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Axing ministers: Sonia's 'inner voice' again?

Published: 11th May 2013 03:08 PM  |   Last Updated: 11th May 2013 03:08 PM   |  A+A-

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In a display of assertive leadership, Sonia Gandhi seems to have played a major role in the sacking of the two Union ministers, Ashwini Kumar and Pawan Bansal, whose names had come under a cloud.

The fact that the dismissals took place within hours of her "unscheduled" meeting with Manmohan Singh is not without significance. Aware that any further dithering might irreparably damage the Congress's and the government's image, the Sonia Gandhi saw to it that it was hers, and the party's, views which would ultimately prevail.

In the process, the prime minister's reputation has taken a hit, for it was suspected that he was reluctant to remove the two ministers, and especially Ashwini Kumar, since the latter's sacking would have exposed the prime minister himself to the direct line of fire in the coal mine allocation scandal.

Since the dismissal of the railway minister would have automatically led to the demand for the axing of the law minister as well - as it indeed happened - Manmohan Singh was evidently unwilling to take even the first step. The delay, however, via self-serving explanations, by spokespersons about how everyone was innocent under the law unless proven guilty, and that investigations were on, was proving fatally damaging to the party's credibility.

What was more, it was taking the sheen of the Congress's victory in Karnataka. Arguably, if the Karnataka result had not come out at this particular time, the government might have continued to maintain that there was no need to pre-empt the findings of the probes against Bansal and his relatives, and the Supreme Court's final judgment on Ashwini Kumar, by dismissing them. The willingness to let things drift could be seen in the abrupt decision to adjourn the Lok Sabha sine die to stifle the opposition's demand for the ministerial resignations.

However, what the government appears to have overlooked is the politically damaging consequences of public opinion, moulded to a considerable extent by an overactive media, which suspected a cover-up. This was truer of the law minister since he was seen to have been overzealous in changing the "heart" of the Central Bureau of Investigation's (CBI) report on the coal scam.

Since the prime minister's name has come up in this connection, the surmise was that the law minister tampered with the portions unfavourable to his boss. The presence of bureaucrats from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) by Ashwini Kumar's side - while he was supposedly correcting grammatical errors in the CBI report to the Supreme Court - deepened the suspicion. For the first time, therefore, since Manmohan Singh became the "accidental" prime minister, his Teflon image no longer seemed adequate.

From the vantage point of being outside the hothouse atmosphere of the government, Sonia Gandhi had evidently sensed that any further dragging of the foot on the two ministers was politically untenable. If the Karnataka verdict brought forward the day of their sacking, the approach of the anniversary of the United Progressive Alliance's (UPA) ninth year in office also made it imperative that Ashwini Kumar and Bansal would be shown the door. The celebratory mood, already not all that upbeat because of a faltering economy, would have been further dampened by their presence in their official capacities.

This is the third time that Sonia Gandhi has been seen in a proactive mood. The first occasion was when she engineered the ouster of the then party chief, Sitaram Kesri, because of the belief that he was leading the Congress downhill. The second was when her "inner voice" told her that becoming prime minister herself in 2004, as the party wanted, would give an unnecessary handle to a demoralized Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to dramatize the "foreign national" issue and claw its way backs into public reckoning. Hence, her selection of Manmohan Singh.

Her latest act is the third time that she has taken a decisive step on what can be deemed an "official" matter. However, the initiative is in line with the satisfaction she expressed when Ashok Chavan and Shashi Tharoor resigned from their ministerial positions a few years ago. (Tharoor has since been rehabilitated.) She said at the time that while the BJP talked, the Congress acted.

This time, too, she could not but have noted how the electorate punished the BJP in Karnataka. It is also not impossible that she recalled how the Congress itself lost its massive majority in the Lok Sabha in 1989 because of the Bofors howitzer scandal.

She realized, therefore, that the party's prospects would be dim if it approached the forthcoming state assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi, and the general election thereafter, with a tainted image. As for the Karnataka outcome, it is obvious that the Congress did not win so much - after all, its voting percentages remained virtually static - as that the BJP lost with a steep 13 per cent drop in its vote share.

If the ministerial dismissals mark the beginning of an effort to cleanse the Augean stables of sleaze, it will be an eagerly awaited initiative by the people of India.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst.)



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