Sonia takes charge to clear government mess
The UPA’s much-talked-about “dual power structure” appears to be in the process of being dismantled with Congress chief Sonia Gandhi decisively stepping in to take charge of a government rocked by scams and indiscretions.
The forced resignation of tainted ministers Pawan Bansal and Ashwani Kumar is an indication of the dismantling process. Their sacking was a precondition set by BJP, to allow Sonia’s pet project-the Food Bill-to be passed in Parliament.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s extended protection to the two had stalled business in the House, leaving the Bill hanging. Just as a few days ago, it was leaked to the media that Manmohan brought about the situation on himself by putting his own interest above that of the government and the party. Sources said Sonia sees the Food Security Bill as her best bet in the 2014 elections.
The Congress president is now counting on the promise made to her by BJP’s Sushma Swaraj that “once the two tainted ministers are sacked, the Bill will be passed”. The two joint secretaries in the PMO and Coal ministry who were involved in doctoring the CBI report will be facing the heat.
In another indication that Sonia means business, she is directly influencing the composition of the Cabinet and auditing the performance of Cabinet members. On Friday, she had called a meeting at Jawahar Bhawan around noon to discuss the need for a reshuffle without Manmohan Singh being present-a first. For the past nine years, she had left it to the Prime Minister to select his own team in spite of her reservations about some. Both she and son Rahul Gandhi had confined themselves to running the affairs of the party. But the Bansal-Ashwani controversy has changed the equation.
The duo have realised that non-functional and scandal-ridden ministers were destroying the future prospects of the Congress in which old timers don’t seem to have any stake.
She has also been upset about the way senior ministers have dealt with most of the allies. Another indication of the family getting involved in matters of state became evident when Rahul went his own team to oversee the election of the new leader of the Congress legislature party in Karnataka.
After a very long time in Indian politics, a secret ballot was held to choose the chief minister and whose name was announced immediately.
After tainted ministers Pawan Bansal and Ashwani Kumar were forced to resign, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who had confined herself to running the party, will be stepping in to take charge of the scam-rocked government.
Not only has Sonia eased out Bansal and Kumar, two figures seen to be the Prime Minister’s Men, she has decided their replacements as well.
So ace lawyer Kapil Sibal gets installed in the law ministry, and family loyalist C P Joshi gets the Railway Ministry he was once slotted for, having been Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s original choice. They are already holding the Telecom and Roadways portfolios.
For the first time since the UPA came to power, the Congress chief ignored protocol and called a meeting of party leaders, a few selected general secretaries and her political secretary Ahmed Patel, reportedly to discuss whether another Cabinet reshuffle would help the government climb out of the political bog.
What was significant is that such matters were discussed without the Prime Minister being part of the meeting. (He was only to be briefed later.)
The discussions centred on what was needed-a minor facelift or a bigger Cabinet reshuffle. In the coming weeks, the Congress is anticipating more direct attacks on the PM from the Opposition.
The BJP is already ratcheting up the decibel levels. Whatever steps are taken, including a reshuffle, sources said, would be to counter that offensive.
The PM’s absence at the meeting to discuss survival strategies shows how the wind may blow in the remaining months. And the fact that Dr Singh was to be “briefed’’ on the outcome of the meeting by Patel also implies a serious humiliation of the prime minister.
Till now, the Congress President would take the trouble of driving down to 7 Race Road-the prime ministerial residence-to do the briefing herself.
As the dismantling process began, Sonia was also breaking yet another personal but sacrosanct rule-of not working on weekends. The meeting, of course, was held under the aegis of the Jawahar Bhavan Trust.
It was apparent to Congress watchers and senior leaders that no one was buying the innocuous tag; neither those who went to attend it nor those who were keeping a hawk’s eye on the outcome of the proceedings. Given the unsettled political context, it was hardly believable that the Congress top brass would have the time and space to devote attention to the running of non-political family trusts.
Meanwhile, the PM has ostensibly been provided with an ace lawyer in the form of Sibal, who hopefully would clean up the mess left by Kumar in the Coalgate papers controversy and prepare a legal defence when the Supreme Court takes a call on the issue of Kumar’s “impropriety’’ on July 10.
But sources in the party say that Sibal was a compromise choice; Sonia had also sent an emissary to Karnataka Governor H R Bharadwaj to try persuading him to return to Delhi in the hope that as law minister, he can restore the balance between the Executive and the Judiciary.
However, there is no information regarding Bharadwaj’s reaction.