Virendra Kapoor

Not all is well within the Congress party. Senior Congressmen outside chief Sonia Gandhi's inner circle are seething with rage at the naivete of the party leadership. Scores of party MPs and ordinary workers are furious that the tremendous advantage they got from the tehekla controversy has been squandered.

Instead of keeping the heat on the Vajpayee government, the Congress leadership revealed its Achilles heel by making an issue of the alleged inquiry into the charges levelled against Sonia by Janata Party chief Subramanian Swamy.

Several senior Congress MPs were aghast that their party should disrupt the functioning of Parliament merely because Minister Of Personnel Vasundhara Raje referred Swamy's charges against Sonia to the CBI. "If she has really got nothing to fear, and if those charges are without any basis, why should she fear an investigation into the same?" was their argument. By making an issue of a preliminary inquiry into the charges, most Congress leaders felt the party had yielded advantage to the NDA government.

It is not that the coterie around Sonia -- including Ambika Soni, Arjun Singh, M L Fotedar and Jaipal Reddy -- does not see the unwisdom of making an issue of a preliminary inquiry. It does. But fearing a rebuff from Sonia, no one dare suggest that any protest against the inquiry would be a sign of weakness on her part and would play straight into the hands of her critics.

Several Congressmen noted how former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao gallantly fought his own legal battle in the JMM MPs bribery case, without involving the party in any way. Rao, they hasten to point out, was only accused in the JMM case because he tried to save the party's government.

In sharp contrast, Swamy's charges against Sonia have nothing to do with the Congress party. They pertain to her having allegedly amassed illicit wealth -- he put the figure at Rs 4,750 crores -- for herself and her family back in Turin.

The last word on the affair came from a former minister in the Rao government. "Sonia's past cannot, will not, stand scrutiny. So long as she heads the party, the Congress will be vulnerable." Exactly.

Isn't that what the Vajpayee government seems to be doing to take the sting out of the attack on it, post-tehelka?

Bulldozer Jagmohan no more

For once, eager-beaver Union Minister for Urban Welfare Jagmohan seems to have bitten more than he can chew. He had a 50-year-old Arya Samaj temple in Minto Road near Connaught Place demolished, despite protests by senior BJP leaders and leading Arya Samajis. Two days after the demolition, the Arya Samajis held a demonstration against him outside Parliament. Soon after, he was ticked off by both Prime Minister Vajpayee and Union Home Minister L K Advani and virtually ordered to allow the temple to be rebuilt at the very site where it stood before he had it razed to the ground.

Indeed, Jagmohan may have used the bulldozer once too often for his own good. As it is, there is increasing criticism that, instead of being urban welfare minister for the entire country, he often behaves as if he were concerned only with Delhi. Even here, he concentrates on New Delhi, which is his parliamentary constituency.

The beautification of New Delhi served him in two ways: since the media is concentrated here, it burnished his image as a no-nonsense minister and ensured his re-election. The BJP leadership, though, believes such self-centred conduct might cost the party dear outside the city's limited confines. Hence, the decision at the party's highest level to curb Jagmohan's natural penchant for riding the bulldozer!

Jayalalitha's legal nemesis

Is AIADMK supremo Jayalalitha qualified to contest the assembly election following her conviction and sentence in one of the several corruption cases now at varying stages of progress in various courts in the state? A clear answer to that question would lie in the following precedent thoughtfully quoted by a senior law officer of the Himachal Pradesh government.

In 1993, when the HP assembly election was announced, Ramesh Singha's appeal in a criminal case, in which he had been convicted by the sessions court, and which had been upheld by the high court, was pending with the Supreme Court. He approached the SC for permission to contest the assembly election. The apex court refused to say anything, leaving it to the election officer to consider the matter in the light of the appropriate law.

Singha contested and duly won the poll. On a petition challenging his election on the ground that his nomination papers were wrongly accepted, the HP high court pronounced the following verdict: 'Singha's election is void as he is disqualified... having been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for a period of more than two years. The SC order suspending the sentence till the pendenacy of his appeal does not arrest the disqualification, which was in operation on the date of scrutiny of his nomination...' The SC too upheld the order, voiding Singha's election to the state assembly.

Now, cut to the present. Jayalalitha has been sentenced to imprisonment for two and three years respectively on two counts in the same case. Her appeal against the conviction is pending. But her disqualification under the People's Representation Act is still operative. Therefore, if she contests and wins the seat in next month's assembly poll, she too could find her election held null and void.

Back to the Congress

Let's wrap this week with the Congress. Its members are training their guns against what they call the 'Khatri quartet,' which had wound its way into Sonia Gandhi's parlour. The Khatris in question are former finance minister Manmohan Singh (Kohli), Kamal Nath (Malhotra), Ambika Soni and R K Dhawan. The last-named is back in favour, now that his bete noire Vincent George is lying low following his arraignment in a disproportionate assets case.

Caricatures: Uttam Ghosh

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