Of coal and power play

Dwindling fortunes Instead of mounting a strong defence in the wake of Coalgate, the Congress party is raring for a Cabinet reshuffle
Photo: PIB

EARLIER THIS month, as the Monsoon Session of the Parliament began, a senior Congress minister was asked whether the party and its MPs were worried about the Assam violence and the resultant frenzy of protests, conspiracies and scare-mongering across the country. “Congress MPs,” the minister said, “are not worried about the Monsoon Session. They are only thinking of 8 September and the Cabinet reshuffle.”

The Monsoon Session ends on 7 September. In the following week — perhaps even the following day — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is expected to reshuffle his ministry. While previous such exercises have proven damp squibs and scarcely given the government a new face or new energy, hope springs eternal in the soul of the average Congress MP. As a result, there is optimism about and lobbying for ministerial slots, for promotion from minister of state rank, for blocking advance of in-house rivals and so on.

The idea of a reshuffle and of new ministers has completely engrossed Congress MPs. It is not just NDA functionaries who are saying this, but UPA insiders, representing the largest party of the ruling coalition as well as junior partners. Why?

The final months of a government are always an opportune moment for politicians and ministers with an eye on the main chance. After the current session, there is the Winter Session and then the Budget Session, in which UPA-2 will present its final budget. That’s about it. With a non-stop election season beginning with Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat this December, the next 18 months are when politics will dominate, parliamentary scrutiny (as opposed to noise) will diminish and ministers will begin winding up operations. As such, anybody with resourceful aspirations would want to get a foot in the door now, and become a minister in September 2012. After that it may be too late.

This impatience and cynicism explain the Congress’ response to the coal swindle report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). There is no question of the prime minister resigning. If he had to resign, he would have done so months ago; there were plenty of opportunities if he were so inclined. The fact is the Congress has no alternative besides him — and he knows it.

The Congress has no alternative but to brazen it out on the coal issue either. The CAG’s numbers and presumption of loss may be exaggerated and unfair, especially as it uses current market price to tabulate notional losses suffered six or seven years ago. However, there are so many inconsistencies in the government’s argument that the ruling party doesn’t have its heart in a defence operation.

Take a simple query. Does the government believe auctions are the only or most transparent method of allocating resources such as coal-mines? If it doesn’t and if it has taken a firm and principled line on this, it is one thing. However, can this square up with discussing, proposing and then sabotaging coal-mine auctions for eight years? That fundamental question requires clarification. Pointing to letters written by this BJP government or that CPM government can make for piquant news stories — but cannot answer that basic question.

That is why the real issue is not the CAG’s overblown statistical display or the omnipotence the CAG’s office is being accorded in media and public discourse (both of which are of concern on their own). The real issue is the government’s utter cynicism and resignation that since it is tired of the multiple zeroes that accompany the monetisation of every succeeding scandal, the public must be too; that since it is answerable for so many questions, it is actually answerable for none. Willy-nilly, what is on test is not the CAG’s accountancy — but the Congress’ politics.

It has become so pathetic that the party and its ministers don’t even realise the laughing stock they are making of themselves with their silly little crusade against social media, blocking even parody sites that have had nothing to do with fomenting trouble post-Assam. If you don’t have the stomach for a War against Terrorism, you can always substitute it with a War against Twitter.

The 15th Lok Sabha has run its course. The Congress, or the BJP, won’t miss it. Neither will India

THE CONGRESS is on the back-foot and cynical. The BJP is on the front-foot and cynical. It believes it need not resolve its leadership conundrum or delineate its economic programme. It believes the Congress’ atrophy will make the BJP stronger almost by a process of automaticity.

The BJP realises it will not succeed in forcing Manmohan Singh to resign or even pushing ahead with a no-confidence motion. Nitish Kumar is sending mixed signals (and at the cusp of becoming about as much of a maverick as Mulayam Singh Yadav, but that’s another story). Mamata Banerjee is not going to walk out of the UPA government at a timing of the BJP’s choosing. The Left has its own plans. As such, the BJP doesn’t have the numbers in the House.

However, it is convinced it has the momentum outside. There are three reasons for this. First, it senses the prime minister’s credibility is now in free fall. Whether this is fair or not, justified or otherwise, the point is it is a politically valid assumption. As such, targeting the prime minister on the coal issue — and walking out of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on grounds that if Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sushma Swaraj can be considered for questioning by the JPC then why not Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram — would seem persuasive.

Second, it feels the slowdown of the economy and the general anti-incumbency sentiment in urban areas will inevitably lead to a vote against the Congress, with the BJP as the natural beneficiary. Third, the resurgence in identity politics in recent weeks — triggered by the Congress’ administrative failures and slow-poisoning of economic hope — is giving rise to the assessment that the BJP might be the surprise gainer in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 elections, much like the Congress was in 2009.

Make no mistake, the passions of Assam and Gujarat, Mumbai and Pune and even Bengaluru will ultimately be voted for and against in the small towns of Uttar Pradesh. The Samajwadi Party and the BJP may be the ultimate beneficiaries of a polarised vote.

WHAT DOES all this mean for Parliament, and for the India that lies beyond? At best, only the past week was a washout. At worst, all of next year could be a washout. In truth, the 15th Lok Sabha has run its course and is finished with its effective life. The Congress, and in fact the BJP as well, have no real need for it now. They won’t miss it. Neither will India.

Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor, Tehelka.


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