Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will have to take a call on the Election Commission's letter to President Pratibha Patil, seeking her “immediate and decisive” intervention in the case of Union Law Minister Salman Khursheed, which has been despatched to him for “appropriate action.” The EC has accused Mr. Khursheed of repeatedly violated the Model Code of Conduct during the ongoing Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh.
The government now has no option but to respond to the matter swiftly, especially as it has been receiving wall-to-wall coverage on TV channels, with the Opposition parties, especially the Bharatiya Janata Party, demanding Mr. Khursheed's resignation. (It was the BJP which made the first complaint to the EC against the Minister on this issue). It is learnt that Mr. Khursheed spoke to the Prime Minister telephonically, giving his side of the story to him.
Government sources, however, indicated to The Hindu that as Mr. Khursheed's statements had been made in his capacity as a Congressman campaigning for his party, uttered as it were in the heat of battle, it should be regarded as falling in the “political” rather than in the “administrative” realm. Indeed, these sources stressed his job was not in danger.
Meanwhile, the Congress, too, stepped in officially to try and neutralise the situation. “The Election Commission is a constitutional body,” party general secretary and media chairperson Janardan Dwivedi said. “The Congress always wants all Congressmen to speak as per the norms of public life and the law of the land.” This was even as another party general secretary, who is in charge of U.P., Digvijay Singh defended Mr. Khursheed's promise that if elected to power in the State, the Congress would give religious minorities 9 per cent out of the 27.5 per cent OBC quota. The Law Minister, he said, was only repeating a manifesto promise.
The Minister appears to have got the message: there has been a perceptible softening in tone, as he refused on Sunday to respond to TV journalists on the latest developments in the controversy.
Opinion is divided on the wisdom of the line that Union Law Minister Salman Khursheed has adopted this far on the controversy surrounding his promise to voters in Uttar Pradesh —that if voted to power the Congress would give religious minorities 9 per cent out of the 27.5 per cent OBC quota. One view is that by provoking the Bharatiya Janata Party to attack him, he has pulled in Muslim votes for the Congress, and his wife, Louise Khurshid, who is contesting from Kaimganj. The other is that in U.P.'s world of “identity politics,” Mr. Khursheed is trying to fit in, projecting himself as a Muslim leader which, as party colleagues stress, is “uncharacteristic of him.” Yet others say that Mr. Khursheed's statements, especially when he said he would repeat what he had said, even if the EC “hanged him,” could be the “thin end of the wedge.”
A senior Congress leader also said that while party manifestos had spoken of reservation for religious minorities, Mr. Khursheed need not have mentioned a specific figure as “no government or party decision” had been taken on the 9 per cent matter. Nevertheless, he, too, stressed that “a solution will be found to the current impasse.”
For the BJP, the reservation controversy has come in handy. The party — indeed the entire Sangh parivar — has mounted a massive campaign in U.P., seeking to consolidate the Hindu vote by saying the Constitution does not permit a quota on religious lines while telling Hindu OBCs that the Congress is giving a slice of its 27.5 per cent pie to Muslims.