Amidst growing speculation about a serious rift within the government, the Congress – both the party and the government – closed ranks behind Home Minister P. Chidambaram even as a united Opposition demanded he resign over the 2G scam on the strength of a Finance Ministry note to the PMO.
The party's official – and unofficial view – is that the note does not contain any evidence of criminal culpability on the part of Mr. Chidambaram; it only reveals differing views on a policy issue within the government. The party also held that it was a moot question whether the courts had the jurisdiction to pronounce on a policy matter.
With both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee abroad, party sources said the resolution of this new controversy would have to await their return next week. On his part, the beleaguered Home Minister broke his silence on Thursday evening, issuing a brief statement, saying that both the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister had telephoned him and that he had assured the Prime Minister that he would “not make any public statement on the subject until he returns to India.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Mukherjee told journalists in Washington that he could not comment on a “sub judice” matter. But he referred to it while addressing Indian and American business leaders there, saying the note had surfaced, thanks to the Right to Information Act, a law the government had enacted to flush out corruption.
Cynics in the Congress, however, maintain that without a tip-off from an insider, the person who had filed the RTI application would not have known what to ask for. Indeed, within the party and the government there is growing concern about the fallout of the “open war” between Mr. Mukherjee and Mr. Chidambaram. Party sources said this was not the first time one or the other had sought to get at another, recalling the occasions on which Mr. Mukherjee's office was “bugged” in the chewing gum episode and another, when a critical story on an official close to the Finance Minister surfaced in a pink paper.
They also say that it needs to be sorted out by the two Ministers or, better still, by the Prime Minister. A senior party office bearer told The Hindu: “It is the Prime Minister's responsibility to ensure peace in his Council of Ministers.”
Officially, the government denied there were any differences: “There is no conflict, no rift in the government,” Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni told journalists, even as Law Minister Salman Khurshid stressed that there was “nothing of questionable nature on the conduct of P. Chidambaram... I can say this with full authority.”