Manmohan Singh’s fall from grace



Most people will tell you that this has been a week of mixed fortunes for the Congress. On the one hand, the party won an impressive victory in Karnataka, crushing the BJP. And on the other, it was forced to sack two central ministers. So, the pundits will say, there has been good news and bad news and the signals are far from clear.

I don’t necessarily disagree with this view. But I think it misses the point. The real message from the events of the last week is clear and apparent. When the Congress fights elections far away from Delhi, on issues that matter to ordinary people (such as governance in Karnataka), then it does well. But the moment we get to Delhi and to the central government, the party is in deep trouble.

I won’t dwell too much on the reasons for the Karnataka victory, having spent a full day saying my piece on television. But the Congress needs to recognise that despite its inherent strengths and the BJP’s inherent weaknesses (both of which explain the Karnataka results) there is no real hope of an improvement in its fortunes unless it does something about the government at the centre. Otherwise, no matter how much Congress workers achieve at the state level, the prime minister and the government will always let them down.

I don’t want to pre-judge Pawan Bansal’s guilt while the investigation is on. But in the case of Ashwani Kumar, the facts speak for themselves. Nobody – not even Kumar himself – disputes that the law minister asked the CBI director to show him an affidavit that was to be filed in court. Nobody disputes that two joint secretaries, one from the PMO and the other from the coal ministry, were also asked to check out the affidavit. And nobody disputes that as a consequence of this political interference, the affidavit was changed.

Ashwani Kumar’s defence was that the changes were minor and that he was within his rights to ask to see the affidavit. Both these claims have been dismissed by the Supreme Court. According to the bench, the law minister should not have been shown the affidavit by the CBI. And as for the changes, the Supreme Court does not believe they were minor. It says that they struck at the heart of the affidavit.

So, in the Ashwani Kumar case at least, we have a degree of certainty. There can be no doubt now that a minister of the central government interfered in the investigative process and knowingly and wilfully forced the CBI to submit an affidavit that did not serve the ends of justice.

Given all this, only two questions remain. The first is the question of motive: why did Ashwani Kumar change the affidavit? And the second is the question of consequences: even when it had been demonstrated that Kumar had perverted the course of justice, why was the prime minister so reluctant to take any action against him?

Only one explanation fits the facts and provides some answers. Ashwani Kumar is Manmohan Singh’s man. He is a nice enough fellow, bright and articulate with an ability to get along with people. But he is a political lightweight who is not taken seriously by the Congress party. He owed his ministerial berth entirely to Manmohan Singh. When he was dropped in a reshuffle, it was Manmohan Singh who insisted that he must be brought back and gave him another portfolio over the objections of the Congress party.

It is no secret that any investigation of Coalgate is bound to involve the prime minister. After all, he was in charge of the coal portfolio when many of the events under investigation occurred. Clearly Kumar’s interest in the affidavit was to ensure that the CBI submitted nothing to the Supreme Court that embarrassed Manmohan Singh. That is why a joint secretary from the PMO was drafted to assist the law minister.

When Kumar’s intervention became public, many people expected that he would be sacked. And certainly, given Manmohan Singh’s reputation for integrity and propriety, that was a reasonable expectation.

So, why didn’t the prime minister act? Well, because he could hardly punish Ashwani Kumar for trying to save him, could he?

Eventually, after the Congress president made an issue out of Kumar’s continuance in office, and the Supreme Court was critical of his role, Manmohan Singh had no choice but to sack Kumar. Even then, he spent all of Friday trying to save his protégé – which is why Kumar’s resignation was only announced late at night.

When you contrast the stunning victory in Karnataka with the sordid machinations of Coalgate, you realise what the problem is. The Manmohan Singh government is now so deeply involved in scams and cover-ups that it has lost the ability to tell wrong from right. The prime minister has lost his moral compass as he has struggled to stay afloat.

No matter how well the Congress does in the states – and Karnataka follows a victory in Himachal – it will never recover its national stature or the sheen it had when the UPA was first elected as long as this government ducks and weaves between scams and cover-ups of those scams. And Manmohan Singh, who we hailed in 1991 as a second father of a resurgent nation, is now – sadly and tragically – beginning to look more and more like Richard Nixon in the last.

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