Every evidence shows that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is not going to take things lying down anymore. Despite the sharp shadows of uncertainty and scams that stalk his regime. Will the Centre hold?
Hardnews Bureau Delhi
When a usually grim Prime Minister Manmohan Singh smilingly got up to reply during a short-term debate in Parliament and imperiously rubbished the allegations by the opposition parties, especially by LK Advani, then he may have breathed new life into his government, which was floundering due to a rash of corruption charges and flawed decisions. Worse, it seemed driven by the dissension that was feeding a dirty power struggle within the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
Manmohan Singh's stellar performance during the parliamentary debate also showed that he has been able to fight off many of the demons that surrounded him, and seems ready to carry out his promised big reshuffle of the Council of Ministers, to cement his authority over a government that had lost its moral compass. There are reports that some key ministers who have brought shame to the government plus those who have not been delivering may be on the chopping block. And there are so many of them.
Hardnews learns that an exercise to make key changes in the ministry has been initiated by the prime minister. He is not only keen to improve dramatically the very lackadaisical performance of the infrastructure sector, but is also troubled by the extremely poor legal management by his government that repeatedly shows it up in poor light in the courts.
Serious reshuffles are destablising for the government as late PV Narasimha Rao, former prime minister, realised many years ago. His protégé, Manmohan Singh, too, knows the kind of forces such an exercise can unleash on a government trying to douse many bush fires. To undermine his capacity to make these changes, an impression has been created that he is on his way out as he has serious differences with Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi.
"Sonia and Singh have a strong bond, but some of the people around her try to give an impression of rift," said a senior party leader. It is these people, according to this politician, who feed the power struggle in the party. Sonia, by marshalling the MPs' support in Parliament during the debate, made it clear that she was solidly behind the prime minister.
Her trenchant support would put to rest the debate in the last couple of months in the party and the government over when Singh will give way to the next person - whoever it may be - if Rahul Gandhi is not ready for the job. Besides his inability to stop the 2G and Commonwealth Games scams, and botching up the appointment of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), PJ Thomas, his Rajya Sabha term ending in 2012 has been given as one of the reasons for his 'early' exit.
Some of the contenders have discreetly begun to make their moves to first tar Manmohan Singh's image, and then, jostle themselves into a position to take advantage of this uncertain environment. Opposition parties, as if on cue, have directed their ire at Singh, and, strangely, have been rather nasty in their attack against him. Traditionally, prime ministers were spared such viciousness.
His decision to take the bull by its horns and blunt the opposition attack has also given him the strength to neutralise many of those who tried to trap him in the 2G spectrum sale or the appointment of the CVC.
Regarding the 2G spectrum sale, the CAG and the Supreme Court recognised the strenuous attempts of the PM to discipline disgraced telecom minister A Raja. Although the PM was cramped by coalition dharma and manipulation by DMK and some corporate houses aligned with key decision-makers in the UPA phalanx, he comes clean, even though a little helpless. In a press conference held in Delhi, he had talked about being limited by the coalition dharma and expressed his resolve to take on the corrupt.
Since then, he has been quick to make his position and that of his other colleagues on the 2G spectrum sale quite clear. He was quick to state that the then finance minister, P Chidambaram, resolved his differences with the telecom minister on the pricing of spectrum sale after initially expressing his differences. Many saw in the PM's statement an unprecedented retaliation against a minister whom he trusted the most. Does this mean that there are serious problems between the prime minister and his home minister? Since that remark there has been no evidence of this rift, but one finds Singh defending himself more and more on many issues, with his extremely articulate home minister largely keeping to his volition.
Rifts between the two leaders have also shown up over the appointment of the CVC, who came to grief due to Supreme Court's sturdy intervention over charges of corruption against him. The PM's lawyer first told the court that the PM and other members of the selection panel were not supplied with the chargesheet against the CVC in the palmolein import scandal. Chidambaram had contradicted this position by clarifying that the selection committee was aware of the palmolien case. He had also rebutted charges levelled by BJP leader Sushma Swaraj that he had misled the panel by saying that Thomas had been "acquitted" in the palmolien case.
This messy altercation over Thomas's chargesheet not only clearly showed very shoddy legal management, but also conflicts within the top leadership of the cabinet. Here again, the PM came clean about the facts by stating that his then minister of personnel, and now the chief minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan, had failed to brief the PM adequately about l'affaire Thomas. Clearly, the PM was no longer going to carry the can for some of his ministers who did not perform their jobs.
The PM drew a lot of flak during the parliamentary debate from opposition leader Sushma Swaraj for shirking blame on key issues. However, there is clearly a change of strategy that seems to be visible about how he will govern during the rest of the term. It is apparent that he would not allow his good reputation to become a protective umbrella for every bandicoot in the government and outside to bilk billions out of the system.
If, indeed, he moves ahead on this chosen path, then he is bound to run into confrontation with some of his cabinet colleagues and some members of the ruling coterie. These are the people who give an impression that they exercise total autonomy and are not answerable to him; that, indeed, they are answerable only to 10, Janpath.
At least in the case of one cabinet minister, the PM has been heard saying that he is "rude and crude". Some of these ministers have tried to force decisions on the PM trying to show that they have to answer to a higher authority. In other cases, it has been reliably learnt, that some of these worthies have demanded certain things to be done - which would have benefited certain business houses - but the PM has apparently dug in his heels. It would be interesting to see whether he is able to axe such ministers from his Council of Ministers to restore his primacy.
Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has stuck to the script and enjoys respect for his hard work and deep understanding of parliamentary practices. However, some of the actions of his ministry, too, have not met the PM's approval. Recently, he allowed himself to endorse a complaint of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi against the Income Tax Department for sending out notices to all those business houses who signed MOUs during the 'Vibrant Gujarat' campaign.
The real reason for the prime minister's angst at the Income Tax Department probably lay in the rash of complaints that have been coming to his office about the arbitrary manner in which the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) has been functioning. Besides unleashing a raid raj, CBDT has been blamed for leaking the infamous Radia tapes. A front-page article in Hindustan Times last month had claimed that some senior officers of CBDT, along with fixers of a business house, were responsible for the leak of the tapes.
Ratan Tata has cried foul at the leak and demanded from the PM to take action against those who had brought the tapes into public domain. It is also learnt that the PM has been rather unhappy at the extension that has been given to some top officials of CBDT, as he does not want any embarrassment to visit his government after the Thomas episode.
The PM also has cause for concern in the rumours that there are differences between his finance and home ministers, two heavyweights in the Cabinet. He has chosen to stay away from this alleged face-off, but at some stage he will have to intervene to prevent the conflict to split the Council of Ministers.
Plus, there are the assembly elections in the crucial states of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, and in the union territory of Puducherry. These states would in some ways determine the boldness the PM should display in sorting out his government. If the UPA allies do badly in the assembly elections, then there would be a decisive change of attitude towards the government at the Centre. If DMK and Trinamool Congress do not win in their respective states, then they could blame the central government for their discomfiture. DMK had even blamed a central minister of Congress for sabotaging the alliance with the party - a move which would have hurt UPA.
The defeat of key allies could mean a change in configuration of the UPA. If UPA allies do well, then the Congress leadership and the PM would go ahead and carry out many of the changes that they have planned. Some feel that the PM may not really wait for election results, and use the current momentum to consolidate his hold over the government.
Be that as it may, the PM's decision to assert himself has found new expressions. His decision to invite Pakistan PM Yusuf Raza Gilani to watch the semi-final clash at Mohali in the cricket World Cup is contrary to the advice of the home ministry, other hardliners and hawks, who have always been dissuading the restoration of ties between the two nations. His attempts to normalise India-Pakistan relations have come in for a lot of flak, but Singh has always believed that the country cannot grow till the two neighbours sort out their problems and diffferences.
It remains to be seen how similar boldness is interpreted within his party. Especially by power brokers, politicos and miscellaneous lobbyists who have benefited by using allies and other factors to fix deals and help cronies and corporate houses. Will the Centre hold?