Himachal's Congress' sharpened attack on BJP surprises many

Shimla, June 21 (IANS) The Congress in Himachal Pradesh has sharpened its attack on the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), hoping this would pay dividends in the Mandi Lok Sabha bypoll Sunday but surprising many as this is a departure from the ruling party's previous stand of focusing on development.

The BJP, ousted from power after last November's assembly elections, is however in the defensive mode over allegations of mass phone-tapping, illegal land deals and favouring realtors.

Political observers say even the decision of the government to speed up the probes at this point in time against the BJP leaders, mainly former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal and his MP son Anurag Thakur, who is also administrator of the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association, is being seen as a clear cut departure from Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh's earlier stance.

"Until sometime back, the chief minister has been saying that the government should focus more on development rather than investigations. Now in the run-up to the by-poll, his speeches focused more on ongoing probes against BJP functionaries," a political observer said.

Soon after coming to helm in December, the Congress announced that its "chargesheet", given to President Pranab Mukherjee last year, when it was in the opposition, against the purported misdeeds of the Dhumal government would be the basis of future investigations.

Dhumal was also accused of extending favours to the HPCA.

The Congress has also alleged that the government extended favours to a realtor for setting up an ultra-luxury housing project in Shimla, infrastructure group Jaiprakash Associates Ltd. for setting up hydropower and cement projects and alleged land deals by former health minister Rajeev Bindal.

Ending speculation of the government's clean chit to the realtor, Congress ministers Kaul Singh and Sudhir Sharma last week clarified that investigations against Bemloe Development and Infrastructure Company, which is setting up the luxury cottages in Shimla, are on.

"The evaluation of the land in the Bemloe case had allegedly been assessed at lower rates, which is being investigated. Besides, the forest department is investigating illicit felling of trees and encroachments on forest land whereas the vigilance bureau is separately inquiring into various anomalies in this case," Kaul Singh and Sharma, who hold the revenue and urban development portfolios, said in a statement.

Countering the Congress allegations, BJP spokesperson Ganesh Dutt said earlier this week that the government is, in fact, promoting realtors.

"It gave licences to 12 builders in just over five months of its rule under the Himachal Pradesh Apartment and Property Regulation Act despite the fact that a select committee of the Vidhan Sabha had already recommended the act be scrapped (to check the mushrooming of realtors)," he told reporters in Shimla.

Interestingly, in the case of alleged illegal mass tapping of phones of politicians and bureaucrats during the BJP regime, the vigilance and anti-corruption bureau has "hurriedly" completed its probe on the government's direction, said a police officer who didn't wish to be identified.

"Just before the polling (Mandi by-election), the government is politicking on probes against BJP leaders," the officer said.

"The probe has been completed and we have recommended to the government the registration of a criminal case," Deputy Inspector General A.P. Singh, who headed the inquiry team, told reporters here June 15.

The government has accused the previous government of unauthorisedly and illegally tapping certain phone numbers through the state CID and the vigilance department.

The total number of phones tapped, mainly of Congress leaders, government functionaries and journalists in violation of the Indian Telegraph Act, was over 1,300, officials said.

Dhumal has already clarified that the allegations against his government on phone tapping be probed by a sitting high court judge - and that too within a short timeframe.

The Mandi Lok Sabha seat, the Congress's pocketborough, fell vacant following the resignation of Virbhadra Singh from parliament after he was elected to the state assembly last December.

Counting of the votes will be held June 27.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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