Damned lies: How the coal scam has gutted the UPA govt

""No man," said Abraham Lincoln. "has a good enough memory to be a successful liar." Likewise, no government - even one so deceitful and shamelessly given to lying as the UPA government - can ever be so cohesive as to fool "all of the people all of the time."

Which is why the tangled web of carefully constructed mistruths that the Manmohan Singh government wove in the CoalGate scam is rapidly coming apart. Tuesday's proceedings before the Supreme Court, when the CBI Director Ranjit Sinha filed an affidavit confirming that the investigating agency's draft report in the coal allocation scandal had been shared with the political executive, nails the wilful misrepresentation of the truth that both the Attorney-General Goolam Vahanvati and the Additional Solicitor-General Harin Raval had resorted to in open court.

Not that Sinha was acting out of a high-minded sense of propriety: he was motivated rather more by the need to protect himself from committing perjury, because it appeared that the Supreme Court, which is hearing the coal block allocation scandal case, had wisened up to the fact that the CBI report had indeed been vetted by Law Minister Ashwani Kumar.

Manmohan Singh has much to ponder in the CoalGate scam

Manmohan Singh has much to ponder in the CoalGate scam

But Sinha's motives didn't matter in the end. The inconsistencies in the various strands of the submissions before the Supreme Court were stark enough in themselves to strip bare the government's dishonesty.

Also on Tuesday, Raval resigned after dropping a letter-bomb directed at Attorney-General Vahanvati, which too exposed the brazenness with which both the senior law officers had abused the Supreme Court's trust by claiming that the CBI's draft status report, which had been delivered in a sealed cover to the court, had not screened.

Raval too was acting out of self-interest: he feared that he would be made the scapegoat in the entire affair - a fear that is not entirely unfounded, given the dynamics that are at play here.  But, again, his motives did not matter.

On Tuesday, the UPA government put on a brave face, claiming that oral observations of the Supreme Court judges, while inconvenient, did not have the same sting as a court order or a verdict. Clearly, a government that is drowning in the sea of its own corruption and ineptitude is clutching at straws.

Even if the the government's law officers did not commit perjury in the true sense of the word - because they did not make their statements under oath - the breach of trust that they have engendered with the Supreme Court is far more damaging. From now on, as in the Nietzcheian dictum, the real tragedy is that they can never be believed.

Spin doctors in the Congress are now preparing to make a sacrificial offering of Law Minister Ashwani Kumar. The Congress core committee met on Tuesday evening to discuss the Supreme Court's observations, and unidentified sources within the party have been busy planting stories suggesting that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was coming around to the view that the Law Minister may have to resign. The same government that had only days earlier said there was no question of forcing him to step down now see him as a hot potato and a political liability.

According to media reports, senior Congress leaders and even Ministers are now training their guns at Ashwani Kumar, who they feel handled the matter "recklessly" and crossed the line by trying to "dictate" to the CBI chief in a case where the government is itself in the dock. The irony is that the same party was defending the Minister long after it became know that he had vetted the CBI draft status report and asked for changes to be made.

The fact of it is that Ashwani Kumar committed an egregious felony - and held court in his Ministry, inviting top law officers of the government to be part of it. His actions were as indefensible when the charges first became known as they were on Tuesday. And yet the Congress is already singing a different tune.

But the attempt to localise the impropriety to Ashwani Kumar is disingenuous. If Ashwani Kumar is thrown overboard, surely the Prime Minister's Office, which too vetted the CBI draft status report, is guilty of the same offence. And considering that Manmohan Singh was the Coal Minister when the impugned allocation policy was put in place in 2005, his standing has become even less tenable, despite the ongoingn attempts to ring-fence him from trouble.

The prairie fire of the CoalGate scandal is spreading rapidly within the UPA government. And with each successive lie that stands exposed before the Supreme Court, the flames are edging closer to Manmohan Singh himself. This government is gutted for good.

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