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14 May, 2013

Learning the wrong lessons

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The political leadership has developed a penchant for drawing the wrong conclusions, which does not augur well for Indian democracy.

Time was when the leadership of the Congress party, the premier political organisation, possessed the moral courage and authority to ask a holder of public office accused of misdemeanour to step down and stay out until he is cleared of all charges.

Now the party is in a debilitated state and its leadership has neither the courage nor the authority to act swiftly and decisively at a time of crisis. They vacillated for more than a week before asking Law Minister Ashwani Kumar and Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal, who were caught in acts inconsistent with the solemn oath they took on assumption of office, to put in their papers.

Ashwani Kumar had summoned the officials of the Central Bureau of Investigation, which is probing irregularities in the allocation of coal blocks, and made certain changes in the status report the agency had prepared for submission to the Supreme Court. He also got the agency to show the report to officials of the prime minister’s office and the coal ministry, giving them also the opportunity to make changes in it.

When CBI director Ranjit Sinha acknowledged in an affidavit that the agency had shared the report with the law minister and the officials and that they had made changes in it, government spokesmen sought to justify the interference in the investigation, advancing specious arguments. The law minister claimed he had only made minor verbal changes in the report.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid nonchalantly declared, “The government may be under the scanner but we have a right to find out what is happening.”

The interference of the PMO and the coal ministry constituted a grave impropriety since their acts are under scrutiny in the CBI probe. What’s more, the Supreme Court had specifically instructed the CBI not to share the report with the political executive.

While the government underplayed ministerial and bureaucratic interference in the investigation, the Supreme Court took a dim view of the situation. It described the CBI as a caged bird parroting the words of its many masters.

Pawan Kumar Bansal came under a cloud when the CBI caught his nephew Vijay Singla as he was accepting Rs9 million from a member of the Railway Board alleged as part payment of a hefty bribe for shifting him to another position, which will offer scope for collecting kickbacks in the award of contracts.

In keeping with the current level of political morality, the two ministers sought to brazen out the charges with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh extending silent support. Ashwani Kumar argued that the court’s stinging remarks did not contain any personal reference to him. Bansal claimed he had no business links with his nephew.

When the Congress won the assembly elections in Karnataka, where the Bharatiya Janata Party’s government was embroiled in serious graft charges, Manmohan Singh led an attempt to use the electoral victory to whitewash his beleaguered colleagues. He said it was a verdict against corruption, and the Congress party’s spokesmen attempted to project the Karnataka mandate as implicit rejection of the corruption charge against its own ministers.

Bansal’s continuance as minister became untenable as the CBI’s railgate investigation led to the arrest of some more persons close to him. Since the Supreme Court put off further hearing of the coalgate case until after the summer recess, the government thought there was no need to take an early decision on Ashwani Kumar’s future.

According to media reports, Manmohan Singh was forced to end pussy-footing and seek the resignation of the two ministers when Congress President Sonia Gandhi, realising that procrastination was damaging the party’s image, asked him to resolve the issue without delay. Many believe these reports are part of preparing the ground for Rahul Gandhi’s projection as the prime ministerial candidate ahead of the parliamentary elections due next year. 

It is not just the Congress party that is given to drawing the wrong conclusions from adverse developments. The Karnataka vote has dampened the BJP’s hopes of benefiting from the poor image of the scam-hit Manmohan Singh government. Its leadership appears to be looking up to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the saviour overlooking the reservations of its allies about him in view of his image as an accessory in the communal riots of 2002.

There is a rising demand to take the CBI out of the government’s hands and make it independent. This may be a case of the remedy being worse than the disease. The problem is not that the CBI is under the government but that there is a dearth of men of integrity in the agency and the government. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 14, 2013.

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