Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's comments on the cash-for-votes controversy at the India Today Conclave here on Friday took his Cabinet colleagues by surprise, senior Congress sources said, with some worrying about how the Opposition would react to a statement made outside Parliament.
Dr. Singh's exclusive use of the personal pronoun in denying the bribery charge also raised eyebrows in political circles.
“I am not aware of any acts of purchase of votes. I have not authorised anyone,” Dr. Singh said in response to a question, even as he admitted that the WikiLeaks controversy had affected the image of the government at home and abroad, and underscored the need for electoral reform.
However, he refused to be drawn into a direct response on the U.S. diplomatic cables, saying that the affected persons had already responded, casting doubts on their veracity.
Later, senior Congress sources tried to play down the remarks saying that the Prime Minister had not spoken outside the House on a policy issue. But evidently, anticipating trouble from the Opposition, senior leaders decided that it was Dr. Singh who should make a statement on the WikiLeaks issue in Parliament. And when he did speak, he made it clear that no one from the government or the ruling party had been involved in bribery.
The official party position is that since the Opposition was targeting the Prime Minister, it would not be satisfied with a statement from anyone else. But till Thursday night the plan, the sources said, was that Friday's statement would be made by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee.
Interestingly, Mr. Mukherjee's own remarks in Parliament on Thursday were originally meant to be delivered by External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, or at least that is what the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and Congress managers wanted.
The talking points were settled by the PMO after some inter-departmental consultation, but Mr. Krishna, the sources said, eventually indicated that any statement on the controversial U.S. Embassy cable was better delivered by Mr. Mukherjee, the government's chief trouble-shooter.
So it was Mr. Mukherjee who took the floor in the Rajya Sabha to declare that the allegations contained in the cables related to the 14th Lok Sabha, which was dissolved in May 2009, and the government of the day was a newly elected one, accountable to the 15th Lok Sabha.
He also said that as the cables detailed the correspondence between a sovereign government and its mission abroad, it was not possible for the government to either confirm or deny their contents.
By Friday, the government's line hardened further with Dr. Singh questioning the very existence of the cables.