Congress gets its mojo back; UPA-3 is now within sight

After over two years on the ropes, suddenly it is the Congress that has a spring in its steps. The BJP has tied itself in knots over almost all issues (from Nitin Gadkari to 2G to Coalgate), the regional opposition parties are willing to bark but afraid to bite (barring Mamata, but she has only bitten herself with her failed no-trust move), and the rest don’t matter.

Sonia Gandhi is chuffed enough to utter her first major comment on the 2G controversy by agreeing with the media that the allegations of retired CAG official RP Singh suggest that PAC Chairman Murli Manohar Joshi of the BJP may have influenced the Comptroller and Auditor General’s final report on the spectrum scam.

"Yes, I certainly think so," Sonia Gandhi is quoted as having said about the BJP’s indirect contribution to the CAG’s report. The Indian Express reports that one of the methods of calculating 2G spectrum losses was suggested by Joshi at a PAC meeting where CAG Vinod Rai was in attendance.

The Congress is clearly sniffing a return to power whenever elections are held.

Victory in sight again? PTI

RP Singh’s claim that he did not agree with Vinod Rai’s “presumptive loss” estimate of Rs 1.76 lakh crore in the 2G scam must surely rank as the tipping point in the return of the Congress party’s political confidence.

With hindsight, one can reconstruct how the Congress has suddenly managed to reverse its declining fortunes in terms of public perceptions in just a matter of two months. Luck, and the BJP’s political ineptness, played a part, but there is little doubt that the core strategy of the Congress has paid off in spades.

In retrospect one can also see why everyone in the Congress, from the PM down to P Chidambaram to Kapil Sibal to Manish Tewari and Digvijaya Singh, has been singularly focused on attacking the CAG, and his upper estimate of Rs 1.76 lakh crore. They always knew that they had an RP Singh to come up with his critique of the CAG and his own loss calculation – which is even less valid – of Rs 2,645 crore.

Singh’s claims were known earlier this year when The Indian Express chose to use his numbers to raise questions about the CAG’s estimates, but the timing was wrong as the public was unwilling to believe the Congress’ claims when its credibility was nosediving. He, therefore, disappeared into the woodwork – to be brought out when the time was more opportune.

That time is now, for the opposition is in disarray.

The Nitin Gadkari issue has become the BJP’s Achilles’ Heel, ensuring that its attacks against the Congress have lost bite. The Arvind Kejriwal shoot-and-scoot efforts have also damaged the BJP more than the Congress.

The media has forgotten Vadra-gate and the Sonia-Rahul land-grab through Associated Journals. Gadkari has effectively washed away the sins of the first family – mother, son and son-in-law.

The Congress’ fightback on 2G has worked primarily because it stuck to one story for more than 18 months, through thick and thin, till it reached a level of believability.

This was Kapil Sibal’s infamous zero-loss theory, first announced in early 2011, soon after he took over from the disgraced Andimuthu Raja as Communications Minister. As early as February 2011, he claimed that there was zero- loss by selling spectrum at 2001 rates in 2008.

He looked ridiculous all through 2011 and for most of 2012, but he stuck to it. In fact, he repeated the same zero-loss theory when the coal blocks allocation scam (Coalgate) surfaced this year, and CAG came up with another loss figure of Rs 1.86 lakh crore.

The answer to this puzzle – why did the Congress stick to its ridiculous zero-loss claim through thick and thin – is now clear. They were willing to go to any extent to prove their point – if necessary, by programming an auction failure.

The first leg of planning for failure was to move an elaborate presidential reference in the Supreme Court over the cancellation of licences. All kinds of questions were raised to confuse the issue - should we cancel licences issued since 1994, should 3G licences be cancelled, etc – when the only relevant issue was to ask the court to pronounce on whether auction was the only way to alienate natural resources.

The court said no – auction wasn’t the only way – and threw out the rest of the questions. The Congress declared victory and then created a 2G auction that was designed to partially fail (read how this was done here).

It was only after this that the Congress relaunched its concerted attacks on the CAG with all spokespersons and ministers asking the same question: “Mr CAG, where is the Rs 1.76 lakh crore.”

This was the time for RP Singh (ex-CAG official) to resurface and claim the loss figure was just Rs 2,645 crore. And how did he arrive at this magic number? Purely by using a cost-inflation index.  And since Singh was willing to point fingers at Murli Manohar Joshi for trying to influence the CAG, the political waters were muddied enough for the Congress to now get into overdrive politically.

Kapil Sibal’s zero-loss is finally beginning to look credible – to the ordinary public, if not to discerning observers – in the context of Singh’s own loss theory. The gap between zero and Rs 2,645 crore is smaller than Rs 9,000 crore (the new auction earnings) and Rs 1,76,000 crore.

It doesn’t matter that the figure of Rs 2,645 crore was conjured up by Singh, and had no connection to any actual market-discovered price or even a benchmarked transaction, as CAG tried to do with its estimates.

The partial auction flop, the Kasab execution, and the RP Singh contribution have all come together at the right time to revive the Congress’ fortunes.

* The public no longer knows whom to trust. Even the CAG looks partially discredited.

* The BJP’s nationalist theme has been blunted with the Kasab execution.

* The Congress has managed to point the 2G finger back at the BJP with the failed auction and the RP Singh allegations.

* The public’s focus is thus not (currently) on the UPA's economic mismanagement and inflation.

And coming up ahead are the following: a fast-tracking of the Lokpal Bill, and the cash transfers scheme for the poor.

Any failure to pass the Lokpal Bill will be blamed on the opposition. Meanwhile, the Congress has quickly announced the appointment of the next CBI Director, Ranjit Sinha, since the Rajya Sabha select committee has suggested that the CBI chief should be selected by a panel comprising the PM, the Opposition leader and the Chief Justice of India. This means Sinha will be in office for the next two years, and the Congress will continue to control this powerful office as it does now right through the next elections.

As for cash transfers in lieu of subsidy scheme, the PM has fast-forwarded it to January 2013 so that over the next six months, many voters will have heard the clink of money in their bank accounts. Nothing like real cash to buy votes legally.

As Firstpost noted earlier, in any area where the Unique ID scheme has been implemented, cash transfers will bring money in the range of Rs 3,000-14,000 per annum per household, depending on whether the beneficiaries are identified below-poverty-line (BPL) cases or people better off. Needless to say, the politically difficult decision of identifying beneficiaries who are really poor will be left for later – after the elections.

The signals are clear: the Congress is getting ready for early polls, whether they are forced into it in early 2013, or it comes at a time of the party’s choosing, in the second half of 2013, or even in 2014.

With the Opposition in disarray, the Congress has good reason to believe that UPA-3 is no longer an unlikely prospect. It is difficult to see how the BJP is going to come up with even 150 seats to offer the possibility of a new coalition.

This is the arithmetic that looks unbridgeable right now: Congress 205 seats, and BJP 115 seats. However badly the Congress fares, it is not likely to fall below 150 seats - which will bring it to a UPA-1 scenario. Anything above that is a bonus - and we might even see Manmohan Singh, Mark 3 in 2013/2014.