January 24, 2020
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A New Gambit

BJP thwarts Congress' alliance plans by naming Swamy and Karunanidhi

A New Gambit

THIS is one political hostage that's never been freed. The Jain Commission of Inquiry has stumbled through its whole life buffeted by the equations of the day, used and abused as the situation variously demanded. By last week, as the BJP government tabled its 48-page action taken report (ATR) amid a welter of confusing responses, the whole enterprise seemed to have spun totally out of the realm of criminal investigation and entered another orbit: a nervy war of attrition between the BJP and the Congress, each cut and thrust meant to cramp the other's political leverage in a time of fluid alliances.

Ostensibly, the ATR proposes to get to the bottom of the conspiracy behind Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. But the sequence of events leading up to its tabling indicates the BJP saw it as an apt occasion to score a few personal 'hits' and, simultaneously, push the Congress into a corner. The original ATR only spoke of creating a multi-tier agency to pursue Jain's leads, but what was tabled was a redrafted document that draws from Jain's interim report to dwell overtly on figures like Subramanian Swamy and M. Karunanidhi, in the latter's case a bit fraudulently (see box). The manoeuvre had a dual advantage: both are convenient bogeymen for the BJP, and criminalising them in the context of the Rajiv case limits the extent to which the Congress can befriend either of the two blocs in Tamil Nadu.

The Congress' selective response betrayed its compulsions: it lauded M.C. Jain for a "commendable and courageous task" but unanimously rejected the hard-hitting ATR. Party spokesman Ajit Jogi and other MPs did launch a vitriolic attack on the DMK in Parliament, but the CWC kept mum. It did not demand either the dismissal of the DMK or the arrest of its leader, Karunanidhi. This, from a party which had created an uproar when Jain's interim report was leaked last year that culminated in the dismissal of the Gujral government on November 28, implied a clear shift in accent.

In public, the Congress says it has rejected the ATR because it does not contain Jain's recommendations to examine and prosecute 19 other suspects, which appear in Volume V of the final report. But the argument does not seem entirely convincing. Party insiders admit the ATR was rejected primarily to soft-pedal the focus on AIADMK ally Swamy and, to an extent, even the DMK.

Even so, it's circumscribed by the vocal line it took last time on the DMK. A CWC note prepared by Arjun Singh treads a curious ground: "The attempt in the ATR not to proceed any further against 19 of these 21 persons shows the mindset of the government in not wanting to probe the assassination fully and so to shield those who are clearly involved as demonstrated prima facie by the Jain Commission." Oblique hints follow on "the role of eminent persons, including political personalities within and outside Tamil Nadu."

On the face of it, the Congress' drive to target all individuals named in the report—including its own P.V. Narasimha Rao, accused of obstructing the inquiry and also moving proposals to wind up the panel—may well appear a legitimate demand. Yet, it does not justify an arbitrary rejection of the ATR, unless the Congress wants to keep its future options open with prospective allies. Here, the BJP has in one stroke taken the wind out of the sails of an ambitious Congress, which began the week with a call from Sonia Gandhi to partymen to girdle up for "responsibilities".

The Congress is truly in a Catch-22 state. Given the emotive nature of the case, it is obliged to take a stance that leaves it hamstrung in the current situation. The demand for a probe against the 19 individuals named by Jain will put regional players like Y. Gopalasamy, P.V. Rajendran and Kolathurmani from the MDMK, Tamil Maanila Congress and the DK respectively, in a spot. Thus, the Congress will unwittingly alienate itself from smaller allies.

Having been crucified once before, Karunanidhi reacted sharply. "I was cross-examined by the Jain Commission on oath and unlike some of them I was forthright, 'without withholding anything'. This reference that 'on many matters his interrogation was quite relevant' relates to my deposition. This innocuous sentence was unfairly and improperly taken out of context and used by the ATR to suit their own purposes which is reprehensible," he told Outlook. But the agitated denials may not hold in the face of a storm that threatens to leave everyone crippled in its wake.

THE ATR proposes the setting up of a Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency (MDMA), comprising officials from the CBI and intelligence agencies, to conduct further probes. The CWC wants the MDMA to examine the LTTE's landing points organised by Shanmugam and the movements of Sivarasan in Chennai which clearly show the role the state machinery played.

Nonetheless, the numbers game in the background has tempered the stridency in the Congress attack, even against the DMK. Whether this ambiguous tone stems from L.K. Advani's assurances that the "investigation will proceed on the lines suggested by the Congress", or has been influenced by political compulsions, is a moot question.

One theory is that the Jain report is an area on which both the BJP and the Congress are working in tandem and, therefore, the party isn't pressing the issue. But political arithmetic shows that if the Congress does make a bid for power, it will have to woo the Left, which is unlikely to dump the DMK. Till that happens, the Rajiv probe will serve as a tool in the political game.

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