If you are not a political junkie but watched Rajya Sabha proceedings on Wednesday to try and figure out the bribe-takers in the VVIP chopper deal, you may not be faulted for thinking that the Narendra Modi government was on the mat over the scam. Ruling party speakers were at their wit’s end in the face of a concerted counter-offensive by Congress veterans such as AK Antony, Ahmed Patel, Anand Sharma and Abhishek Manu Singhvi.
Consider this: BJP MP Bhupendra Yadav and his party colleague Subramanian Swamy attacked the Congress holding the UPA government responsible for changing specifications of flying altitude and cabin height of the helicopters. A sarcastic Swamy said it was probably done for the Leader of the Opposition, Ghulam Nabi Azad, the six-footer Kashmiri leader. The ruling party even argued that these changes made the erstwhile UPA leaders liable to prosecution.
Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi – a prominent lawyer who lost lakhs of rupees by arguing free of cost for the party, as defence minister Manohar Parrikar jocularly quipped – countered Yadav saying that it was prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s principal secretary Brajesh Mishra who had taken the lead to change the specifications.
Swamy remained silent when AK Antony asserted that the cabin height of 1.8 metres was approved by Vajpayee’s principal secretary. The former defence minister, fondly called Saint Antony by his friends and rivals for his integrity, put up a valiant defence of the previous UPA government.
Silence in the Treasury benches said it all. The Congress managed to take the sting out of the BJP’s attack. Prime Minister Narendra Modi met senior ministers later in the evening to take stock of what happened in the Rajya Sabha and he might not be very pleased.
So, what went wrong? How did the Congress turn the tables on the ruling party on an issue that kept it on the back foot all these months?
The BJP was far from convincing in their arguments that Saint Antony allowed kickbacks under his nose. When he was Kerala chief minister, his wife would travel by public transport. Old Congressmen from Kerala remember how Antony would rile many of his colleagues by coming to the party office at 10 am everyday. There are apocryphal tales about how they managed to send his old Ambassador, given by the party, for weeks to the repair garage. Much to their chagrin, he took the bus instead and continued his daily visit to the party headquarters.
As India’s defence minister, he sat on acquisition proposals, drawing flak for compromising on the country’s defence preparedness but didn’t expose himself to questions about any deal. Swamy and the BJP sought to absolve him – and former prime minister Manmohan Singh who is equally revered for his integrity – by insinuating that his hands might have been forced by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. These insinuations and innuendoes – which Singhvi said were meant to vilify Congress leaders – obviously didn’t carry conviction.
The debate on the chopper scam was taking place at a time when the ruling party faced many uncomfortable questions in parliament, be it the imposition of President’s rule in Uttarakhand, considerable dip in employment generation, and last but not the least, the alleged foreign policy flip-flops. That might be one of the reasons for the isolation of the BJP on this issue as regional parties chose to back the Congress or maintain an equidistance during the debate.
The BJP’s below par performance in the Rajya Sabha also underscored the absence of a talent pool in the ruling party. Parrikar read from a written document and gave extensive technical details as he reiterated the party’s charge in the chopper deal. But the IIT alumnus only drew yawns from those who were already weary after a four-and-a-half hours long debate. The Treasury benches sorely missed Arun Jaitley, the Leader of the House, who was on an official trip to Frankfurt. BJP strategists had better check the finance minister’s schedule before deciding on dates for tricky debates that require more of substance than often-misplaced exuberance and, what the opposition parties call ‘hubris’.