Drowning in scams

The UPA-II government has set a record of sorts in corruption scams and administrative malfeasance, but its leadership remains apparently unmoved.

Published : May 15, 2013 12:30 IST

Manmohan Singh with Kamal Nath, Minister for Urban Development and Parliamentary Affairs, and Rajeev Shukla, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs. The two Ministers have claimed that the Karnataka election results have shown that the people have ignored the corruption scandals.

Manmohan Singh with Kamal Nath, Minister for Urban Development and Parliamentary Affairs, and Rajeev Shukla, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs. The two Ministers have claimed that the Karnataka election results have shown that the people have ignored the corruption scandals.

AS the results of the Karnataka Assembly elections came out on May 8, an attempt was made by a few senior leaders of the Congress to utilise the comprehensive victory of the party in the State to whitewash the spate of charges of corruption and improper administrative intervention faced by several Ministers of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. Among them was Kamal Nath, Union Minister of Urban Development, who has emerged in recent times as a sort of principal spokesperson for the government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He, along with Rajeev Shukla, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, sought to argue that the Karnataka results had shown that the large majority of the Indian people did not believe the charges of illegality arraigned against Ministers of the UPA, which the Congress leads. But this effort did not gain much traction owing to a variety of factors, including some stern talk by the Supreme Court and developments within the Congress and the UPA.

The developments in the Supreme Court were open and direct while what happened in the Congress was behind closed doors. The cumulative effect, however, was that it stunted the effort to build up the “people’s clean chit” campaign. The developments in the apex court related to the Coalgate, the scam relating to the allocation of coal blocks, where the roles played by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Union Law Minister Ashwani Kumar and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) have come in for criticism by the judiciary. With stinging remarks, the court hauled up the CBI, senior officials of the Coal Ministry, and the PMO, and held them responsible for changing the “heart” of the Coalgate probe report (see separate story).

These remarks came from the court even as the Karnataka results were coming out and proved a downer for a number of leaders of the Congress and the UPA. Obviously this contributed in a big way to the stunting of the whitewash effort.

Simultaneously, what happened within the Congress did play a similar role. Several senior leaders of the party told this correspondent that the aggressive advancement of this line was firmly put down at the highest levels in the party. “It was clearly conveyed to the champions of this line that the party cannot really push this before the people or before political observers. The basis for the communication of this message was the realisation that the charges against the Ministers and the government on various counts were serious and were bound to come back repeatedly in various platforms to pose diverse challenges. The leadership knew that in such a situation there was no way we could say that we have got a clean chit from the people,” a senior Minister told Frontline . Another senior Congress leader and former Union Minister pointed out that using the “people’s clean chit” as an escape route out of the current mess would have been similar to Narendra Modi’s claims that his three consecutive Assembly election victories should be seen as the people exonerating him of the charges relating to the 2002 anti-Muslim genocide in Gujarat. “The times are such that no political party can afford to adopt such cynical political posturing,” the former Minister said. In the background of this understanding, the responses from Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh on the Karnataka results were indeed moderate. “We expected to win. It was a joint effort,” was Sonia Gandhi’s response. Manmohan Singh said that “despite the campaign against the UPA, the people of Karnataka have spoken strongly and given a clear result against the ideology of the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]”.

The former Minister added that the soft-pedalling of the “people’s clean chit” line was only one of the steps that the Congress leadership needed to take at this stage. “There is little doubt that the crisis that the party is facing now is the biggest ever in the history of the UPA. And we would have to take more steps to control the slide,” he added. Neither the former Minister nor several other Congress leaders at different levels who spoke to Frontline about this situation could delineate on the concrete steps they had in mind. But the overall thrust laid bare the sense of alarm and apprehension over the seemingly never-ending exposes of corruption and other scams in the UPA and the inability of the leadership of the party and the government to come up with effective manoeuvres to counter this politically and administratively. Since the first anniversary of UPA-II, the Congress and the government have consistently faced serious allegations of corruption and wrongdoing with new charges emerging, on an average, every alternate week. Charges have been levelled against at least half a dozen Ministers at any given point of time. The names of the Ministers may have changed, the level of charges may have changed, but the number has always been more or less the same. This in itself is a unique record. The list of scams under the UPA-II started with the Commonwealth Games (CWG) and moved on to the exposure of the 2G spectrum allocations, the Adarsh Housing scam, the Westland helicopter scam, the coal allocations scam, the banking and money-laundering scam and, most recently, the Railways appointment scam (see separate story).

No place to hide Pawan Kumar Bansal and Ashwani Kumar resigned as Ministers on May 10. Two other Ministers still under the scanner of various investigative agencies include Sriprakash Jaiswal and Salman Khurshid. The two Ministers dropped recently from the Cabinet, Subodh Kant Sahai and M.S. Gill, are also under investigation. Over the past six months there has been a qualitative aggravation of the allegations and their scope and extent. So much so, that the PMO itself has come in the line of fire in cases such as the inappropriate intervention in the Coalgate investigation by the CBI.

This growing aggravation, point out several senior leaders in the Congress, has had a severely damaging effect on governance and even on the functioning of Parliament. One of the themes that get highlighted repeatedly in the interactions within the Congress and outside refers to the political and governance failures that have resulted in a new equation between the CBI and the ruling dispensation. “A repeating story about the CBI and the ruling dispensation at the Centre is that the latter uses the investigative agency to rake up issues to target political opponents and State governments run by them. But with the Coalgate revelations, the Union Government, perhaps for the first time in the history of the CBI, seems to be apprehensive about the motives and possible manoeuvres of the investigative agency,” was the refrain that kept coming up time and again. The stasis of governance and parliamentary functioning has in turn led to such a situation where even crucial legislation planned by different sections of the government is not getting passed. Over and above all this, the Congress and the government seem to have no plans to stem the rot. So much so that there are perceptions about a growing divide between the Congress president and the Prime Minister on vital issues and this perception has started percolating to the lower echelons of the party.

In fact, in the days of suspense before Pawan Kumar Bansal and Ashwani Kumar resigned, many in the party were concerned about the fact that the party president and the Prime Minister were not on the same page on deciding the fate of the Ministers. By all indications, Sonia Gandhi wanted the removal of both, but Manmohan Singh apparently was protecting them staunchly, particularly Ashwani Kumar. Individual Ministers and senior leaders, too, were reportedly divided on the issue. A meeting held in the last week of the Budget session highlighted this clash and the indecisiveness that has come to characterise this situation.

The divide within The meeting on May 5 saw the Congress leadership go into a huddle to discuss the charges against it on the Coalgate interventions and the bribery scandal in Railway postings. As the meeting progressed, other senior Congress leaders, who too were watching the meeting from outside, interpreted the developments inside and offered different pointers at different junctures. First, it was said that the party leadership would take the moral high ground and ask both the Ministers to resign. Then came the pointer that the charges against Bansal involved a direct monetary dimension and hence he would go, but not Ashwani Kumar. Eventually, both resigned.

This flip-flop was all too evident and there was little doubt what it meant in terms of a larger political signal. The famous, decisive and purposeful duo of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh that was toasted many a time during the 2004-09 UPA-I regime was well and truly a thing of the past. That duo was now in the clutches of rank indecisiveness. So much so that there was no commonality in approach even in covering up the tracks of wrongdoing perpetrated jointly and severally by many in the Council of Ministers.

Parliament gets the short shrift The larger impact this political climate has had on the functioning of Parliament has been recorded by a study conducted by PRS Legislative Research. The organisation, which has been analysing the functioning of Parliament closely for many years, pointed out that the 15th Lok Sabha, which entered its fifth and final year in May, would go down as the most disrupted House in more than 60 years of India’s parliamentary history. The study pointed out that the 14th Lok Sabha fared much better even though the ruling UPA had a larger number of partners in the government. The UPA-I government managed to pass 173 pieces of legislation, including the landmark Right to Information, Right to Work and Right to Education Bills. In contrast, the UPA-II has huffed and puffed to push 96 Bills through.

The study points to the reasons for this colossal non-performance: the eruption of several corruption scams and their exposure through instruments such as the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) on matters such as 2G spectrum allocation, the Commonwealth Games, coal-block allocation, farm-loan waiver and implementation of the rural employment guarantee scheme. The study also noted that issues such as price rise and foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail had caused unprecedented disruptions in Parliament sessions and thereby the functioning of the government. Clearly, the PRS study points to the larger neoliberal political and economic policy paradigm that has resulted in the spate of unprecedented corruption scandals and inappropriate administrative interventions.

Making a larger political comment on the developments in Parliament and outside, the Patna-based political analyst Surendra Kishore observed that in many ways, this drift reminded one of the Weimar Republic of Germany of the 1920s, which was marked by an overall lack of direction in governance, hyperinflation, corruption and political extremism of both left-wing and right-wing denominations. “UPA-II,” Kishore says, “seems well on course of replicating the record of the Weimar Republic, which ruled for 14 years cementing a misdirected approach in terms of policies and programmes and led to the ascent of the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler in the early 1930s.”

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