Manmohan backs Home Minister as Opposition calls for his ouster over 2G scam

Amidst growing speculation on a serious rift within his government, and even as a united Opposition demanded that P. Chidambaram quit over the 2G scam on the strength of a Finance Ministry note to the PMO, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to his Home Minister's rescue. On board Air India One, en route to New York, he told journalists: “So far as Mr. Chidambaram is concerned, he enjoyed my confidence as Finance Minister and he continues to enjoy my confidence as Home Minister.” To another question on the “war” between the Ministers of Finance and Home, he said: “I do not want to interpret this as a fight among my Ministers.”

The Prime Minister's unequivocal defence of Mr. Chidambaram came on the heels of the Congress — both the party and the government — closing ranks behind the Home Minister.

The party's official — and unofficial — view is that the note does not contain any evidence of criminal culpability on the part of Mr. Chidambaram; it only reveals differing views on a policy issue within the government. The party also held that it was a moot question whether courts had the jurisdiction to pronounce on a policy matter.

With both the Prime Minister and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee abroad, party sources said a resolution of this new controversy would have to await their return next week. But Dr. Singh's public defence on Thursday itself would suggest that he had realised the gravity of the situation. Earlier in the day, the beleaguered Home Minister broke his silence, issuing a brief statement, saying both the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister had telephoned him and that he had assured the Prime Minister that he would “not make any public statement on the subject until he returns to India.”

In Washington, Mr. Mukherjee told journalists that he could not comment on a “sub judice” matter. But he referred to it while addressing Indian and American business leaders there, saying the note had surfaced, thanks to the Right to Information Act, a law the government had enacted to flush out corruption.

Cynics in the Congress, however, maintain that without a tip-off from an insider the person who had filed the RTI application would not have known what to ask for. Indeed, within the party and the government there is growing concern about the fallout of the “open war” between Mr. Mukherjee and Mr. Chidambaram. Party sources said this was not the first time either of them sought to get at the other, recalling the occasions on which Mr. Mukherjee's office was “bugged” in the chewing gum episode and when a critical story on an official close to the Finance Minister surfaced in a pink paper. The sources also say that it needs to be sorted out by the two Ministers, or better still by the Prime Minister. A senior party office-bearer told The Hindu: “It is the Prime Minister's responsibility to ensure peace in his Council of Ministers.”

(With inputs from Praveen Swami in New York)

More In: National | News