May 10, 2013 will go down in India’s political history as a day of unprecedented upheaval at the Centre as two Union ministers of cabinet rank were forced to quit on the same day — under a cloud. While the minister of law, Ashwani Kumar, faced accusations of having forced the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to doctor its report on the coal blocks allocation scam, railways minister Pawan Kumar Bansal had to quit in a huff following complaints of bribery over plum postings on the Railway Board.
And ironically, all that happened barely 48 hours after the Congress party tasted significant electoral success in the Karnataka state elections. So, instead of lapping up every bit of a well-deserved victory over arch-rivals Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress finds itself neck-deep in damage-control mode over serious allegations of transgression of executive authorities on the part of two senior ministers of the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
This is not the first time that the UPA has had to deal with the embarrassment of graft charges. But what had started like a single, isolated case of malaise with the 2G telecom scam has now acquired the proportions of an epidemic involving trillions of rupees. The latest revelations are much more damaging than any of the previous incidents of impropriety because the coal scam surfaced when Prime Minister Singh himself was in charge of the coal portfolio.
And it is indeed no small matter that joint secretary-level officers from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the Coal Ministry were present at the meeting with CBI officials, when the premier federal investigative agency was apparently told to modify the draft of its dossier on “coalgate” to remove certain damaging references to the PMO, which, according to the Supreme Court, had resulted in “changing the heart of the report” and the “direction of the probe”.
With Kumar gone, there is no doubt that the Opposition will now train its guns directly at none other than the prime minister himself. In fact, Congress had dithered with Kumar’s sacking in the immediate aftermath of the current controversy precisely because it knew that Kumar’s removal, while bearing all the trappings of an exemplary action, would also bring the prime minister in the direct line of fire. However, sensing the groundswell of public opinion against the government and the party, Congress had to move fast and decisively to at least convey an iota of accountability to the man on the street.
But the point is, what the Congress has managed to achieve with the sacking of the two ministers is just a patchwork of Band-Aid on a wound of gangrenous proportions.
With Kumar’s role coming under the scanner, the question that obviously arises is that at whose behest did the former law minister act like the way he allegedly did? After all, he himself did not stand to make any direct monetary gains from the tainted coal block allocations. So was he acting under the directives of someone higher up to doctor the CBI probe report?
It is indeed most unfortunate for the country that while the personal integrity and honesty of Prime Minister Singh have never been in question, the controversy over the CBI report and the alleged role of Kumar have, for the first time, left Singh with a lot of explaining to do — both inside and outside the parliament. And that is one embarrassment that the Congress-led UPA government could certainly have done without after a particularly lacklustre run in its second term – a term sullied by skeletons tumbling out of the cupboard with an embarrassing frequency.
Just come to think of it. The former railways minister’s nephew — with no authority whatsoever to be anywhere within the precincts of the ministry — was apparently putting key Railway Board Member posts up for grabs for huge sums of cash, running his office from within the Rail Bhavan (the Railways Ministry headquarters)!
Do we have to assume that all this happened without the railways minister’s knowledge? There is a limit to which one can employ a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ — as Samuel Taylor Coleridge had propounded in his poetic vision. Taking Bansal’s claims of non-complicity at face value will surely go well beyond that.
Under the circumstances, it will certainly be in the best interest of Congress and the government to apply emergency brakes on the UPA — that is heading for disaster at breakneck speed — and seek a fresh mandate from the electorate. After all, the party and the government have already lost much of their credibility with so many graft cases of such astronomical proportions coming to light over the last couple of years.
The next general elections are still a year away, but if the Congress allows the UPA to continue with its suicide mission, history may well be rather unforgiving to such illustrious careers as that of Sonia Gandhi’s and Manmohan Singh’s.