New Home Minister and Leader of the House Sushil Kumar Shinde told the Lok Sabha today that the Army is on alert, though it won't be deployed in troubled Assam unless necessary. Mr Shinde was replying to a debate on the massive humanitarian crisis in Assam, which his party, the Congress rules. Attempting to demonstrate that the Centre has its heart in the right place, the Home Minister said he had wanted to make a suo motu statement on the issue today.
The headlines, however, had already been made earlier in the day by senior BJP leader LK Advani, who caused a perfect storm with a remark that questioned the legitimacy of the UPA government.
An angry Sonia Gandhi showed rare agitation as she immediately demanded that the remark be withdrawn and then turned to her MPs and exhorted them to ensure Mr Advani withdrew it. After a very strong rebuttal from the Congress, the BJP leader, initially reluctant, did withdraw his comment; he also clarified that he had not meant to suggest that the results of the 2009 general elections were not valid. He was referring, he said, to a controversial No-Confidence Motion that UPA 1 had scraped through in 2008.
The damage was done. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said Mr Advani's remark "on UPA 2 is disgraceful and unfortunate." Congress leader and Mrs Gandhi's son Rahul Gandhi refused comment but pointedly said, "He is a senior person, he knows what he is saying, won't like to comment on this."
This morning Mr Advani moved an adjournment motion on the Assam issue - an adjournment motion asks for the usual business of the House to be set aside for an urgent discussion on a matter of national interest. As he moved the motion, and before ripping into the Congress-led UPA for its handling of the sensitive state, the BJP leader said he was pleased to note that the Prime Minister, who represents Assam in the Rajya Sabha, is present for the debate.
Dr Manmohan Singh is expected to intervene in the debate on behalf of the government. In the Rajya Sabha, the House he leads. He is expected to appeal that no statement be made to communalise the situation. He will also stress that it's important for parties to focus on relief efforts and on restoring normalcy to the state.
In the Lok Sabha, Mr Shinde in his reply said there was simmering tension between two groups and political parties "must work together and not trade charges." He recounted a timeline of the ethnic clashes in the state and enumerated the steps taken by his government. "I have kept the Army on alert now, but Army should go and bring the result in the areas where actually it is affected," the Home Minister said.
The crux of Mr Advani's message was that illegal immigration, encouraged, he alleged, by the Congress for vote-bank politics, is to blame for the violence in Assam that has left more than 70 people dead in the last one month. "Bangladeshis in India should be deported and before that disenfranchised. The PM and Home Minister should set a target for the government and share it with the House," Mr Advani said as he wound up his speech.
Earlier, Mr Advani described the riots in and around Kokrajhar as the biggest failure of the Centre. "Of the state's three-crore population, upto 400,000 are homeless... this is an unprecedented crisis," he said.
Mr Advani said, "Let not anyone regard it as a Hindu vs Muslim issue... or a tribal vs non-tribal issue... it is a matter of who is Indian and who are foreigner." The BJP holds the government responsible for allowing illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to move freely into lower Assam. "The Assamese people are now refugees in their own state. Infiltration from Bangladesh is affecting the security of the whole country," Mr Advani said.
Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who heads the Congress government in Assam, said yesterday that the state is "sitting on a volcano." He has been criticised for ignoring early warning signs of tension between the Bodo tribals and Bengali-speaking Muslims. More than 70 people have died in the last month. 400,000 people are displaced and living in 200 relief camps in lower Assam. Medicines and other supplies are running short. There are just 117 doctors moving from one camp to another as diseases like malaria spread.
The BJP has also promised to attack Finance Minister P Chidambaram for his alleged role in the telecom scam. The party alleges that the minister is guilty of dereliction of duty because the 2G scam, named for the type of airwaves involved and estimated to be India's largest swindle - unfolded on his watch in 2008. Then Telecom Minister A Raja allegedly accepted huge kickbacks from companies who jumped to the head of a long queue for licenses for mobile networks. Mr Chidambaram did not intervene, says the BJP. The minister has also been accused by Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy of misusing his office to delay the sale of telecom Aircel to a company from Malaysia named Maxis. Mr Swamy alleges that the delay helped Mr Chidambaram's son to invest in Aircel and benefit financially from its eventual purchase by Maxis.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court cancelled 122 2G licenses issued by Mr Raja, and asked that they be reallocated via an auction to be completed by the end of August. In the Budget Session this year, the Opposition paralysed Parliament over the spectrum scam and shouted down Mr Chidambaram, then Home Minister, every time he got up to speak. The BJP demanded Mr Chidambaram's resignation over the telecom scam. Instead, the government has not just made him Finance Minister but has appointed him the head of a group of ministers who helped decide what sort of prices 2G licenses should be auctioned at - the base price has been set by the Cabinet at Rs. 14,000 crore - ten times the rate that was used in 2008 when Mr Raja was in charge.
The other important signal that the government would like to send is that its "policy paralysis" has ended. Key to that is the change of guard in the Finance Ministry, with P Chidambaram, seen as reform-oriented and industry-friendly taking charge. Mr Chidambaram met senior BJP leaders LK Advani and Arun Jaitley last night in what is being described as a "courtesy call."