Indian Decade

Congress Faces WikiLeaks Bullet

A recently released WikiLeaks cable suggests the ruling coalition considered buying MPs votes in 2008.

The opposition is tasting blood over the latest and generous offering (this time via a WikiLeaks cable) from the scandal-tainted UPA II government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Indeed, this time, opposition lawmakers believe they might finally get to see the back of the government.

Certainly, on the surface it seems as if there’s never been a better chance to throw the government to the floor, and it’s possible that this latest revelation could do what Commonwealth Games corruption, the Adarsh housing society debacle and 2G spectrum scam couldn’t.

This week, leaked US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks suggest the UPA I government paid off MPs so it could survive a July 2008 confidence vote. The cable, sent by then-US Charge d' Affaires Steven White, described a visit by the US Embassy's political counselor to senior Congress leader Satish Sharma.

The cable states: ‘Sharma's political aide Nachiketa Kapur mentioned to an Embassy staff member in an aside on July 16 that Ajit Singh's RLD had been paid Rupees 10 crore (about $2.5 million) for each of their four MPs to support the government. Kapur mentioned that money was not an issue at all, but the crucial thing was to ensure that those who took the money would vote for the government.’ White also says that ‘Kapur showed the Embassy employee two chests containing cash, and said that around Rupees 50-60 crore (about $25 million) was lying around the house for use as pay-offs.’

The 22-month-old UPA II government is clearly at risk of being torpedoed. The BJP’s top leader, L K Advani, who still nurses prime ministerial ambitions, demanded Singh’s immediate resignation, saying that he had lost all moral right to continue. However, the government plans to take the opposition head on, and has indicated nobody will be resigning.

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But it’s unclear whether the opposition can finally succeed in bringing the government to its knees, for several reasons. First, the government has dug its heels in, and so clearly isn’t going to make things easy for its opponents.

Second, the main players mentioned in the cable have disputed the accuracy of the cables. For instance, Sharma has flatly denied that he ever had anybody called Nachiketa Kapur working for him. Kapur has said the same thing, and denied that he ever met any US embassy official before the no-confidence vote on behalf of Sharma or anyone else. Meanwhile, Ajit Singh, president of Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) — whose MPs were alleged to have been paid to vote in support of the government — has dismissed the claims.

The opposition’s problem in capitalizing on this were compounded by the fact that Ajit Singh went on record saying that his three MPs – not four as claimed by the WikiLeaks cable, another apparent factual error by the US embassy officials who sent the cable – had gone ahead in voting against the government.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has also been adamant that the government can’t investigate the leaked cable because correspondence between a foreign government and its embassy is confidential and immune from scrutiny.

All this means that the opposition has just one option: to move a no-confidence motion against the government, something that would, ironically, create similar circumstances to those of July 2008. Yet although the opposition may well do so, the political math just doesn’t really add up for them, even if the Left Front and the BJP decide to come together on this.

The Congress may have dodged another bullet.