If WikiLeaks refreshed our memories in March this year about what happened in Parliament on July 22, 2008, the arrest of a high-profile politician Amar Singh has again brought focus on the infamous cash-for-vote scam.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had won a controversial trust vote on that day. A tense run-up saw Congress floor managers in Parliament and its well-wishers doing their best to ensure numbers –because the Left had withdrawn support to the ruling UPA on the issue of Indo-US civilian nuclear deal.
Last March, WikiLeaks quoted a US embassy’s cable to Washington that an aide of an important Congress leader showed its diplomat bundles of money kept in suitcases which were to be used to win over MPs, ahead of the vote.
It was natural that an uproar followed that disclosure and the PM as well as Home Minister P Chidambaram assured Parliament to get Delhi Police’s probe into the episode speeded up.
The police were supposed to be follow up on “leads” concluded by a joint parliamentary committee in December 2008, which was headed by V S Kishore Chandra Deo, then a Congress MP and now Union minister for tribal affairs.
Delhi police concluded that no Congress leader was involved in the efforts to get the support of MPs to back the confidence vote sought by the PM.
Only Amar Singh, his aide Sanjeev Saxenna and an alleged go-between Suhal Hindustani were trying to lure the MPs. Their motive? Delhi police concluded it was to show how “vulnerable” the BJP MPs were and not help the Congress-led coalition win the vote!
It’s another story that the Delhi police was literally pushed to file a charge-sheet against Amar Singh and others only because the Supreme Court sought a status report and later asked it to trace the “source of money” used in the scam.
The big question that has remained unanswered is why should Amar Singh get into this political adventure of luring the MPs to vote for the government?
Will his arrest force him to speak out more about the plot? Will he name other conspirators, if any?
Secondly, if the Congress story is to be believed, the BJP hatched a plan to bribe its own MPs to bring disrepute to the Manmohan Singh government. In the process, the BJP didn’t even think of its own set-up and its credibility?
Senior Congress ministers and even former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, who had to preside over the vote, say the display of currency notes by three BJP MPs inside Parliament is the “worst” offence—and not the allegation against the government that it won the vote by doubtful methods.
That brings us to what exactly happened on July 22, 2008?
The atmosphere was surcharged, the galleries were full and the Lok Sabha was packed even before the clock struck 11. A special session had been called to decide the fate of the UPA-I government — because the Left had withdrawn support in protest against the Indo-US nuclear deal.
As Speaker Chatterjee slumped into his chair, there was intense speculation whether he would preside over the House or step down from the high office as demanded by the CPI(M). An obituary reference to Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and other former MPs who had passed away didn’t change the mood.
But as Chatterjee signalled the debate to begin, it was clear he wasn’t accepting his party, CPI(M)’s diktat to quit. His wife and daughter and daughter watched the proceedings nervously from the Speaker’s gallery.
The ritual of a debate, which precedes actual vote by MPs, got rolling. Member after member went on either hammering the UPA or singing praises in favour of the PM. Almost 3 hours passed by and, at one stage, no one seemed to be listening–justing shouting to put down one other.
Then, at 4.30 pm, three BJP MPs –Mahavir Bhagora, Ashok Argyal and Faggan Singh Kulaste — made a dramatic entry into the House, carrying a bag. They began emptying bundles of currency notes, saying Rs 1 crore was given to them by Amar Singh as “advance” for abstaining from the trust vote. Everyone was stunned.
Amid uproar and as a shocked Chatterjee looked, the BJP MPs claimed the episode was on tapes as they had wanted to expose the “means” employed to win over Opposition MPs in a strategy worked out by Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s aide, Ahmed Patel.
As the House was plunged into pandemonium, Chatterjee adjourned proceedings. Leaders of all parties gathered in his chamber. Some protested what they said was an “outrageous” act of BJP and others wanted an immediate probe.
BJP leaders claimed that the money was given at 3 pm by a man who had reached Argyal’s 4, Ferozeshah Road residence. The house was already wired by a TV channel, which agreed to do the sting but failed to show it.
So they brough the money into the Lok Sabha. After an hour or so, the House was back in session. The mood on either side was more tense than before. In the din caused by BJP members demanding Prime Minister’s resignation and shouting down his speech, Singh laid his reply to the debate on the table of the House. As Opposition members pressed for a division, Chatterjee ordered voting by electronic voting machine.
Four BJP members, including former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, were permitted to vote from the inner lobby of the House through slips on account of their ill-health. That was perhaps the last time, Vajpayee came to Parliament.
At precisely 8.26 p.m., Chatterjee announced the results of the division vote in which the UPA secured 275 votes in their favour, and the opposition secured 256. Eleven people did not vote. Amid their jubiliation, the Congress members and their allies were very upset that the BJP had “stooped” to display currency notes. The BJP ones were happy with their “stunning effect” to show that the UPA may have won the numbers game but not a moral victory. But, next day, smarting under humiliation by the sheer number of its MPs switching sides, the BJP expelled 8 MPs: four had voted for the government and four others had abstained.
Janata Dal(United), Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal(Secular), Shiv Sena, TDP and Biju Janata Dal too expelled one each. “But for cross-voting and abstentions, the UPA won’t have one…this is a tainted victory,” cried Advani.
Within the BJP, there is still rankle over the trust vote because the party was the hardest hit by floor crossings. The party’s inability to keep its flock together damaged its standing as a major political party ahead of the 2009 polls.
What hurt the BJP more than anything else was that the cash-for-vote episode came three years after the infamous cash-for-query scam.
In December 2005, Parliament expelled 11 members after a TV sting showed them taking cash for putting up questions in Parliament. Of them, six were from the BJP.
The BJP had then argued the matter should be referred to the Privileges Committee, saying that while the MPs should be punished, removing them was unjustified. But the PM had said, “At no cost should we allow Parliament’s image to be tarnished.” In the same month, another TV channel exposed corruption among MPs in selecting the projects for Local Area Development Scheme. Two of them were from BJP.
So, in July 2008, when the BJP got a whiff of floor managers of the UPA scouting for support among its MPs for the trust vote in July 2008, many BJP MPs came under watch.
One day before the July 22 vote, Amar Singh, who then Samajwadi Party general secretary, had “displayed” BJP MP Brij Bhushan Saran Singh as the first of the MPs who would switch sides. That prompted Arun Jaitley, BJP general secretary then, and his aides to get in touch with a TV news channel for a sting to show how their MPs were being lured.
A day before the trust vote, BJP leaders said they realised money would be given by a man from Amar Singh’s house to Ashok Argyal, one of the targeted three BJP MPs, at his home. Tthey let the TV channel wire the place. But for strange reasons, BJP MPs realised, the TV channel did not screen the footage. Hence, the three MPs reached Parliament with the money. Despite this, the UPA won the vote. Five days later, Advani wrote to Speaker Chatterjee to make public the video tapes of the sting by CNN-IBN.The channel claimed it did not air the tapes because they were of “poor quality.”