The Congress appears to be speaking in many voices on what has become a key question in the Bhopal gas tragedy case: who facilitated the exit of the former Union Carbide chairman, Warren Anderson, from India in December 1984?
With a number of officials, from the then district magistrate Moti Singh to the then director of Madhya Pradesh Aviation R.C. Sondhi and the pilot who flew Mr. Anderson out confirming that he was whisked out of Bhopal, there is growing pressure on the Congress to reveal under whose instructions a “known absconder” was allowed to escape.
This is because the finger of suspicion is being pointed not just at the former Chief Minister Arjun Singh — who met Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Monday, shortly after the Bhopal court verdict — but also at the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was in power at the time of the tragedy, Congress sources said.
First, on Wednesday, the former Union Minister, Vasant Sathe, said “rogue” elements at the Centre in 1984 helped Mr. Anderson flee the country. Then on Thursday, Mr. Sathe accused the then MP government of colluding with “some people” at the Centre, “probably in the Home Ministry,” in helping Mr. Anderson escape. (P.V. Narasimha Rao was the Union Home Minister at the time of the gas leak.)
Pressed on who was responsible for Mr. Anderson's escape, Mr. Sathe told journalists: “The collector [Moti Singh] says he got orders from the Chief Secretary...The best person for the media to direct these queries to would be Arjun Singh ji.”
This was followed by Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh (who is currently in the United States) telling a TV channel that while he was not in Bhopal at the time of the gas leak, he believes “U.S. pressure” could have influenced the way the government tackled the disaster. This comment is being read in party circles, Congress sources said, as a defence of Mr. Arjun Singh, his old mentor.
Interestingly, the comment comes a few days after B.R. Lall — the CBI official who was in charge of the investigation in 1994-95 during Rao's prime ministership — claimed that the Ministry of External Affairs at the time had asked the CBI to go slow on pressing for Mr. Anderson's extradition.
Simultaneously, Congress Working Committee member Satyavrat Chaturvedi — who is from MP like Mr. Arjun Singh and Mr. Digvijay Singh — deflected the attack on the Centre (Mr. Gandhi's government) by holding the MP government responsible for Mr. Anderson's escape.
Stressing that the incident took place in Bhopal, Mr. Chaturvedi said: “The State government arrested Anderson and bail was given to him there the same day. He was sent to Delhi by a State government plane, and from there he went to America. Where is the role of the Central government? In this we only see the role of the State government.”
Finally, in an attempt to end the controversy, Congress media chairperson Janardan Dwivedi said: “The Congress has always maintained that in all cases where a human tragedy is involved, all questions must be answered and responsibility faced. This is the party's policy and applies to the present case.”
Pushed to explain the cacophony of voices in the party, Mr. Dwivedi said: “As far as expressing personal views are concerned, individuals may differ, but what I have stated is the party's policy.”
But this statement, far from bringing closure, is being interpreted in party circles as a challenge to Mr. Arjun Singh. A party functionary said: “This sounds like a challenge to Mr. Arjun Singh. What will happen if he now comes out and accuses some Central leader?”
Meanwhile, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi — who is senior counsel for the U.S.-based Dow Chemicals (which bought Union Carbide and its Indian investments in 1997) — dismissed accusations that there was a conflict of interest involved in his representing the company.
Mr. Singhvi told a TV channel: “This is an old case...it involves only the threshold legal question — whether Dow is the same as, or even remotely related to, Union Carbide India Limited [UCIL]. For three to four years, NGOs have been trying to prove Dow and UCIL are the same. Courts have not accepted this...the application is still pending.”