Centre promises to bring in fresh legislation on land acquisition; party declares war on Mayawati, BSP

The Congress' dual strategy on Uttar Pradesh, which will go to the polls next year, unfolded on Thursday: even as the government promised to bring in fresh legislation on the contentious issue of land acquisition in the monsoon session of Parliament, the Congress brass in the government and party came out all guns blazing, declaring war on Chief Minister Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

If Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram announced, at a formal press conference in Shastri Bhavan, that the United Progressive Alliance government would bring in a new Land Acquisition Bill very soon, as it had succeeded in achieving a fair amount of consensus on it, at the Congress headquarters, party general secretary Digvijay Singh demanded a judicial inquiry into the firing last Saturday in Greater Noida that took four lives as well to investigate reports about the discovery of piles of human bones in the area.

Both men, separately, dismissed Ms. Mayawati's accusation that the Centre was responsible for the escalation of the agitation as it had failed to enact a fresh law on land acquisition. They pointed to the Congress-ruled Haryana where, thanks to a State government policy, land was being acquired from farmers amicably. Nothing prevented the U.P. Chief Minister, they said, from following the Haryana model, in the absence of a Central law.

The two briefings in the capital came in the wake of Wednesday's midnight drama over the arrest – and release – of Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi and Mr. Singh who spent a day in the village of Bhatta-Parsaul, which is at the epicentre of the agitation against the acquisition of farm land.

The press conference addressed by Mr. Chidambaram, along with Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni and Union Minorities Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, was the first effort by the newly minted Group of Ministers on the media.

Criticising Ms. Mayawati's handling of the farmers' protests, Mr. Chidambaram, however, ruled out sending a Central team to assess the situation. Referring to the proposed land acquisition law, he said, “The government has drafted a new Act that has provisions for better compensation, rehabilitation and other measures.” Consensus building had taken some time, he said, but now, “there is a fair degree of consensus on the law” and he was hopeful it would go through, “with some amendments.” To a question, he said he did not rule out the government bringing an ordinance in this regard.

Mr. Singh, answering a query on the proposed law, said he had spoken to Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Bannerjee, who had reservations about the Bill in its present form, and added that after the Assembly election results were out on Friday, there would be a fresh round of discussions.

Earlier, Ms. Soni, taking a swipe at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) for what she described as their attempt to politicise and hijack the land acquisition issue, said: “Many political parties have tried to use this protest to further their agenda but haven't been able to. The point to note is that Mayawati didn't react to any of them in the way she reacted to Rahul Gandhi. This is an indication that he did something right.”

Mr. Khurshid, responding to a question on the language Ms. Mayawati used to describe Mr. Gandhi's actions, said, “There are many words used in U.P. politics which are not very nice. We wouldn't like to comment on Ms. Mayawati's choice of words since we do not use such language ourselves. As far as Mr. Rahul Gandhi's actions are concerned, he is a leader from U.P. His popularity is on the rise not just within the Congress but also outside. That is what is giving Ms. Mayawati sleepless nights.”