New Delhi: It's now Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s turn to take centrestage on behalf of the UPA government and provide a cover to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the coal blocks allocation controversy. At a meeting of the Congress parliamentary party she made strong statements against the BJP, and said that “blackmail has become the bread and butter of BJP.”
The BJP did not take it lying down either. It reminded her of her party's behaviour during the so-called "coffin scandal" after the Kargil war, when the Congress went all out against Defence Minister George Fernandes during the NDA regime. The party, it seems, has been itching to bring Sonia into this raging political controversy over coal, but she has so far not made any substantive comment on the issue.
Coincidentally, around the time Sonia was addressing Congress parliamentary party, the BJP brass, including LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, were holding their parliamentary party meeting on the other side of Parliament House.
Sonia, in what seemed like shoring up her alliances before the full-scale war with BJP, made a brief effort to meet Mulayam Singh Yadav before today's Lok Sabha session. No one knew what transpired, but the gesture itself is seen as significant in the context of reports that Mulayam Singh wants to toe his own line on the coal blocks issue.
Both sides, Congress and BJP, are also critically aware that public perceptions are now important rather than the niceties of parliamentary practice. They are thus preparing to brief their MPs with talking points to take to their constituencies.
Between this monsoon session of Parliament and the winter session are important assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, where the two main national parties will be pitted head to head. Sonia told Congress leaders to focus on the coming elections and directed them to reach out to the people.
For the BJP, it is important to keep making convincing arguments to their MPs on two counts: why they are targeting the Prime Minister and, why they are stalling both houses of Parliament with this demand for his ouster. They have to convince the MPs that this strategy is working.
In the Congress, the MPs need to be convinced that the Prime Minister has been innocent in this case as ever, and that he had acted in best interests of the nation. If anyone had to be blamed for CAG’s loss figure of Rs 1.86 lakh crore in the allocation of coal blocks, it was the then BJP-ruled states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and the Left-ruled state of West Bengal and the BJD-ruled Odisha.
The BJP has now begun scaling up its demand. It is using a few sentences from the Prime Minister’s statement to its own benefit. The party, for instance, is now saying that since the Prime Minister has owned responsibility for whatever decisions were taken by the coal ministry when he was minister in charge of that ministry, he must also practice accountability. “Responsibility must be accompanied with accountability”, Deputy Leader of the BJP in the Rajya Sabha, Ravi Shankar Prasad, said after the parliamentary party meet.
With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh out of the country for a four-day tour to Iran, the Congress and the BJP seem to have their tasks cut out for them. They have to keep the pot boiling till he returns.