- Debate on whether to brazen it out or to let go and call for an early election
- Decision will depend on extent of Supreme Court’s critique this week
- With BJP refusing to return to Parliament, no legislation likely this session
- No investment, foreign or Indian, likely in the circumstance
- Bureaucracy uncooperative, likely to leak more scandals
- If it can’t be passed as law, govt contemplating food security as ordinance
- Land acquisition and other bills will have to be abandoned.
- Yet, section in Congress believes in carrying on till at least the monsoon session.
There is that moment in the story of a sinking ship, when its biggest crash comes after it hits the iceberg, after which it is only a matter of conjecture how long the vessel will stay afloat. The cracks had already appeared in the Manmohan Singh boat as scam after scam erupted in his second term. The most serious damage came when his law minister appeared to have been caught red-handed last week for trying to shield the prime minister from the embers of Coalgate (undermining several institutions in the process). A more complex crisis than the easy narrative of mega corruption scandals, it has the potential of dunking the boat completely. The iceberg that has hit the Manmohan Titanic is the Supreme Court. And more could come on May 8, when another hearing looms. Needless to say, fingers are crossed onboard.
As of now, the government has limited short-term options to minimise the damage. Among them:
- To hope and pray that the court doesn’t come down too harshly on Ashwani Kumar, the law minister. “What will unfold,” says a star lawyer of the Congress, “will depend on what the court says on May 8. It will not tell the law minister to resign but can use language that makes the continuation of the law minister and the attorney untenable and that can well extend to the prime minister.”
- The real problem is that the matter cannot end with sacrificing Ashwani Kumar (no big loss anyway, many would say). Manmohan’s position will continue to remain in question even if the law minister resigns as the man was only trying to protect the PM in the coal scam (Manmohan was in charge of the coal ministry when most of the controversial allotments were made). Sources reveal that the prime minister asked Ashwani Kumar last week to explain his position to people in the cabinet, government and top levels of the Congress. Yet, as a source in the prime minister’s office says, “We are going through the motions of a defence but it’s an embarrassment that just won’t go away.”
- A tactical decision has also been taken to try and divert attention to the attorney general, asking why he called for the CBI report on the coal scam several times while the minister did so only once. As a party insider quipped, “They are saying that Ashwani, poor chap, committed only one murder, while the AG committed nine!”
- The other campaign is to raise questions about the motives of the CBI chief. The buzz in Delhi all of last week was that the agency had leaked the story to embarrass the government because the law minister had spoken to them rudely and pompously. “It is a self-created crisis by the least impressive lawyer in our party,” says a regular at the party headquarters on 24, Akbar Road. Besides, there are enough rumours about the CBI’s own agenda in the coal allotments.
What’s happening now therefore is that the few people trying to salvage Manmohan’s image are trying to deflect focus on the AG and CBI, putting up a token but not very convincing defence of Ashwani Kumar and, by default, of Manmohan himself. A well-placed source also says that the PM does not always get into the details and people act on their own initiative. He did not tell the law minister to act as he did. The only mistake he made was to keep an incompetent lawyer and arrogant fool as his law minister.
The Congress, on its part, is either avoiding the issue or defending Manmohan on record. Off the record, however, it is blaming the PM and the law minister in order to—what else—distance the dynasty and the party from all the ignominy. Hence an SMS about the ‘Kaur group’ versus the ‘core group’ doing the rounds. (The suggestion being that the law minister was chosen as part of some sort of Punjab cabal encouraged by the prime minister’s wife, Gursharan Kaur.) “It’s the usual routine,” says Sanjaya Baru, former media advisor to the PM and now fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. “Blame all the bad things on Manmohan and have all the good things credited to the Gandhis.”
Arun Jaitley, leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, goes a step further and says that the “Gandhis will have no option but to pass this off as a Manmohan Singh failure and not theirs. That is why Rahul Gandhi adopts the posture of an outsider.” This, he goes on to say, is compounded by the fact that “Manmohan Singh is increasingly making compromises on values and institutions in order to continue in power. This problem can’t be sorted out. India now needs an election.”
It’s an option actually being discussed in Congress circles: stop trying to hang on to power, let it go and call for an election. “Why are we trying to cling on shamelessly?” asks a Delhi Congress leader. Baru believes it is too late for an image correction. “I can’t see what benefit there is by dragging on like this,” he says. “What will they achieve in the next few months? I don’t see any ability within the government to act.”
Within the ruling party, however, the preferred option is to let things drag on for a while longer, and see if some overt or covert moves can be made to bring the BJP back into Parliament, possibly by the monsoon session, as the budget session ends on May 10. “We have to stare them down,” says a minister. “Let the Opposition bring in a no-confidence motion instead of undermining Parliament. Let the courts do what they can and we also have to start asking if the judiciary is trying to run the legislature and executive. We just have to carry on.”
The problem with this strategy of soldiering on regardless of the bullets whizzing past is trying to get passed legislation on which the next election can be fought, namely the food security bill and the land acquisition bill. As things stand now, it seems impossible to get either of them passed in Parliament. The Congress could well throw the dare that “we will ask the nation why the BJP blocked food security” and BJP managers know that it could well begin the process of food security through an ordinance as it did with the direct cash transfer scheme. The land acquisition bill, however, could be temporarily scuttled as some members even of the ruling dispensation do not like it in its present form and complain that it is “too Left-leaning in an attempt to be politically overcorrect”.
The most likely possibility, says Congress general secretary B.K. Hari Prasad, is that “we will wait till the monsoon session and see if the BJP’s own contradictions compel it to return to Parliament. We don’t have to be proactive but wait to see what happens.” Yet the caveat remains: the monsoon session strategy is tenable only if the apex court does not come down even more heavily on the regime this week. If it does, then the smaller group in the Congress arguing for throwing in the towel after the “favourable” verdict expected in the Karnataka assembly polls—also on May 8—may find the leadership trying to make a virtue out of what would then be a necessity.
Currently, the big problem facing the Congress is that it has nothing to sell to the people. Rahul Gandhi is yet to prove his mettle even though he has been more consistent in campaigning in Karnataka than the BJP’s great hope, Narendra Modi. It is still the Manmohan regime, though, that makes for a truly sad spectacle where you have a prime minister just occupying office but unable to move on any front. The bureaucracy too has abandoned the sinking ship and it’s unlikely that any policy initiative will move comfortably; instead impediments will be laid in its path and more embarrassing stories could possibly be leaked to the media. It’s not unusual to see the bureaucracy become obdurate and uncooperative when it sniffs regime change in the air.
Yet, some sections of the Congress remain eternally optimistic, and believe that even if their numbers come down dramatically in an election, they will still be crucial to any anti-BJP formation, and hence can “stare down” critics.
However, the one thing the latest tongue-lashing from the Supreme Court has done is put an end to all the speculation on “a third term” for Manmohan Singh. Even though he was never a mass leader, Manmohan did enjoy a certain pan-Indian middle-class approval that is always more significant than its numbers. He was an asset in the first edition of the UPA government and at the centre of the government that was re-elected.
But nine years at the helm of affairs, and the helplessness he was once forgiven for, now seems criminal. Once the middle class hailed him as the liberator of the economy, a modest soft-spoken economist, an honest man confronted by corrupt, capricious allies. That appeal was lost in no time as the UPA began its second term and the floodgates of scams and scandals opened. Flashback to Manmohan’s interaction with TV journalists in February 2011 when a hesitant and tentative PM said he was helpless in most matters linked to corruption and had limited authority in coalition politics. “I am not such a culprit as I am made out to be,” he had said, “the government will bring the wrongdoers to book.”
Except that there is no ally to blame this time, only a hand-picked minister from the Congress and a system he must be held culpable for trying to subvert.