Manmohan Singh has been shown his place by Sonia Gandhi for his untenable defence of Pawan Kumar Bansal and Ashwani Kumar. Clearly, he is not the primus inter pares. A man of honour would have resigned by now
Those of us in the media who broke ranks with our colleagues and defied popular perception of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a man of unimpeachable integrity to describe him as a glorified babu, weak and pusillanimous, remarkably bereft of any sense of honour and utterly unscrupulous in a cynical and sly manner, were rudely rebuked for besmirching the reputation of an honest man. That was during the months when Manmohan Singh was pushing the India-US civil nuclear deal and displayed no qualms about misleading Parliament repeatedly to sidestep inconvenient questions from the Opposition. The Americans kept on shifting the goalposts; our obliging Prime Minister kept on insisting that we were being sold an apple and not a lemon as claimed by critics of the nuclear deal.
Then came the infamous cash-for-vote scandal when money was used for purchasing parliamentary support for UPA1 which had clearly lost its majority after the Left walked out of a perverse relationship. It did not bother Manmohan Singh, touted as a man for whom probity mattered more than power, that he won the vote but lost the trust of the people. We reminded those flying the flag for Manmohan Singh that our description of him was not wide of the mark; sadly, few were persuaded that the Prime Minister’s mask had fallen off, exposing the face of a cynical politician for whom ends justify the means. A second victory for the Congress-led UPA in 2009 weakened the case against Manmohan Singh —the image of a clean politician, we were told, had swayed opinion in his party’s favour.
We will never know the truth about that assertion and it would be foolish to speak with certitude on imponderables that influence the outcome of an election. But what can be said without fear of contradiction is that by the time he took oath of office in 2009, Manmohan Singh was no longer an accidental politician but a crafty practitioner of the politics of cynicism. Between the summer of 2009 and that of 2013, the crafty politician has become craftier, although as during the tenure of UPA1, he has got away with impunity by using the popular perception of him as a man of integrity and honour as a cover. That was till now. Even as I write, the Prime Minister stands disrobed of his fictional integrity and denuded of make-believe honour; his ‘spotless’ image, cultivated assiduously by camp followers, most of them charlatans in media, lies in tatters, smudged by scams and stained by scandals, beyond repair and resurrection.
If India has never before seen a Government as steeped in corruption as the present regime headed by Manmohan Singh, the nation has never had to contend with a Prime Minister so fallen that Lucifer would be envious. In her time Mrs Indira Gandhi spoke of corruption as a global reality and thus sought to put a gloss on it. It could also be argued that she was not particularly finicky about rules and procedures being followed, nor was she averse to undue favours or else she would have asked Sanjay Gandhi not to accept huge tracts of land for his non-existent Maruti car factory. We have also seen a Prime Minister turn his office into a cash-and-carry counter when Chandra Shekhar occupied the post for a few months. The Bofors scandal led to the downfall of Rajiv Gandhi; no Prime Minister had been called a ‘thief’ before that, unfairly as it may have been.
But what we are witnessing now is incredibly stupendous and stunning at once: A “dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat”, to quote
The Washington Post, “presiding over a deeply corrupt Government”. What we have is a Prime Minister who claims to be perpetually in the dark about what’s happening right under his nose; scornful of accountability and disdainful of responsibility. When the Great 2G Spectrum Robbery came to light, he said he was not aware of what A Raja was up to although that is not true. As we now know, at every stage Raja kept the Prime Minister informed of his decisions and actions; at no stage did Manmohan Singh remonstrate. We also know that he has failed to act on the findings of the Commonwealth Games inquiry committee that he had set up. All that and more pales into insignificance compared to the gargantuan Coalgate scam — he held charge of the Coal Ministry when coal blocks were allocated to cronies of the regime for a song, defying both logic and rules. His claim, that he was not aware of the loot, comes as no surprise.
The story does not end there. It continues with the Law Minister, the Government’s law officers and senior officials of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Coal Ministry trying to manipulate the CBI’s investigation into the scandal. Together they changed the “heart of the report” the CBI was supposed to submit to the Supreme Court, detailing its investigation and findings. The Prime Minister’s response? Why, he wasn’t aware of the tampering with the report, of course! And even after he became aware of it, he brazenly defended Law Minister Ashwani Kumar, refusing to act against him despite severe strictures by the Supreme Court in the form of scathing observations.
Just as the Prime Minister would not countenance any demand to sack his Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal whose nephew was caught red-handed collecting cash for prize postings. Even as the evidence against the Minister piled up by the day, Manmohan Singh refused to act. Was it merely because Pawan Kumar Bansal was loyal to him instead of the Palace? Is that also why Ashwani Kumar thought he could get away with his shameful though amazingly brazen attempt to whitewash the Coalgate scandal? Lutyens’s Delhi is awash with stories, each more scandalous than the other. For instance, lurid details of alleged taped conversations between Pawan Kumar Bansal and his associates are doing the rounds. As always, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction and that path is best avoided.
What we do know is that it required an incensed Congress president to tell the Prime Minister where he got off to get the two tainted Ministers out of the Cabinet. Friday afternoon’s unscheduled visit by Sonia Gandhi to the Prime Minister’s residence was followed by Pawan Kumar Bansal and Ashwani Kumar putting in their papers. For the record, the meeting lasted for 15 minutes; the discussion could not have been replete with niceties. That Ahmed Patel made it a point to be present when the two Ministers came to hand over their resignation letters has served to underscore the fact that Manmohan Singh may be the Prime Minister but he is not the primus inter pares.
A person who has so debased the Prime Minister’s office and become an object of ridicule within and outside the Government and the ruling alliance, not to mention his own party, should put in his papers too. But this would require summoning a sense of honour and dignity which is absent at the moment. Manmohan Singh is incapable of doing even that.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi)