As expected, the Supreme Court turned out to be the party pooper for the Congress. A comprehensive victory was wrested in Karnataka, but before the party could savour the moment, even before the victorious feeling of decimating the BJP in its southern bastion could sink in, the tone of the narrative had changed for the Congress.
The Manmohan Singh-led UPA government had an inkling of what was in store on 8 May. Two days earlier, the CBI had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, detailing all the changes the agency had made in the draft report of the coal block allocation scam, based on the recommendations by Union Law Minister Ashwani Kumar, Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati and the two Joint Secretaries in the Prime Minister’s Office.
At the three-hour hearing in a packed courtroom, the three-judge Bench tore into both the CBI and the UPA government and accused the latter of not only political interference but also changing the crux of the Coalgate investigation report. Calling the CBI a “caged parrot” that has too many masters and speaks only his master’s voice, the Supreme Court hauled up the agency for doing a shoddy investigation in the case.
The CBI counsel replied that the agency will “follow the order in letter and spirit and carry out a thorough probe”.
The scam came to light following a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report on coal block allocations in 2004-09. The CAG contends that although the government could allocate coal blocks by competitive bidding, it chose not to. In its draft report, the CAG estimated that the “windfall gain” to the allocatees was Rs 1.76 lakh crore.
“The Supreme Court came down heavily on the CBI for sharing its report with the Attorney General and the two Joint Secretaries who not only saw the report but also suggested changes to the paragraphs that were highly critical of the government,” says noted lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who is one of the petitioners in the Coalgate case.
Vineet Narain, another petitioner, said that “the Supreme Court had laid down conditions in the Jain hawala case, but those have not been followed”. In a similar reference, the court told the CBI that “15 years ago, we gave you strength to be like a rock, but you continue to be like sand”.
The Supreme Court judges were so taken aback by the CBI’s brazenness that they asked how could the Joint Secretaries and the coal ministry be a party to this meeting between the CBI and the law minister and suggest changes to the report.
Further embarrassment was in store for Law Minister Kumar when Attorney General Vahanvati refuted the affidavit filed by CBI chief Ranjit Sinha and said that “he never sought the CBI report and was only acting on the law minister’s instructions”. The SC also ordered the reinstatement of former CBI DIG Ravi Kant as the investigation officer. It was Ravi Kant who had investigated the coal block allocation and prepared the original draft report.
In a significant four-point directive, the court asked the government to come up with a law before 10 July to insulate the CBI from external influence and intrusion.
According to a senior CBI officer, the Supreme Court’s scathing observations have brightened up the chances of the agency gaining autonomy. He also drew attention to the fact that even though the apex court had conceded that the CBI can’t be given “unbridled power”, the severe strictures passed against the government might ensure the independence of the CBI probe. If this happens, it will be nothing short of revolutionary, says the officer.
This observation was also welcomed by former CBI director Joginder Singh, who said, “This case is very good for the investigation agency’s autonomy. With such clear-cut instructions, chances of political manipulation is less.”
While the Supreme Court observations put the government on the mat, as soon as the Congress realised that there was no direct reference made to the law minister, the initial plan of dropping Kumar was dumped with immediate effect.
“The government has taken note of the various suggestions made by the Supreme Court,” said Congress spokesperson Renuka Chowdhury. “There was nothing wrong with the meetings held between the law minister and the bureaucrats. The prime minister is in no way culpable.”
It soon became clear that the man in the eye of the storm, Kumar, will live to fight another day or two as minister.
The BJP was quick to react to this development. In a barrage of tweets, senior leader Sushma Swaraj said, “The Additional Solicitor General blamed the Attorvney General. Now the Attorney General is blaming the law minister. The fact is that all three of them ‘misconducted’. The Additional Solicitor General has resigned. The Attorney General and law minister should resign forthwith.”
Senior BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu added, “The CBI affidavit clearly shows that the law minister was involved. The PM has no moral right to continue in his office.”
While sources within the Congress agree that Kumar’s days as law minister are numbered, the million-dollar question that remains unanswered is why is he still there? What makes Kumar so important that despite facing a huge embarrassment, the Congress is still backing him?
The answer can be gleaned from the course of events at an emergency meeting of the Congress core group that was held in New Delhi on 5 May. Before the meeting started, it was decided among the top leaders that Kumar will have to put in his papers. This was being done because several core group members felt that Kumar’s position in the Cabinet has become highly untenable.
Interestingly, Defence Minister AK Antony raised the issue in the core group and categorically stated that it was getting very embarrassing for the UPA government. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath also agreed that Kumar’s continuation in office was a liability for the party.
What saved the day for Kumar was the prime minister’s unstinted support and a view within the group that the party should not be seen as bowing down to the Opposition’s diktat under no circumstance. It was also decided that no major action like sacking a minister should be taken in a week when the party was within sniffing distance of a poll win.
The Congress leadership is also wary of the fact that in the past, leaders such as Shashi Tharoor and Ashok Chavan were sacrificed at the altar of political expediency, though their ‘crimes’ were not that big. This time, the senior members were of the opinion that wrongdoing (in other words, a direct indictment by the apex court) must be established before taking a final call.
The other important point under discussion was that if the law minister goes, the attack will shift to the prime minister’s doorstep. Although Congress president Sonia Gandhi is reportedly not very comfortable with the idea of Kumar continuing in office, she is not keen to show that the party and the government have succumbed under Opposition pressure.
The core group also came to the conclusion that the government should seize control of the situation as it was appearing to be drifting away. This meant that the entire agenda was being set by the Opposition and the government was only responding. Thus, the Food Security Bill was introduced for consideration and passing. This ensured the talking point had shifted from Coalgate for the time being.
That the Congress was caught between the devil and the deep sea over Kumar became evident when the law minister was asked to explain the facts to the Congress spokespersons and panelists who had the unenviable task of defending him. Very soon, the meeting turned into a grilling match, with senior leaders and spokespersons openly expressing their dissatisfaction with his explanation. Kumar reportedly told them that if he goes, the party will face collateral damage.
He tried to explain that there was no wrongdoing on his part and that no court order had indicted him. Though unconvinced by his explanation, the spokespersons had to carry on with the onerous task of defending Kumar.
However, the tidings for Kumar are ominous. It has been conveyed to the government (read the PM) by the Congress leadership that Kumar has been found wanting on several counts. Important Cabinet berth cannot be given to individuals who cannot conduct themselves with the highest standard the chair demands.
While the government may have temporarily warded off the crisis by adjourning Parliament sine die so that the Opposition does not exploit any adverse reaction by the Supreme Court, the Congress is actively exploring the idea of letting Kumar go under the garb of a Cabinet reshuffle. In all, posts of three Cabinet ministers and five Minister of State berths are lying vacant.
With the Parliament session now over and the ninth anniversary of the UPA government looming large, it is certain that the axe will fall. The exit is certain; the only question is when?