Inside — and outside — Parliament, Congress managers have in recent weeks spent a fair amount of time talking to Opposition leaders in a bid to build consensus on a range of issues, the most significant, of course, relating to the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill. But, if the last few days are any indication, the communication lines within the party are clearly crossed.
Less than 24 hours after Rajya Sabha member K. Keshava Rao — a permanent invitee to the Congress Working Committee — led the opposition to the passage of the Education Tribunal Bill piloted by Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal, Home Minister P. Chidambaram, at his monthly briefing, justified the use of the expression “saffron terror,” days after Congress media cell chairperson Janardan Dwivedi said terror had no colour, and care should be taken while using words.
Barely had Mr. Chidambaram defended himself, saying that as the phrase had brought home the message of right-wing terror, its purpose had been served, when top sources in his party stressed that Mr. Dwivedi's remarks did not represent his individual views but were made on behalf of the Congress. Almost immediately after that, Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh, who in the past crossed swords with the Home Minister on how to deal with the Maoist issue, also took a swipe at him on his ‘saffron terror' remarks. “I have objection to the use of caste, colour and religion,” Mr. Singh told journalists “to describe terror … In India, saffron is associated with valour and has religious connotations.”
Of course, when pressed on whether there were differences between him and the party, Mr. Chidambaram said “the party is supreme.” Stressing he had no “patent” on the phrase “saffron terrorism,” he pointed out that it had been used by several others in the past including some UPA members, apart from the fact that there had been a parliamentary debate on “saffronisation of education” in 2001.
But even as the full import of the saffron debate was sinking in, Congress functionaries said Mr. Rao's outburst against Mr. Sibal in the Rajya Sabha on Monday, when he described the Minister as a “first class file pusher,” deeply embarrassed the party and was a classic sign of the growing indiscipline in the party. (Indeed, Mr. Sibal, it is learnt, called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday evening to complain about mismanagement in the House.) “The Bill had been cleared by the Cabinet, and the Lok Sabha,” said a party functionary, adding, “If Keshava Rao still had reservations about the Bill, there are party fora on which he could have taken it up.”
Curiously, party leaders, however, publicly defended Mr. Rao. While Mr. Dwivedi said, “the Congress is a democratic party and listens to everyone,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal too came to his rescue: “The essence of democracy is that MPs express their views.” He then qualified his remark by adding, “The same member [Mr. Rao] said he was not opposing the bill.”
Clearly, it is time for some stocktaking in the Congress, as it winds itself to the end of another round of organisational elections, unless it feels that this babble of voices is the best way to occupy the entire political space.