Another minister singed by the Coalgate embers

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Out of favour? Ashwani Kumar’s elevation as law minister came as a surprise to a lot of people in the Congress. Photo: Dijeshwar Singh
Out of favour? Ashwani Kumar’s elevation as law minister came as a surprise to a lot of people in the Congress. Photo: Dijeshwar Singh

Union Minister of Law and Justice Ashwani Kumar is a worried man. On 13 April, he was summoned to a meeting of the Congress core group comprising Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, Sushil Kumar Shinde, AK Antony and Ahmed Patel. The senior leadership is apparently irked by reports of Kumar’s interference in the CBI investigation into the multi-crore coal block allocation scam.

The scam came to light in 2012, when a Comptroller and Auditor General report said that coal blocks had been allocated in a non-transparent manner, leading to a loss of 1.86 lakh crore to the exchequer. The CBI had taken up the probe at the insistence of the Central Vigilance Commission and is expected to submit its report soon. It has been alleged that the law minister met CBI Director Ranjit Sinha in a bid to water down the agency’s report. For its part, the agency has held that it has conducted the probe without any interference or influence and will submit its report in the Supreme Court.

For the government, the allegations could not have come at a worse time. After what has been a tumultuous couple of years, the UPA has had two trouble-free sessions in Parliament in a long time. The latest controversy over the law minister’s “interference” is bound to create another trying period in office for Prime Minister Singh’s men. The party’s resources are already stretched with the Narendra Modi onslaught and the pulls and pressures of its own allies. For the opposition, the Coalgate “meddling” issue will provide good fodder in Parliament.

Party insiders say both the prime minister and Congress president Sonia Gandhi are unhappy at the way the 60-year-old minister has handled the issue. Finance Minister P Chidambaram — a seasoned lawyer himself — too grilled Kumar in the core group meeting. In his defence, Kumar told the group that he had only given advice when it was sought. As law minister, it was his duty to answer queries on all legal issues an agency might have. Moreover, he added that he was being targeted at the behest of his rivals within the party. A lawyer-turned-politician, Kumar is considered an outsider in the party ranks of the Congress. A Rajya Sabha MP, he was minister of state for parliamentary affairs, before being promoted to law minister.

Prior to this elevation, Kumar had never held an important post in the Congress’ organisational set-up, nor was he ever a member of the coveted Congress Working Committee, the apex decision-making body of the party. Unlike other senior leaders within the party, he has not supervised any state election. At best a political “lightweight”, his record in the party was far from outstanding, a necessary qualification for any minister.

That is primarily why his arrival as law minister in October 2012 had taken everyone by surprise, even within the Congress. “At the most, he deserved a minister of state (MoS) post,” says a Congress insider. The series of goof-ups after he has taken office has not helped his cause much.

As minister, Kumar would reportedly ring up Congress MLAs of Punjab to organise felicitation programmes in his honour. Posters had to adorn the walls of whichever town or city he visited, thanking the Congress high command for making him the law minister. The MLA concerned was also supposed to receive him at the airport with supporters shouting slogans. This did not sit well with the MLAs and a whisper campaign was started, which eventually reached Delhi.

A senior Congress member relates an incident when Kumar excused himself from a function saying that he had to go to his constituency. “He is a Rajya Sabha member,” says the senior Congressman, “so, which constituency is he talking about?” Such banter has added to the law minister’s growing unpopularity.

Kumar’s first brush with serious political crisis began when he got into a tangle with senior law officers. According to sources, Kumar would constantly interfere in the work of his officers — including the solicitor general and attorney general — sometimes giving unsolicited advice on how to go about their cases.

Things came to a head when he asked former solicitor general Rohinton Nariman, son of eminent jurist Fali Nariman, to be personally present to defend the government in the Telecom Disputes Settlement Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT).

Nariman was in Mumbai at that time, and he told the law minister that it was the additional solicitor general’s brief to appear in Tribunals. A heated argument ensued between the two. Sources close to Nariman say that things got so ugly that he called Kumar a “brief-less lawyer” who became law minister. Nariman resigned soon after this incident. When Congress leaders got wind of the incident, some even privately said they would be sending sweets to Nariman. It was evident the law minister was losing ground and fast.

Then came the Criminal Amendment Bill, 2012, also commonly known as the anti-rape Bill. Though the Bill was being piloted by the home ministry, the law ministry too had an important role to play in it. Given the massive public outrage in Delhi in December 2012, when a 23-year-old girl was brutally gangraped inside a moving bus, this Bill was crucial for the UPA.

The government brought in an Ordinance, so that a law could be framed immediately. A Bill had to be brought in at the start of the Budget Session, else the Ordinance would lapse. The Bill was brought to the Cabinet three times in five days, but each time the law ministry was found wanting. On two occasions, the ministry could not come to a decision regarding the age of consent.

HAVING GONE through the contours of the Bill, the Cabinet was convinced that it would not get through Parliament in its present form. There were serious objections even from the Congress’ own allies. The Samajwadi Party and the BSP were not in favour of relaxing the age of consent. Some felt that making rape gender neutral was not a good move.

Eventually, the Bill had to be referred to an EGoM, which consisted of eminent lawyers from the Cabinet and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath. It was only after the EGoM submitted its version of the Bill that it was eventually cleared by Parliament.

Kumar is known as Manmohan Singh’s man in the Cabinet. A widely circulated joke is that he is the choice of the “Kaur group”, rather than the core group. While the CBI probe meddling controversy has given the Opposition ammunition for the upcoming session of Parliament, calls for the law minister’s resignation have started getting louder. Having lost a number of its ministers to various scams and allegations, the UPA would be loathe to let another minister resign.

However, with the DMK pull-out, the government finds itself surviving on a wafer-thin majority, and letting Kumar go might be the only option left for Manmohan Singh to save an already crumbling edifice. The law minister could well be enjoying his last few days in office.

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