The battle for presidency has turned even more bitter. The UPA today defended its nominee Pratibha Patil against charges that she shielded her brother GN Patil in a murder case and that a co-operative sugar mill, of which she was founder-chairperson, defaulted on repayment of bank loans.
On Saturday, as Pratibha filed her nomination papers for the presidential election, the BJP stepped up its campaign by seeking answers directly from her to questions it had on the murder. The CBI is currently probing the murder case on court’s directions.
Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar and Parliamentary Affairs Minister PR Dasmunsi, who is also Pratibha’s election manager, stepped in to rebut charges levelled by Rajni Patil. On Friday, Rajni used Akali MP SS Dhindsa’s Delhi residence to renew her accusation that Pratibha’s brother conspired in her husband’s murder in 2005.
Pawar quoted Punjab chief minister PS Badal as saying that regardless of the venue of Rajni’s press conference, the Akali Dal had no role in levelling the charges.
The BJP’s Ravi Shankar Prasad asked Pratibha to come clean on six questions: did she offer sympathy to Rajni; did her brother escape action because of his high connections; did two alleged assassins of Rajni’s husband tell a TV channel in 2006 that they were made scapegoats; who are the influential leaders the high court referred to while directing a CBI probe into the case; is it a coincidence that one of the assassins died in police custody the day the CBI examined Rajni; and did Pratibha clarify her position to Sonia Gandhi, whom Rajni met to allege that GN Patil put a supari on her husband. Prasad said the Congress chose Pratibha as its nominee to exploit her vulnerability on these issues and “make her sign on the dotted line”.
But Pawar and Dasmunsi said Pratibha had not done any wrong. “Her brother’s name was never in the FIR or the first chargesheet. The court has ordered a CBI probe,” said Pawar. He refused to elaborate saying he did not want the probe influenced.
Both leaders said a “malicious campaign has been launched by an ex-PMO official who is close to a former PM”. “It shows their frustration over the prospects of losing the presidential election,” they said. Refusing to name anyone other than Sudheendra Kulkarni, an official in A.B. Vajpayee’s PMO, they accused the NDA of sponsoring “mudslinging”.
Sant Muktabai SSK Ltd, the defaulting sugar mill, was registered in 1988 and is now headed by Pratibha’s brother. Pratibha had quit as its director and chairperson three years ago after she became Rajasthan’s governor. The mill owed Rs 58.26 crore to four banks as on March 31, 2005. Of this, Rs 37.48 crore is guaranteed by the Maharashtra government.
“The repayment of loan has to be done by the mill and not her,” said Pawar, adding that Pratibha, as an individual, was never issued any notice. “It is unfortunate that only one mill out of the 74 was served notice in December 2006 is picked out and that too when Pratibha is nominated for the high office,” he said. A GoM is looking into the issue of sick sugar mills.