Friday, March 16, 2001,
Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Resignations of George, Mamata, Panja accepted
Trinamool withdraws support;
Jaya Jaitley steps down as Samata chief
Girja Shankar Kaura
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, March 15
The BJP-Led National Democratic Alliance government received a further jolt today when the Defence Minister, Mr George Fernandes, resigned tonight within hours of the Trinamool Congress walking out of the ruling alliance following the sensational expose made by alleging malpractices in the defence deals in a video tape brought out by it.

The Defence Minister who had been wanting to make a statement in both Houses of Parliament and was not allowed to do so by a determined Opposition left the South Block in a huff late in the evening to finally make an address to the nation on Doordarshan in which he also gave reasons for his resigning from the Union Cabinet.

The news of the resignation was flashed by Doordarshan minutes before the Defence Minister made his address to the nation.

In a clever move, the Trinamool Congress today withdrew support to the 17-month-old National Democratic Alliance Government, marking the beginning of a new phase in the country’s politics.

Even while Railway Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee was announcing the withdrawal of support, the ‘tehelka’ expose forced the third head to roll when Samata Party President Jaya Jaitley resigned as the party President.

Resignations of Union Ministers George Fernandes, Mamata Banerjee and Ajit Panja were accepted tonight.

Besides Nitish Kumar, the Minister of State for Railways Digvijay Singh and the Minister of State for Consumer Affairs V. Sreenivasa Prasad had submitted their resignations to Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee in solidarity with Mr Fernandes.

It was officially stated that Mr Vajpayee had not accepted the three resignations.

Mr Fernandes said that before he came to Doordarshan, he handed over his resignation to the Prime Minister with a request that an inquiry be ordered into the whole affair. He said that the insinuations levelled against him were false and expressed his suspicion that “perhaps, this is a design to demoralise our people and defence forces”.

The Prime Minister also had a 35-minute meeting with the President, Mr K.R. Narayanan, this evening to apprise him to the prevailing situation in the country.

The Defence Minister said that he was resigning to uphold the morale of the Armed Forces and to prevent any further damage to the nation. The Minister said that any dent caused to the morale of our forces was most unacceptable. He said all allegations against him were false and harmed national security.

“My public life extends to 52 years and I always stood for probity in public life,” he said while adding that when he took over as the Defence Minister, his endeavour was to run a clean and transparent ministry.

“As a Defence Minister I have done my duty with dedication and integrity,” he said, adding that he tried to prevent corruption with whatever power he had and he enjoyed support of his colleagues, men in uniform and the Prime Minister.

The decision of the minister to quit came soon after the Trinamool Congress , which had been demanding his resignation, withdrew support to the NDA government.

The Railway Minister, Ms Mamata Banerjee, and her colleagues had sent separate resignation letters to the Prime Minister.

Mr Fernandes had informed the Lok Sabha Speaker, Mr G. M. C. Balayogi, during the day that he was going to make a public clarification to dispel the claims in the Tehelka tapes regarding defence deals which, he said, were aimed at maligning the government and affecting the morale of the armed forces.

“I have been waiting for an opportunity to clarify the matter on the floor of the Lok Sabha. However, the Lok Sabha has not been able to function since March 14. I am keen that the truth be told without any further loss of time, since claims by various characters in the aforesaid ( so called investigative report are being highlighted to create sensation and to malign the entire government set-up,” Mr Fernandes said in a letter to the Speaker.

The claims were aimed at destabilising the defence set-up in the country, he said. “ I am more concerned about the morale of the armed forces who are defending the borders of the country. I will not like for a moment they should carry the impression that while they are defending the borders of the country under adverse circumstances, the highest decision-making apparatus in the country is steeped in corruption,” the Defence Minister said.

Mr Fernandes said he thus had no option now but to clarify this matter in public and tell the truth.

The Defence Minister said the Opposition, by taking to the streets and not allowing Parliament to function, had prevented him from telling the nation the truth. To prevent further damage to the national security he decided to step down.

“Allegations of kickbacks and middlemen have always been there in defence deals. I came to the Defence Ministry to run it in a clean manner. I set up complaint boxes where I received thousands of letters.”

Mr Fernandes said that in January 2000, he had decided to refer all defence deals of more than Rs 75 crore to the Chief Vigilance Commissioner for review.

The orders were meant to include not only past but also the ongoing and future defence deals.

He said the government had taken steps to eliminate middlemen from all defence deals. The Indian Defence Ministry was one of the few ministries in the world to have mandated such conditions.

Referring to the Tehelka disclosures, he said the whole tape released by the website was about a fictitious contract and a fictitious company. If the company and the product were genuine they would have to go through rigorous procedures, he added.

The sordid picture which was being portrayed would only benefit anti-national forces, he said.

While the four Army officers summoned by the Army Headquarters (AHQ) yesterday for recording of their statements following the revelations in the video clippings were still to return to Delhi, the Court of Inquiry ordered yesterday is to be headed by a Director-General who would be of the rank of a Lieut-General from the AHQ and would have two other members.

As per the reports, no timeframe has been given to the Court of Inquiry to complete its investigations, but it has been specified that all those involved in the expose, including the reporters from be summoned for questioning.

All civilians involved in the expose would also be summoned by the Court of Inquiry. While the AHQ had yesterday issued orders for the immediate suspension of Maj-Gen P.S.K. Choudhury, who was the Additional Director-General, Weapons and Equipment, after he reportedly agreed to accepting wrongful gratification, it is waiting to record the statements of the other Army officers who include two other officers of the rank of Major-General.

The officers who have been asked to immediately report to the AHQ here are Maj-Gen Manjit Singh Ahluwalia, Director-General of Ordnance and Supply, Maj-Gen Satnam Singh, Director-General of Operations, Kargil sector, Brig Iqbal Singh, Prospective Procurement Officer, and Brig Anil Sehgal, Director in the Directorate General of Ordnance and Supply.

Meanwhile, Ms Banerjee told mediapersons that her party would not provide any outside support to the Vajpayee government.

“We cannot compromise on security and national interest of the country”, the Trinamool leader said, adding that the decision was taken in a unanimous resolution at the parliamentary party meeting.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee wanted to see her but his aide Sudheendra Kulkarni held a meeting with her, Ms Banerjee said.

About Trinamool’s seat sharing arrangement with the BJP in West Bengal, party’s parliamentary spokesman Sudip Bandhopadhyay said it would be reviewed after Ms Banerjee’s return to West Bengal.

“We are capable of fighting on our own. If anyone wants to follow us we have no problem”, Mr Bandhopadhyaya said.

The NDA leaders as well as the top BJP leadership were fully aware of Ms Banerjee’s decision as was evident during the NDA meeting yesterday when neither Ms Banerjee nor any other representative of the Trinamool attended it.

During the meeting, a majority of NDA allies were of the view that if Ms Banerjee wanted to quit the alliance, she should feel free to do so as her party’s withdrawal of support would not affect the fate of the Vajpayee government.

Meanwhile, a second-round meeting of the party was held to discuss whether it should extend issue-based support to the NDA government.

The letter to the President by Ms Banerjee pointed out that the Trinamool did not doubt the integrity and honesty of the Prime Minister, but was constrained to resort to the step due to the refusal by Defence Minister George Fernandes to step down.

Ms Banerjee said in her letter she had raised certain issues, but the Prime Minister had not taken a decision on the issue of instituting an inquiry.

Mr Bandhopadhyay, refusing to clarify whether the party would continue to support the NDA from outside, said their decision to withdraw support would not have any bearing on the stability of the Vajpayee government.

Meanwhile, Ms Jaitley, a close associate of Defence Minister George Fernandes, quit as the Samata Party chief in order to arrest the political fallout of the ‘tehelka’ tapes showing money being given in her presence at the official residence of the Defence Minister.

Announcing her decision, Ms Jaitley told mediapersons here that Mr V.V.Krishna Rao would now function as the acting President of the party.

She said the affair had caused “national loss”, it had also caused a harm to the profession of journalism. The act of the website had been in violation of ethics. “In the normal course, the website should have sought my clarification on what somebody has been quoted as having spoken about me. In my opinion this is the most accepted practice in the profession of journalism”, she said.

Asked if she would sue the website for the allegations against her, she said she was giving the matter a serious consideration.

Ms Jaitley said the Opposition should have agreed to discuss the matter in Parliament so that the truth behind the episode could be ascertained.

Asked to elaborate, the party strategy if Defence Minister George Fernandes was made to quit the government, Ms Jaitley declined to comment, adding that she had not at any stage promoted anybody for a wrong cause. “I have always helped genuine people whenever they have faced any problem”, she said.


No threat to govt: minister

New Delhi, March 15
The Union Law and Justice Minister, Mr Arun Jaitley, today said the resignations by Defence Minister George Fernandes and Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee posed no threat to the NDA government.

“The numbers are in favour of the government and there is no threat to the government,” Mr Jaitley told reporters here. PTI

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