Scam struck

Published : Mar 11, 2011 00:00 IST

Hit by one more spectrum-related scam, the Manmohan Singh-led government quits denial mode and begins firefighting.

in New Delhi

THE run-up to the February 2011 Budget session of Parliament will go down as a unique period in the seven-year-old history of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). At no other point of time since the formation of the ruling coalition in 2004 has it been pushed to such a hyperactive, firefighting mode. An array of political and administrative units and institutions, various arms of the security and criminal investigation establishment, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself got into the act one after another as desperation mounted. At their core these actions were an attempt to stave off corruption charges faced by various segments of the UPA government and dispel the perception of connivance of the political establishment in promoting and protecting the perpetrators of illegitimate transactions.

If the Prime Minister reached out to the media through a round-table meeting with Editors of television news channels, the government lost no time in scrapping a blatantly improper satellite-linked spectrum use deal. The Central Bureau of Investigation's (CBI) probe into the 2G spectrum scam gained momentum with searches on media institutions controlled by a UPA constituent. Cumulatively, these actions and the manner in which they were advanced signified an unprecedented crisis of credibility and a scramble to get back on an even keel.

These political and administrative manoeuvres evoked divergent reactions from different sections in the higher echelons of the Congress and the rest of the UPA. One section, consisting of leaders considered close to the Prime Minister and to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, found great merit in the strategy and broadly classified it as one that involved a temporary climbdown to steady the government and launch a strong counteroffensive against the opposition parties. Another section, which included a couple of senior Ministers belonging to the Congress and many leaders of other parties in the UPA, such as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), saw it as a confused climbdown, bereft of clear political understanding, targets or objectives. Many others in the Congress and the UPA held shades of opinion that lay between these two extreme views.

However, common to all the assessments and projections was the realisation that the government had been forced to climb down in the context of the spectrum of corruption charges and related political troubles it was up against. Evidence of this was available even in the public actions of the top leaders of the UPA government. Manmohan Singh's round-table interaction with Editors of television news channels on February 16 was one of the high points of this climbdown. In it he admitted that some happenings had brought out the weaknesses in governance. He also declared: I don't deny that we need to improve the quality of governance.

The retreat had manifested itself even earlier when Home Minister P. Chidambaram said in an interview to The Wall Street Journal that there is indeed a governance deficit in some areas and perhaps there is also an ethical deficit. Chidambaram had also added that the government needed to take serious note of concerns such as these.

There are indications that these statements about weaknesses in governance and an ethical deficit are aimed at arriving at an acquiescence on the issue of allowing a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to probe the 2G spectrum allocation scandal. The government's refusal to agree to the opposition demand for a JPC had resulted in the collapse of Parliament functioning during the winter session.

Along with initiating negotiations to work out the setting up of a JPC, a high-powered Group of Ministers (GoM) of the UPA government has initiated some other proposals, too, that underscore the mood of political retreat. The GoM consists of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Home Minister Chidambaram, Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, Communications Minister Kapil Sibal, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee and Fertilizer Minister M.K. Alagiri. Its proposal is in the form of a four-point charter with the specific objective of curbing corruption in the political and administrative domains. One suggestion was the withdrawal of the discretionary powers of Ministers in matters such as allotment of land, change in the use of land and the appointment and transfer of bureaucrats.

Another suggestion was the scrapping of ministerial powers facilitating changes in the notings in government files in order to favour vested interests.

The GoM also recommended fast-tracking of sanction for prosecution of officers charged with corruption within a 90-day limit and the summary dismissal of officers against whom criminal charges have been framed by a court under the Prevention of Corruption Act. This suggestion had originally been formulated by an expert committee headed by former Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) Chairman P.C. Hota last year.

According to sources close to some members of the GoM, the proposals will be concretised in legislative and legal fora at the earliest.

Incidentally, the suggestion to scrap the discretionary quota of Ministers was first made by Congress president Sonia Gandhi at the December 2010 plenary of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) held in Delhi. It was greeted with near-total silence by the members, and there was no sign of an immediate follow-up action. In fact, a number of Congress leaders, including a couple of senior Ministers, commented to Frontline that Sonia Gandhi's suggestion was not to the liking of a large majority of Union Ministers and Chief Ministers and that they would try to put impediments in the path of concretising the suggestion. However, the developments since the plenary, especially the government's failure to contain the flow of scam exposes, forced the party leadership at least to make a show of initiating concrete measures in this direction.

Before this, there was a concerted effort by the Congress to stave off the flak on the corruption charges. Kapil Sibal, who replaced A. Raja of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) as Minister in the Communications and Information Technology Ministry, unleashed strong criticism against Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) Vinod Rai, describing his calculation of loss in 2G spectrum allocation as utterly erroneous. Sibal, in fact, went on to state that the government had not lost a penny on account of the spectrum allocation.

Sibal's offensive was believed to be made with the clear-cut political objective of defeating the opposition's arguments in favour of a JPC. If the government had not lost any money at all why should it face a JPC probe, went the argument by the Congress leadership. However, barely three weeks later, the CBI virtually negated the Minister's line of argument by arresting A. Raja in the 2G spectrum case, thereby underscoring the allegation about loss to the exchequer.

Even before the Congress and the UPA could recover from the blow yet another scam was unravelled. This related to the sale without auction of S-band spectrum by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) resulting in an estimated loss of Rs.2 lakh crore to the exchequer.

This sale, too, was brought to light by the CAG, which found irregularities in the agreement between ISRO's commercial arm Antrix and the private firm Devas Multimedia, headed by M.G. Chandrasekhar, former Scientific Secretary at ISRO.

The initial reaction from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and the Congress was to brand it as a story without basis. However, information that came in later highlighted how ISRO had kept the PMO in the dark about the deal, indirectly affirming the oft-repeated charge that the PMO was weak and ineffective. What followed was the setting up of a committee under the PMO, and among its members were some who were party to the clearance of the deal. This too came in for criticism.

The cumulative impact of all this set the ball rolling for the confessional statements of Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram and the series of climbdown measures, including allowing a JPC probe into the 2G scam.

At the political level, the climbdown measures in general and Manmohan Singh's televised round-table interaction in particular were aimed at sending the message that the Congress would not brook any kind of corruption in the UPA government.

According to a senior leader working closely with the Congress president's office, the interaction was meant to show that the Congress and its leadership have nothing to hide vis-a-vis the corruption charges that have been thrown at the party and the government.

The Prime Minister himself asserted that he was dead serious about tackling corruption. In his opening remarks he referred to the media expose of various scams but specifically asked the media not to give an image that India was a scam-driven country and nothing good was happening. He said such an image would weaken the self-confidence of the people and would not be in the interest of the country.

The Prime Minister's moderate personality was also sought to be projected in order to recapture the image of a transparent gentleman politician. One of the statements he made was specifically aimed at projecting this personality: I don't say I have never made any mistake, but I am not that big a culprit as being made out to be.

In spite of all this, the larger message the interaction sent out has raised many eyebrows within the party and the hackles in some UPA partners such as the NCP and the DMK. More than once Manmohan Singh suggested that corruption in government was on account of coalition partners and that he had limitations in addressing these issues. On the 2G spectrum allocation, he said it was done exclusively by the Communications Ministry under A. Raja and he or the Cabinet had nothing to do with the first come, first served policy adopted. Manmohan Singh added that he had conveyed to Raja his concerns through a letter in November 2007 and that the Minister had assured him that everything was being done in a transparent manner.

Asked whether he felt enough is enough because there are a lot of corrupt people in your government and you are not able to act against them, Manmohan Singh replied: I think in a coalition government there is a coalition dharma, and obliviously the things are not entirely the way I would like them to be, but quite frankly I have never felt like resigning because I have a job to do. Again, on a question relating to 2G spectrum, he stopped short of bluntly stating that Raja had misled him. On a question that referred to Raja's induction into the Cabinet, the Prime Minister indicated that his wish was not acceded to by the DMK. He said: I cannot divulge what went on in the processes of Cabinet formation, but I would like to mention that we are a coalition government. In a coalition government, you can suggest your preferences but you have to go by what the leader of that particular coalition party ultimately insists.

Beyond these statements, which several constituents of the UPA see essentially as jibes, Manmohan Singh also seems to have dragged in the Finance Minister of the first UPA government into the 2G issue by asserting that the Finance and Communications Ministries were in agreement with the modalities of issuing licences for 2G. This goes against the general feeling in the government during that period, which was that the Finance Ministry had consistently questioned the modalities adopted by Raja. Clearly, this new dimension brought in through the interaction is bound to generate more wrangling.

The Prime Minister's own assertion about being dead serious in tackling corruption can be truly fulfilled only if the investigations into the various scams are carried out faithfully by following up all the leads. By all indications, the Prime Minister's interaction with the media has thrown up a new lead, which would widen the scope of the investigation.

The refrain within the security establishment on the general drift of investigations into the scams under consideration is that each case is driven by dynamics unique to that case. For instance, the scams relating to the Commonwealth Games are essentially focussed on chief organiser Suresh Kalmadi and his close associates. There is an impression that the roles of agencies such as the Delhi government and the Urban Development Ministry are not being probed as intensely as they should be.

Similarly, the S-band deal, too, is apparently being carried out with selective targets, though the deal has been scrapped. In the 2G spectrum scam, sources in the security establishment say, the investigators have been given a free hand after initial hesitation. An indication of this free hand is visible in the raids that have been conducted in the offices of Kalaingar TV, run by the family of DMK supremo and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, as well as the clear indication that Kanimozhi, DMK's Rajya Sabha member and Karunanidhi's daughter, would be interrogated in connection with the case.

There is little doubt that such steps can lead to a deterioration in the DMK's relations with the Congress. Many of the Prime Minister's statements in the round-table interaction have aggrieved the DMK. The bitterness could increase if the investigation too takes a predominantly anti-DMK turn, said a senior leader of a UPA constituent to Frontline. According to him, such turns in the investigation would force the UPA partners to repeat the comments made by opposition leaders such as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Nitin Gadkari and Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury about the Prime Minister's skewed pursuit of coalition dharma.

Yechury had stated that the Prime Minister cannot hide behind the coalition bogey and in order to cover up his own failures in curbing corruption. Gadkari had pointed out that Manmohan Singh's statement about coalition politics being responsible for corruption in the UPA would not measure up to scrutiny because among the many scams that have hit the headlines a coalition partner of the Congress is involved only in the 2G case. All other scams involved leaders of the Congress, he pointed out.

Clearly, these arguments have much merit in them and the Congress will indeed have a trying time if its coalition partners, too, start speaking in a similar vein, for whatever reasons. If that happens, the strategic climbdown aimed at regrouping and resisting the opposition offensive on corruption will come a cropper. That will validate the assessment of a group of Congress and UPA leaders that the climbdown is bereft of clear political understanding, targets and objectives. It may still take time for one of these streams to be proved comprehensively or repudiated, but as things stand after the Prime Minister's round-table media interaction and at the beginning of the Budget session of Parliament the prospects for the scam-ridden UPA government and particularly its leader, the Congress, do not seem to be promising at all.

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