FOR the first time, the ruling Congress party is having the dirty
linen washed in public. The differences in the cabinet are not new.
They have been smouldering for a long time. But it had never come to a
stage where one minister would leak out a note or a memorandum on the
internal assessment against the ministry of other. Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh has known all along who in his cabinet is trying to gun
Yet he has kept quiet because wrangling among ministers have
strengthened his position and covered up his casual attitude to be
everything to everybody. You cannot be taking things lightly when you
are the one who has to take the decision. The result is that people
doubt his way of functioning, conceding at the same time that he is
The two senior-most cabinet members, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee
and Home Minister P. Chidambaram, whatever their posture of
solidarity, are distant from each other. Chidambaram fears Pranab’s
political acumen ship and Pranab the sharp intellect of Chidambaram.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi has advised both to have a truce. But
her word may not work because Pranab has damaged Chidambaram’s stock.
The finance ministry’s note or the assessment was prepared after
Chidambaram had quit the finance ministry and said that he could have
saved the exchequer an estimated loss of Rs 1 crore 60 thousand lakh
if he had insisted on the auction of the 2G spectrum (mobiles). Former
Telecom Minister A. Raja sold them in 2008 at the 2001 price. The note
leaves no ambiguity and says that Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee
had seen it. What should Chidambaram infer with the sword of Central
Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry hanging over his head? True, the
CBI is a government department, but Chidambaram might be hauled over
the coals if the demand for action against him gains momentum.
In fact, both ministers have been exposed—Pranab while trying to
entangle Chidambaram and the latter coming to know of the trap that
had been laid long after he had quit the finance ministry. Ironically,
the note which has caused the furore has been obtained by a BJP
activist under the Right to Information Act petition. Interestingly,
the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) gave the activist a ream of material
that included the note.
The government’s spokesman says in defence that it was signed by a
junior officer. Does it matter whether it has the signature of the
Finance Minister when it is a communication from the finance ministry?
The harm that the note has done is immense. So much so that
Chidambaram even offered to resign although Pranab probably shed
crocodile tears saying that Chidambaram was “his valued colleague and
a pillar of the government.” The rift, however, has given ammunition
to the opposition, ranging from the BJP on the right to the communist
parties on the left. The media has been equally harsh to pounce upon.
All this does not mean that the government is about to fall as is the
rumour spread mostly by the BJP. True, the exterior of the government
structure has been chipped but not in any way weakened. Ultimately, it
is a question of numbers in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house. The
BJP and its allies do not have a total of 273, the magic figure which
gives a majority in the Lok Sabha of 545.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that represents the government
has remained intact. The UPA’s own strength is 263 but has 27 members
supporting from outside. Therefore the total comes to 290. The
apprehension is that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) may falter in
the south because Kanimozhi, daughter of the party leader, K.
Karunanidhi, and his loyal follower, former Telecom Minister A. Raja,
are in jail. The party has expressed its annoyance by not partnering
with the Congress in civic elections in Tamil Nadu. But the DMK’s
strength of 18 members is expendable. The loss of 18 does not bring
the government down.
Similarly, Mamata Banerjee of Trinamul Congress from West Bengal
cannot oust the government by herself. She has 19 members in the Lok
Sabha. Still the Manmohan Singh government is very solicitous towards
her. She had agreed to release a particular quantum of water from the
River Teesta to Bangladesh. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had gone
ahead on that assumption and drafted an accord with Prime Minister
Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh. But at the last minute, Mamata changed
her mind and did not even accompany the Prime Minister to Dhaka. The
Congress did not take it a miss and behaved as if nothing had
happened, even though Prime Minister Singh lost his face and India a
lot of goodwill.
Problems of the Manmohan Singh government may begin when Uttar Pradesh
goes to polls early next year. Both Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party
(BSP) and Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party are on the side of the
Congress, with the strength of 21 and 22, respectively. The two may
find it odd when the Congress pitches its own tent against theirs for
the assembly election and criticizes them to make a dent into their
In fact, all the three parties have the same electoral base, that of
Muslims, who have 15 per cent votes in UP. Again, the BSP and the
Samajwadi Party do not by themselves can pose a threat. They have to
combine with the other Congress allies to oust the government. At
present it faces their criticism, not any challenge. However, the
communists are trying their best to revive the third front. Even if it
were to take place, it could be only after the polls in UP, Punjab,
Uttrakhand, Goa, and Manipur next year.
Very few governments in the world are popular. People find them
promising more and delivering less. Indeed, it is a mixture of
mis-governance and non-governance. The public uproar should not come
as a surprise to the Manmohan Singh government. His economic
leadership generated a wide support, especially among the
intelligentsia. He is now the god that has failed. His economic
expertise, a cynosure of all eyes, has proved to be his Achilles’
Rising price, the tumbling rupee, negligible growth of employment and
the falling growth rate have essentially hurt the government. Yet the
kicking point against the government has been the 2G spectrum scandal.
This has not only alienated the people but has also spread the
impression that the entire government is corrupt from top to bottom.
Come to think of it, the cracks in the government, particularly
between Pranab Mukherjee and Chidambaram, have only become more