Sonia, exposed               Virendra Kapoor
   May 7, 2002

The Lok Sabha debate over Gujarat brought out both the best and the worst in its members. Though, for the most part, they indulged in shouting and counter-shouting or in mouthing political polemics, there were some moments of wit, of sharp repartee and put-downs.

The Congress was hard put to respond to accusations from the ruling benches that they were acting as bonded labour for their clueless leader, Sonia Gandhi, who was seen inciting them to create a racket, especially when Defence Minister George Fernandes was in full flow.

Somewhere in the melee, Buta Singh made the mistake of justifying the 1984 slaughter of over 3,000 innocents in the nation's capital, saying they were related to the fight against terrorism. Immediately seizing upon Singh's unfortunate remark, the Samata Party's Prabhunath Singh got up and told the former Union home minister to desist from defending the indefensible: "Once in the past, you were made to clean shoes in order to earn the forgiveness of the Sikh priests after being dubbed a tankhiya [outcaste]; now, do not do something that will make you clean shoes again," he counselled Singh, even as he moved his hands over an imaginary pair of shoes.

Fernandes, a passionate and highly articulate speaker in both Hindi and English, had, as is his wont, set out to rile Sonia. One must concede he succeeded in his objective within seconds of standing up, considering how Sonia's troops peppered Fernandes with invective and gesticulations. But Fernandes was more than a match for a score of Congress members. It was during this free-for-all that a Congress member alluded to the Mandal reservations and something Fernandes had done or not done in connection with those reservations.

Fernandes' response indicated he was waiting for such a taunt as, in a jiffy, he encapsulated a history of those reservations, all the while looking Sonia in the eye. It was India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, he said, who had set up the Backward Classes Commission under the chairmanship of Kaka Kalelkar. And then, pointing at the leader of the Opposition, he told her loudly, "Of course, you will know nothing of these things because, for you, Indian history started only a couple of years ago."

More from the Gujarat front

There were other vignettes during the debate. Here, for your edification, are some of them:

Pravin Rashtrapal, the Congress member representing Patan, Gujarat, spoke about the viciousness of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad-Bajrang Dal and other Sangh Parivar outfits and the atrocities allegedly committed by their members against the Muslims. The tirade made a BJP member from Gujarat get up and ask Rashtrapal who had killed his nephew in the communal carnage.

Rashtrapal refused to look at the BJP member, but the latter had, by then, been joined by a host of others who asked if the Congress member's bhatija (nephew) too had been killed in the communal violence by Hindu mobs. Rashtrapal maintained a silence.

At another stage, when an Opposition member quoted from a newspaper statement, where someone claiming to be a Shankaracharya had condemned the Sangh Parivar and its outfits, ruling party members rushed to their feet and challenged the member to reveal the Shankaracharya's name. A commotion ensued, during which BJP members called the nameless Shankaracharya all manner of names, while the Opposition member maintained a stony silence.

Sonia's most embarrassing moment perhaps came when a Samata Party member drew the House's attention on a supposed point of order and declared with a straight face that "the Delhi high court has admitted a PIL (public interest litigation) filed by Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy and issued a notice to the Centre as to why the charge of stealing antiques and exporting the same to Italy and her false declaration while becoming an agent of the Life Insurance Corporation long before she had become the citizen of India" should not lead to her expulsion from the House and her arrest. Gandhi shrunk in her bench even as her followers tried to shout down the Samata Party member.

Foot-in-the-mouth Aiyar

Late in the night, the Congress party's Mani Shankar Aiyar entered the picture by scoring a self-goal. Looking George Fernandes in the eye, he said the Indian Army was pretending to defend the borders. At which, all hell broke loose. It was past three in the morning, but the ruling party members were ready to pounce on such remarks. Member after member from the Treasury benches demanded an apology and expunction of this 'slur' on the army.

Aiyar was unwilling to make amends. Even as the commotion in the House reached a crescendo, Sonia was seen thumping her bench, egging Aiyar to go ahead with his speech. Sonia's action immediately brought Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan to his feet. "It is disgraceful for the leader of the Opposition to support the slur on the fair name of the Indian Army by endorsing the offending remark of her party member. We could never expect that the leader of the Opposition could be a party to such unIndian conduct..."

Sonia was suitably chastened and sat quietly even as ruling party members kept up a noisy racket for "an apology from Aiyar and expunction of the offending remark." Despite Deputy Speaker P M Sayeed's repeated pleas that he would see the record later and that Aiyar be allowed to continue with his speech, ruling party members insisted he check the records and expunge the offending remark immediately. Sayeed then instructed Aiyar to apologise, which the member did grudgingly.

Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh

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