Congress spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy spelt out the aggressive Opposition strategy: "POTO has been in effect for seven weeks now, de facto and de jure. Did it prevent the attack on Parliament? If anything, this incident is proof of its ineffectiveness." A stand echoed verbatim by the Samajwadi Party, the RJD and the Left Front.
The second element of the Opposition’s tack is to focus on the phenomenal "security lapse" which allowed such a bold attack, despite the government having been forewarned, in the wake of the September 11 strikes in the US, that India was on the terrorists’ hit list. "Kah karkay hamla kiya hai (They had virtually announced the attack). The Mumbai police had warned Parliament would be attacked. The home minister knew it. The attack on the Srinagar assembly had underlined the vulnerability of Parliament. Is it not a complete failure?" asks the RJD’s Raghuvansh Prasad Singh.
It’s not a strategy that the Opposition, even the Congress, finds entirely comfortable, as whipping up anti-POTO public opinion might not be easy in the wake of this attack. Says a senior Congress MP (and former minister): "A strong law against terrorism is needed. The army and paramilitary forces are in favour of it." But the consensus was that the Opposition had been too strident in condemning POTO to draw back now.
While BJP ministers repeated ad infinitum that there was no question of linking the terrorist attack with POTO, there was little doubt that government-generated atmospherics—tough talking and sabre-rattling at Pakistan—would do just that. To quote Rajya Sabha MP Mahesh Chand Sharma: "If the Opposition still refuses to pass POTO, perhaps the prime minister should go to the people on the issue." A general election on this plank would go in the BJP’s favour, he maintained.
CPI(M) MP Nilotpal Basu felt the terrorist attack had provided both the government and the Opposition an opportunity to evolve a consensus. "The government should drop POTO and restart the process of consultation. It should sit down with Opposition leaders and discuss whether a new law is needed and what its provisions should be."
Says the RJD’s Singh: "Terrorism is not fought by laws but by people. We saw how the unarmed watch and ward staff of Parliament took on the armed terrorists." Agrees Amar Singh, SP: "The government should concentrate on improving weapons and the motivation of security forces instead of passing new laws."
Having opposed POTO and unable to draw back, the SP is trying to counteract the government’s aggressive anti-terrorist mode by projecting it as being soft on militancy. "They have created a soft state ...releasing Maulana Masood Azhar, releasing Hurriyat leaders despite Farooq Abdullah’s objections. They are incapable of hot pursuit which is the need of the hour." SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav called for the immediate bombing of terrorist training camps in PoK.
BJP MPs were quite unperturbed by the Opposition’s stand on POTO, pointing out that the ordinance could easily be re-promulgated. In fact, with the Opposition stalling Parliament on the "kafan-chor" issue, one of the options the ruling party had considered was a sine die adjournment, followed by POTO’s re-promulgation. The only hitch was the possibility of President K.R. Narayanan returning the ordinance for reconsideration, on the grounds that the government did not have the numbers to get it passed in the Rajya Sabha. The other option—which no one took seriously—was holding a joint session.
"It’s advantage Advani both ways. If we pass the bill, good for him. If we don’t, they’ll make political capital out of it in UP, by polarising votes in their favour," observes a Congress MP. A substantial number of Opposition MPs feel that it is time to stop forcing adjournments of Parliament and using it instead as a forum to voice their views on tackling terrorism. Raghuvansh Singh summed up the Opposition’s views: "The government cannot terrorise us into passing its anti-terrorist law."