he said.
The BJP said Baalu had misled the House by stating that the NDA government had stopped gas supply to his companies out of revenge since the DMK had withdrawn support. “The PNG ministry should place on record all facts and why Baalu's firms had their contract cancelled.”
Meanwhile, the Congress, unsure of the extent of damage the controversy could inflict on the party, has for the moment adopted a wait and watch policy. Congress spokesperson Jayanti Natarajan said she had no knowledge of any such letters from the PMO. She denied that the party was not defending the PM. “I have no information of the allegation ( against the PMO). So there is no question of first putting a hypothetical question and then reacting to it,” she said.