May 31, 2020
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Bread Lines

After falling over an altered CBI report and a railway racket, the Congress sees the Karnataka win as a reason to get up and keep hobbling on

Bread Lines
Jitender Gupta
Bread Lines
“Wo afsana jise anjaam tak laana na ho mumkin ,
usey ek khoobsurat mod de ke chhodna acchha.”

(When it is not possible to take a story to a logical conclusion,
it is best to take it to a beautiful turn and leave it there.)

Sahir Ludhianvi


For Whom The Polls Toll

  • Early election offers an exit from Parliamentary stalemate
  • Poll gives new government chance to start on a clean slate
  • New mandate will bell cat on corruption, other touchy issues
  • New regime can push key legislation like land bill, food bill
  • In tough times, markets, economy need direction, not drift 
  • Post-Karnataka, Congress prospects not rosy in other states


On the face of it, the troubled Congress regime in Delhi should let go in the afterglow of the decisive win in the Karnataka assembly elections. They could then say they left power on a high note and called an early election because it was the need of the hour. They could also claim that they are concerned about institutional integrity and public morality. If they did let go of power, they would spare themselves the daily pummelling by the media and the courts, as the already damaged national profile of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh plummets to newer depths.

For, after the Supreme Court made its second instalment of remarks last week that implied the PMO was involved in altering the coal blocks allotment probe report to shield the prime minister, a serious institutional crisis confronted India. If one embarassment involved the complex web of investigative agencies and law officers being arm-twisted by those acting in the PM’s name, another was a case of old-fashioned “mama-bhanja” (uncle-nephew) corruption. Union railway minister Pawan Bansal’s sister’s son stands accused of taking a Rs 90-lakh bribe (in instalments) to secure a top post for a railway board member. Bansal is more than just the MP from Chandigarh and a member of the so-called “PM’s Punjab Club” that includes Union law minister Ashwani Kumar. Pleasant and accessible to the media, Bansal was parliamentary affairs minister through most of UPA-II and navigated his way into the prized rail ministry in October last year, only to end up derailed himself.

But call it a train wreck or a sinking boat, sources in Regime Manmohan say they are quite determined to soldier on regardless of any signs of turbulence. A minister told Outlook: “We sacrificed Ashok Chauhan, we sent Suresh Kalmadi and A. Raja to jail, we forced Shashi Tharoor to quit. Did we get anything for this but brickbats?” That is why, sources in the government say, a decision has been taken to carry on, manouevre till the monsoon session and then try to paint the opposition in a poor light as disruptionists. Critical to these plans is the Food Security Bill—it will be pushed during the monsoon session, and failing passage, be notified as an ordinance. In short, the plan is this: all men in Manmohan’s leaking boat will paddle on furiously for as long as they can, although the rising waters could at any point just overwhelm them.

“It doesn’t seem the Food Security Bill will go anywhere. They should explore all options. The aam admi needs this.” Biraj Patnaik, Advisor to SC commissioners   “The courts’ actions should not be construed as judicial activism. There is a strong case for the right balance.” Manish Tewari, MoS, Information-B’casting 

“The victory in Karnataka shows the public’s faith in the Congress’s agenda of development. It’s our first step of success.” Prithviraj Chavan, Maharashtra chief minister   “It’s their own business, but it won’t be wise to go for polls based on the Karnataka mandate. It’d be politically immature.” Mohammed Selim, CPI(M) leader

“Four states go to the polls in November. BJP should win most. If the Congress thinks they’d do well, they’re mistaken.” Rahul Sinha, W. Bengal BJP president   “We need early polls in the national interest. The Congress will suffer due to corruption, the reason it won in Karnataka. Naresh Gujral, SAD Rajya Sabha MP

It is a woman, however, who is at the centre of the decision making. Well-placed sourced say that Sonia Gandhi had suggested that Ashwani Kumar and Bansal be asked to quit, but the PM dug in his heels. At Congress meetings on this subject, some opined that the ministers should be sacrificed. But the problem currently is that the scandal over meddling into the CBI status report on the coal block allocation scam involving Ashwani Kumar leads to Manmohan, and there is no replacement for the PM. There is also “the problem of defending the legacy of a decade-long rule”. Yet, as a source close to Manmohan says, “To blame everything on him is unfair. He wanted Rangarajan to be finance minister, but Mrs Gandhi turned him down. And ultimately, if Mrs G asks the PM to go he will.”

There is also the simple belief, hard to substantiate, that ultimately this is an election year and that money from both the coal scandal and ‘railgate’ has actually been collected for the party. So, although sources say that “pre­ssure is building, but it’s not yet clear when madam will act”, it would also be sensible to presume that there is a  long-working understanding between Sonia and the PM. Yet, there are some ministers who have worked hard on certain policies and are furious about how the PM has backed the two tainted ministers. One of these ministers also believes that many provisions of food security cannot be implemented through an ordinance. Biraj Patnaik, the principal advisor to the Supreme Court commissioners on the right to food, says: “It was only a couple of months ago that it seemed there was an agreement between the parties in Delhi that there is a need for, and will be, a food security bill. Now it doesn’t look like it’ll go anywhere. They have an option of launching a scheme and also to have an all-party extraordinary session to bring the bill in. I’d think this is very important, and they should start considering their options seriously. The food bill has been waiting in the wings and it’s really the most important legislation for the aam admi.”

NDA leaders protest various UPA scams outside Parliament. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)

Whatever it does, the larger point the Congress would be seeking is the perception that they have taken pro-poor initiatives. The result from Karnataka too would reinforce the line that the Congress works for the poor. Hence the Congress belief that it must carry on “for the virtues of our policies”. The Congress arrogance also stems from a belief in its indispensability—that in a fractured polity, it will be required to lead from the front or support from the rear any coalition. Besides, the Congress also argues that any advancement of the candidature of Narendra Modi (as PM) would also work in its favour (see box).

Moreover, a view increasingly expressed in the Congress is that in this age of judicial activism, the courts are overreaching their brief and encroaching on the authority of elected governments. Manish Tewari, the Union Minister of State, Information & Broadcasting, is guarded on the matter. “Democracy is a system. According to the Constitution, the courts have a responsibility to discharge if a petitioner approaches them. Their actions should not be construed as judicial activism. There is a very strong case for keeping the right balance,” he says.

As of now, the Supreme Court has shamed the government, but not actually asked any minister to go. Therefore, the Congress might take heart from the legal interpretation that it has a right to stay on. And the reality is that they can stay as long as a party like the SP does not pull the plug on them. Atal Bihari Vajpayee called an early election in 2004 and lost. Power, after all, is something that most regimes have the inclination to cling on to. Indira Gandhi imposed an Emergency on the country to hang on to power at a most uncomfortable time for her. Sonia had once acquired a halo by sacrificing high office and choosing Manmohan Singh for it. That aureole has long lost its light in the lurid glare of corruption scandals. It’s now just a matter of counting the days and preparing for the next turn in the troubled last leg of the regime.

By Saba Naqvi with Debarshi Dasgupta, Pragya Singh, Prachi Pinglay-Plumber, Dola Mitra

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