Concern in party over isolating Arjun Singh
The Congress, pushed to defend its record in dealing with the Bhopal gas tragedy case, was once again in fire fighting mode. On Friday evening, the party's core committee — consisting of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, her Political Secretary Ahmed Patel, Union Ministers Pranab Mukherjee, P. Chidambaram and A.K. Antony — decided, highly placed sources told The Hindu, that “the government, not the party, would have to clarify” on the various aspects of the case, as “the facts are only with the government.”
The party was concerned, the sources said, that the former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi's image should not be tarnished by the current controversy.
There was also anxiety in party circles that the continuing attempt to “isolate” and “humiliate” the former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Arjun Singh, might provoke him into breaking his silence on the chain of events — and phone calls — that led to Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson being given safe passage out of Bhopal and the country. The BJP, smelling blood, has naturally pitched in: Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chauhan has written to Mr. Singh asking for an explanation for Mr. Anderson's “flight” from Bhopal and also for a panel of legal experts to examine the trial court judgment.
Earlier, a Cabinet Minister told The Hindu that the government had hoped the announcement of the reconstituted Group of Ministers (GOM) on Bhopal, with its wide ranging mandate, would help quell public anger and Opposition fire. But with the controversy continuing to rage on in the media, and a growing dramatis personae stepping on the stage with revelations and accusations, the Minister said, the Congress was being compelled to answer questions. The Minister also stressed the need to ensure that Rajiv Gandhi was not dragged into the mire.
‘Facts will be unearthed'
Indeed, party spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan on Friday emphatically stated that there was “no question of the Rajiv Gandhi government being implicated,” and that the GoM would unearth all facts about the case. “All facts need to be brought out about how Warren Anderson escaped,” she said, adding, “all avenues should be explored to arrive at the truth.”
The sources said the Congress might also go on the offensive and question why the NDA government, which was in power for six years, did nothing to push for extradition of Mr. Anderson.
Defending Mr. Chidambaram and his Cabinet colleague, Kamal Nath — who reportedly advised the government not to press Dow Chemicals for remediation charges as the company was prepared to invest in India — Ms. Natarajan said: “It is not right to cast aspersions on Ministers who gave an opinion on an issue, without knowing the context.”
On Friday, P.C. Alexander, then Principal Secretary to Rajiv Gandhi, hinted that Mr Gandhi might have released Mr. Anderson in consultation with Mr. Singh. His remarks drew an angry response from Congress leader R.K. Dhawan, private secretary to Mr. Gandhi when he was Prime Minister. Mr. Dhawan alleged that since the Congress had not backed Mr. Alexander's BJP-sponsored candidature for President, he was now taking revenge. Defending Rajiv Gandhi, Mr. Dhawan pinned the blame squarely on Mr. Singh, saying Rajiv Gandhi would never have put pressure on any Chief Minister.
Meanwhile, Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh too modified his statement about the possibility of “U.S. pressure”: “I was campaigning and really don't know the events which led to the bail and release of Mr. Anderson,” he said. Those who could answer questions were Mr. Arjun Singh, and the then senior officials of the State government, he pointed out, stressing that Rajiv Gandhi had left his campaign and rushed to Bhopal to meet the families of the victims.