The UPA government is once again in multiple crisis management mode. Two of them are self-created: it should have known that trying to push through an anti-rape law within the deadline of 22 March without a wider political consensus would have been tough; there was also no need for Union Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma to call Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav a protector and friend of terrorists. The third crisis was also one the UPA could have anticipated, given the emotive nature of the Sri Lankan Tamils issue in this southern state.
But Crisis it is with a capital C. There is no other reason why the Congress it would have to rush three senior cabinet ministers, AK Antony, P Chidambaram and Ghulam Nabi Azad, to Chennai to cajole and pacify DMK chief M Karunanidhi to prevent him from pulling out of the UPA. What is comforting for Congress strategists is Karunanidhi's past track record: he has cried wolf many times without carrying out his threats. He has been the UPA's most reliable ally.
His latest threat probably falls in the same category, but a beleaguered UPA is not taking any chances. After all, this time around politics on the Sri Lankan Tamils issue has become far more competitive with AIADMK chief and Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa taking the fight to the centre, making it difficult for Karunanidhi to accept mere face-savers.
The DMK insists that India should push for amendments to the resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Commission to incorporate its demand for an international probe into alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan army towards the fag end of its onslaught against the LTTE. It also wants time-bound action against those found guilty. The resolution will come up for voting at the UNHRC in Geneva on 21 March.
In his letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, Karunanidhi said he felt "let down" by the "lukewarm" response of the government.
Karunanidhi later told media persons that if his demands were not met, then "it is doubtful whether our ties with the alliance (UPA) will continue". The prime minister promptly sent a long reply to him, and External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said the decision on the vote in the UNHRC would be taken after consulting the DMK and other allies. DMK has for long been sulking, particularly since the arrest of A Raja and Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi in 2G cases, but other political compulsions have forced it to remain within the UPA. The DMK has 18 MPs in Lok Sabha.
Even if this crisis blows over by tonight, two more are brewing up for tomorrow when Parliament takes up business at 11 am. The all-party meeting on the anti-rape bill will try to resolve the differences between the government and other parties broadly on three contentious issues: these include reducing the age of consensual sex from 18 to 16 (which some parties are against), and making voyeurism and stalking non-bailable offences (which the SP is against). There are some other sticking points also.
The government has completely goofed up on the issue. It unnecessarily brought an ordinance ahead of the budget session of Parliament, and then, under pressure from some women's activists, papered over some of the differences in its own cabinet to clear the Bill to replace the ordinance. It is now hoping the all-party meet will sort out the mess. Since the ordinance is already there and has to be ratified by Parliament within the stipulated period in order to avoid lapsing, the government has to get the bill passed by 22 March. Despite opposition to various provisions, the government will press the bill in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday for passage.
The government’s floor managers are hoping that given the public sensitivities on this bill, no political party will carry its objections beyond a point, particularly when the debate is broadcast live. A large number of MPs are apprehensive that in an election year, the stringent provisions of the bill could be misused against them. The government is inclined to consider amendments to raise the consensual age for sex to 18 and diluting the legal provisions against voyeurism and stalking, but much would depend on what the other parties think, and particularly the Samajwadi Party. The Trinamool Congress has brought in another sticky point. It says that since the law has to be implemented by the states, the state governments concerned should have been consulted in advance.
But before the government can table the bill in the Lok Sabha, it has to successfully contain the damage on another front. An agitated Mulayam Singh Yadav is demanding an apology and the sacking of Beni Prasad Verma, Union Steel Minister. Verma, a political turncoat from the Samajwadi Party, was handpicked by Rahul Gandhi in the run-up to the 2009 parliamentary elections and has since been a prominent Congress campaigner in Uttar Pradesh. The Samajwadi Party thrice forced an adjournment of the Lok Sabha today and is not expected to allow Parliament to function if his demands are not met - including an apology from Beni Verma.
Though Congress General Secretary and head of the media department Janardhan Dwivedi has distanced the party from the minister's remarks on Mulayam Singh and cautioned him to mind his language, the Samajwadi Party is not inclined to yield so easily. With 22 MPs, it supports the UPA government from the outside. It is also opposed to various provisions of the new anti-rape bill. The Beni Prasad Verma issue provides it with a convenient alibi to stall the bill. How the government settles the Verma-Yadav row would impact the anti-rape bill.