Even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh directed the recently reconstituted Group of Ministers (GoM) on Bhopal to complete its deliberations and report to the Cabinet within 10 days, Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan on Monday challenged the BJP to explain what it had done while in power to further the extradition of the former Union Carbide chairman, Warren Anderson.
In the morning, the Prime Minister's Office issued a statement asking the 11-member GoM, headed by Home Minister P. Chidambaram, to “take stock of the situation arising out of the recent court judgment” and “assess the options and remedies available to the government on the various issues involved” and report back to the Cabinet within 10 days.
The GoM, reconstituted on May 26 — before the June 7 court verdict — had been asked, according to the government order, to “examine all the issues relating to the Bhopal gas leak, including remediation measures and make appropriate recommendations regarding relief and rehabilitation of the Bhopal gas victims and their families.”
Indeed, even though the GoM's terms of reference are wide enough, party sources said, the political fallout of last week's court verdict had ensured that the emphasis had shifted from “remediation measures” and “relief and rehabilitation of the victims” (though that remains part of the mandate) to also exploring whether the government has any further legal options.
This is because the thrust of the criticism has been that the Congress, while in power, failed to guarantee punishment commensurate with the horror of the Bhopal tragedy. Today, the seven accused in the 1984 gas tragedy have been given two-year sentences and all are out on bail. On Sunday, Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the Centre would explore the possibility of extraditing Mr. Anderson while examining all “legal angles and procedures” to see if it was possible to appeal against the Bhopal court ruling.
The PMO directive comes in the wake of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's challenge to Congress president Sonia Gandhi to reveal who was Bhopal's maut ka saudagar (merchant of death), and the party's core group meeting on Friday which took stock of the situation following the political uproar over the court verdict.
Meanwhile, in a rearguard action, the Congress attacked the BJP frontally. Ms Natarajan pointed out that the BJP-led NDA had done nothing to extradite Mr. Anderson. She said its Attorney-General Soli Sorabjee backtracked on his advice on extradition, giving one opinion in 2001, and later saying that extradition would not be possible. “The BJP should explain to the nation,” she said, “why their government betrayed the victims of Bhopal.” She also stressed that the BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh government had rejected the Centre's suggestion to set up a Bhopal commission to fight for the rights and rehabilitation of the victims.
She also took on Mr. Modi saying that given his record of “divisive, disruptive and communal” politics he did “not have the stature” or “moral authority” to speak about Ms. Gandhi.