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Jumping The Gun?

Despite the inquiry against him, Fernandes gets his job back

Jumping The Gun?
Jitender Gupta
Jumping The Gun?
The Girl Friend is back. On October 15, George Fernandes, codenamed 'Girl Friend' by the capital's babudom because of his initials, returned to the defence ministry under the same cloud he had left. In March, he had quit on moral grounds saying he wouldn't return until absolved of the charges levelled against him in the Tehelka tapes controversy. But before the Venkataswami Commission, looking into the case, could conclude its proceedings, Fernandes has been reinstated in a surprise move by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee.

Justifying his decision, the PM offered this simplistic explanation: "There is no case against Fernandes. The commission has found no evidence against him." By stating this, the PM seemed to have pre-judged the commission's findings. Significantly, the advance reprieve for Fernandes came close on the heels of a rebuff from the commission—a ruling that the Tehelka tapes were not doctored, as alleged by Fernandes. Cabinet sources say the PM took President K.R. Narayanan into confidence and consulted legal experts before he made his move.

Understandably, the PM's clean chit has sparked off a controversy and angered the Opposition. Asks Congress spokesperson Jaipal Reddy, "Why constitute a commission of inquiry if you are not going to wait for its report?" The Opposition has made it clear that Fernandes' return would figure in a big way when Parliament convenes in the third week of November.

But why did the PM rush in to reinstate Fernandes, virtually bypassing the Venkataswami panel? The explanation being offered is that Jaswant Singh was finding it difficult to handle both the defence portfolio and the mea simultaneously and that post September 11, Vajpayee needed a tough, full-fledged defence minister and Fernandes fitted the bill. According to a source in the pmo, Vajpayee went ahead despite being aware of the possible fallout. Says the source: "The PM took a calculated risk. He has taken risks before and survived. For example, the media and the Opposition flayed him for his comments on Ayodhya last year. But he survived."

There have also been suggestions that Fernandes bolstered his case with the help of the rss. In recent months, the Samata Party leader had become close to the Sangh and had even spoken out against labour reforms and the government's economic policies from rss platforms. Did his proximity to rss veteran Madandass Devi and ideologue Nanaji Deshmukh influence Fernandes' reinduction? bjp sources say the PM doesn't always appease the rss and the Sangh alone couldn't have won Fernandes his job back.

BJP circles claim that the Jaswant Singh factor was an important criterion for the cabinet expansion. Last month, during a Cabinet Committee on Security meeting, Singh had argued that the two ministries—external affairs and defence—should be clubbed together. This did not find any takers since the focus of the two ministries were so different—the defence minister has to be a hawk and the foreign minister a dove. Jaswant Singh, say many in the BJP, was too soft to handle the defence portfolio, particularly in the post-September 11 scenario.

Within the nda and the Samata Party as well, there is some measure of disquiet over the sudden reinduction. The day after the comeback, Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna carried a stinging editorial, titled George ki suraksha ya desh ki? (George's safety or the nation's?). Sena MP Sanjay Nirupam is openly critical. "Having resigned on moral grounds, he should wait for the commission to give him a clean chit. If the government was to decide on this, then why constitute a commission of inquiry?" he asks.

Other NDA constituents are not as vocal. For the record, they don't question Fernandes' reinduction. But in private, nda leaders admit the PM shouldn't have done what he did. According to a dmk MP, if Jaswant Singh was finding two portfolios too tough, the bjp could have found another replacement as an interim arrangement.

Moreover, others point out that if Fernandes now says he's innocent, why had he gone through the resignation drama in the first place? And why was there a need to appoint a commission if the government did not have the patience to wait for its findings? These are contradictions the government can't explain and one the Opposition will certainly capitalise on.

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