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A note and the conundrums around it underline the power play within the Cabinet

Subscript Writers
Subscript Writers
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

Did Pranab ‘Fix’ Chidambaram?

The theory doing the rounds in Congress circles runs something like this:

  • When the March 25, 2011, backgrounder on the 2G scam was sent by the finance ministry to the PMO, ex-telecom minister A. Raja had already been arrested
  • Given the nature of the scam, it's impossible that Pranab Mukherjee would have run a casual eye through the note. He says the objectionable inference wasn’t his. Then whose was it?
  • The controversial observation that PC could have prevented the scam if he had insisted on auctioning spectrum comes on page 10 of the 11-page note
  • Did Pranab Mukherjee, who has a history of differences with Chidambaram, deliberately allow this observation to pass?
  • Did he factor in that once Chidambaram's name was dragged in and he is forced to resign, the next target of the opposition would be the prime minister?
  • Did Pranab set his eyes on the prime ministerial chair, should Manmohan Singh come under pressure to quit?

***

The mirror is cracked, shards of glass are falling out. Hydra-like, the 2G scam rears its head time and again, leaving the UPA emotionally exhausted, like a bruised soldier who no longer comprehends whose battle he’s fighting. Congress leaders are getting philosophical, almost resigned to the spectacle of men at the top sniping and undermining each other, shaking down to its core an edifice that had in any case ceased to inspire any confidence. This past week witnessed another pummelling of the Manmohan Singh government, capped by an uneasy truce. By now, however, such episodes seem a routine and serialised affair, with no real closure.

What everyone wants to know is: who’s bashing who? Pet theory No. 1 is that Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee has serious prime ministerial ambitions. So he triggered trouble: it was in his ministry that a note critical of previous finance minister and present home minister P. Chidambaram was finalised. It suggested that Chidambaram, as finance minister, could have insisted on a 2G auction but finally chose to act against his own counsel. “There’s no doubt the guys at the top are fighting,” says a Congress source, “and the prime minister seems to have little authority.”

On September 29, after the crisis had played out for several days, the Congress launched its typical damage-control exercise. First, a series of meetings. Chidambaram and Pranab met the prime minister at 7 Race Course Road. Party chief Sonia Gandhi met Chidambaram, Pranab and defence minister A.K. Antony. She also held a separate meeting with Manmohan. At the end, a dour Pranab read out a prepared text that said “the inferences drawn in the note were not mine”. Rather strange, considering the controversial note sent to the PMO—and accessed by an RTI activist—had a covering letter saying the finance minister had seen it. Even stranger was Chidambaram saying he “accepts” the remarks of his colleague. That comment actually revealed the thinking within: that, in this case, Pranab has instigated the problem. But this forced show of solidarity would not satisfy the critics of the government. The BJP was quick to trash the whole thing, calling it a weak and unacceptable attempt at face-saving.


All well! Pranab and Chidambaram at a joint press conference on Sept 29, 2011

In fact, earlier in the week, the crisis, as reflected in the media, reached fever pitch. Rumours flew thick and fast that the prime minister would quit and Mukherjee would be sworn in. Senior journalists started calling up sources in government for either a confirmation or denial. As an insider says, “It’s a madhouse out there, with 15 TV channels driving each other crazy to get the story first.” An innocuous lunch hosted by the prime minister for former British premier Tony Blair was described as a “critical meeting between Chidambaram and the PM”. Actually, the two barely spoke and only exchanged greetings.

While the chatter about the crisis went on incessantly on television, the Congress’s response ranged from sweeping denial—“the whole premise of the story is wrong”—to utter banalities like “the cup is hot but the tea is lukewarm” and a more honest “Frankly, we have no idea what is going on.”

The BJP is using every chance to hit out at the UPA govt, but says the dal needs more cooking.

But certain decisions had apparently been taken at the top. If the Supreme Court was to decide in favour of Subramanian Swamy’s appeal that Chidambaram should be investigated by the CBI, the consensus in the Congress was that Chidambaram would have to quit. But if there was no clear indictment of the home minister, he would be defended to the hilt, as the target was really the prime minister.

Moreover, Congress leaders say that as a mass politician the home minister is a lightweight; in fact, his own election to Parliament is being looked at by the courts. As an MP says, “Even if he survives this, there is no denying his election could be struck down.” These are certainly bad times for the politician from Tamil Nadu. A decision on the Swamy petition has been adjourned to October 10. Till then, it’s one day at a time.

But the real question is over the role of the prime minister and his declining image, and that is certain to dog him for the rest of his term. If Chidambram did indeed act in a questionable manner, he apparently did so because of a decision at the top that Raja should be allowed to have his way on spectrum. As a senior minister put it, “There’s the issue of collective cabinet responsibility. We have never had any choice but to gloss over this principle.” The prime minister, meanwhile, has said that “forces are keen to destabilise the government. The opposition has found some weak points and is trying to bring about an early poll”.


BJP leaders Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj (right) at a press meet on the 2G scam. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)

But not really. The opposition is very happy to get opportunity after opportunity to attack the government but is itself not too keen on early elections. A senior BJP leader says, “The dal is only half-cooked.” In other words, the BJP believes the government should have more time to score self-goals. Besides, although there is now a perception that the national mood is anti-upa, there is great uncertainty within the BJP and potential allies on the leadership question.

The greater crisis, though, is perhaps in the current ruling dispensation. First there is the problem of the prime minister, and the 2G storm could gather strength again, depending on what the court says. In case the prime minister does get into the frame more directly, the possible alternatives to him are Antony and Pranab. Although there was a separate meeting between Sonia and Antony, at the time of writing, one could only speculate about what discussions might have happened behind closed doors. But certainly if there is the question of trust, there is no doubt that the quiet, self-effacing Antony would be trusted by 10 Janpath more than Pranab.

Pranab remains the great political manager and coalition man in the UPA. Every Parliament session, he plays the most critical role. But certainly the latest controversy—and the ensuing embarrasment—would not have endeared him to Mrs G. His sniping and differences with Chidambaram have a history and the question now is whether he has cooked the younger man’s goose. Or has dada lost the trust of Sonia?

The real problem in the Congress is that no one knows how strong the centre of authority is.

Either way, both Chidambaram or Pranabda are well out of comfort zone. As far as the home minister goes, one could not miss the irony of Digvijay Singh (who famously called him arrogant) now rising to his defence and suggesting he was being targeted only because he was now pursuing the cases of saffron terror. Meanwhile, the prime minister seems to have decided that the only way to survive the remaining days in office is to distance himself from his own government. So he makes vague statements about “forces destabilising the polity” and that “there are no differences within the government” and continues with the day-to-day business of office. An aide says that in today’s economic situation, across the globe, there is hardly any leader who would be re-elected to office. “With his frequent travels, the prime minister is well aware of this and just hopes to survive the days left in office,” says a party source.

But the problem really is that no one knows how strong the centre of authority in New Delhi is. Sonia has been unwell and there is still no clarity on what ails her, although Congressmen enthusiastically report that she looks “fighting fit”. It’s only when she speaks that the centre seems to hold together. Rahul Gandhi occasionally makes a brief appearance on some public issue in some part of the country, but not too convincingly. Manmohan seems pulverised. And now we have the spectre of an apparent squabble between two top ministers. No one appears to be in charge of the house.

A recovery from here seems a long shot, for no one has any big idea. Congress leaders only say it is life as usual as they have now developed great immunity, having endured scam after scam. The media gets hysterical and it sounds as if the government’s collapse is imminent, but in the party, it’s just another day in a five-year term that has gone wrong even before hitting the half-way mark. Congress leaders also mutter about the “corporate forces and vested interests” who have turned against them and back phenomena like the Anna Hazare movement. Now, these leaders would like to believe those forces are spreading the 2G taint about. For the party knows it may be down but the sheer logic of electoral democracy means it is not yet out.

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