Here are smoke signals that PM and Sonia have fallen out

by Raman Kirpal  Oct 22, 2013 16:06 IST

#Ashwani Kumar   #CBI   #Coalgate   #Pawan Bansal   #PMO   #Rahul Gandhi   #Sonia Gandhi  

Why is the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) willing to wound the Prime Minister, but afraid to strike? If the CBI is a caged parrot, who has the keys to the cage? The PMO or someone higher up? How did Rahul Gandhi suddenly become the slayer of the ordinance to allow convicted politician-criminals to continue in office – an ordinance promulgated with the concurrence of Sonia Gandhi, but which was finally withdrawn when Rahul tore into it, calling it “nonsense.” Why did the PM react so coolly to this insolence, merely observing that “I am not the master of what people say…”.

According to political observers and senior bureaucrats, the answers to these questions lie in the cooling relationship between Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, and what the Congress party sees as vital to a future government under Rahul Gandhi – if not in 2014, then a couple of years after that.

They believe that the relationship between Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi is not what it was earlier, with the PM asserting himself a bit more in the wake of evidence from 10 Janpath that it is willing to sacrifice Singh’s reputation to build Rahul’s. The Congress party’s strategists also believe that they cannot win the next election, but still want to ensure they have a good enough strength in the next Lok Sabha to support a third front from the outside, or even allow the BJP to form the government, but force it to live a charmed life.

Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. AFP.

Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. AFP.

In this scheme of things, the Congress will strive to get 130-150 seats – enough to support a government from outside, or trouble a weak BJP government dependent on allies.

The plan to choreograph Rahul Gandhi’s emergence as the big hope of the future is with 2016-17 in mind, when the Congress hopes to pull the plug on the next government. A crucial part of that strategy is to show up Manmohan Singh as the man who ruined governance in UPA-2, and Rahul as the great redeemer. Singh is the fall guy – and he is reportedly not liking it one bit. Rahul wants to build his political career on the ruins of Singh’s reputation.

If you accept this thesis and the reading of political observers, many things fall into place.

Why did the CBI launch a case against PC Parakh and Kumar Mangalam Birla? And not against the PM himself, when he was the “competent authority” to decide on Birla’s coal block allocation? The answer: the powers-that-be want a wounded PM who looks helpless, but they don’t want him to resign as yet.

Few people believe that the CBI has now become so independent that it would take on its own boss – and force him to defend his actions. “It is unimaginable that a PM would be publicly defending himself and his actions against an FIR filed by CBI, which is under the direct control of the PM’s Department of Personnel and Training,’’ said one bureaucrat.

Firstpost spoke to several senior bureaucrats and all of them expressed surprise at how Ranjit Sinha, the CBI Director, has done many things to embarrass the Prime Minister. Nothing like this ever happened when the 2G scam was breaking out; at that time, inspired leaks of letters from the PM clearly showed him distancing himself from A Raja. But in Coalgate, it is the PM carrying the can all the way. This is why senior bureaucrats suspect that the script has gone wrong between him and Sonia.

This also explains the efforts by Rahul to rubbish the PM – even while professing to admire him. Despite embarrassing the PM about the criminal MPs ordinance, Rahul did not apologise to the PM for his unseemly outburst. He merely tried to make up by seeking a personal meeting with the PM on his arrival from the US.

A few days back, Rahul even claimed the PM was like his second guru – but he also made it clear that his mother was his first guru. His priorities are clear. Mom, not Manmohan.

The cooling off from the PM’s side was clear from the way he reacted to Rahul’s “nonsense” statement, made when he was on foreign soil, about to meet President Obama and Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif. His former press advisor, Sanjaya Baru was aghast, and said the PM should quit after this insult. 

But the PM himself, though irritated, was deathly cool, and put Rahul down in his own soft way. After pointing out that “these are all matters which are discussed before the highest body, the core group of the Congress party,” and that the cabinet “discussed this matter twice, not once,” he showed the Gandhi scion his place by comparing him with any ordinary member of the party, whose opinions can be heard. He said: “Any member of the Congress party, any member of my cabinet is free to raise issues and require reconsideration of issues….My humble feeling is that when a point of view has been expressed, we must sit together and understand what is agitating the mind of the person who has raised these issues…”.

Without much ado, the PM put Rahul in his place, making him out to be a teenager venting feelings he doesn’t understand, and hence in need of humouring.

Another bureaucrat Firstpost spoke said the CBI’s new-found bid to indirectly target the PM could not have come without orders from above. “A serving prime minister in India has never been demeaned so much by an official investigating agency in the past. Nor it is possible for Ranjit Sinha to let information leak without a supreme authority’s nod,’’ argues this bureaucrat, requesting anonymity. He clearly believes that this supreme authority is probably Sonia Gandhi herself, or her all-powerful political secretary, Ahmed Patel.

Senior bureaucrats who move in the corridors of power say that Manmohan Singh has, of late, been asserting himself vis-à-vis Sonia Gandhi. His biggest assertion came during the last Cabinet reshuffle in October 2012, when he got two of his close supporters – Ashwani Kumar and Pawan Kumar Bansal – inducted as Union Ministers into two key portfolios of his choice.

Kumar, a Rajya Sabha MP from Punjab, was made Minister of Law and Justice. And Pawan Kumar Bansal became the first Congressman in the past 17 years to take over as Railway Minister. They were Manmohan Singh’s appointees and Sonia Gandhi had apparently let Manmohan Singh has his way.

Everyone knows what happened next! In April 2013, the CBI reportedly leaked a story about Ashwani Kumar vetting CBI’s status report on the Coalgate scam before it was submitted to the Supreme Court. Soon after, CBI Director Ranjit Sinha confirmed the news by submitting an affidavit stating that Law Minister Ashwani Kumar did indeed vet the draft investigative report on the coal allocation scam.

Manmohan Singh and his office were in a spot, because he himself was the Coal Minister when the allocations were made. The Supreme Court called CBI a “caged parrot” that speaks in its master’s voice.

The truth is Ranjit Sinha was not the first CBI Director to go and meet the Law Minister. Every CBI Director does so. Former CBI Director Joginder Singh says: ``We (the CBI directors) all have to meet the Law Minister for various reasons, including the fact that it is the Law Minister who appoints prosecutors for CBI. However, Ranjit Sinha’s job was at stake because the Supreme Court has been monitoring the Coalgate scam.’’

Just a month later, in May 2013, the CBI struck again! This time Pawan Kumar Bansal came under attack when the CBI arrested Bansal’s nephew Vijay Singla for allegedly accepting a bribe to organise plum postings in the railways.

On 10 May, Manmohan Singh went to Sonia Gandhi’s house to discuss the fate of his two close friends – but he ended up having to accept their resignations.

The CBI, however, continues to embarrass the prime minister. On 4 September, The Indian Express, quoting top CBI sources, did a story on the progress report in the Coalgate scam, stating that a CBI investigating officer “has put on record what he called the requirement to examine the Prime Minister, among a lengthy list of pending actions in case.’’

Ranjit Sinha is said to have noted on the same file that “at this stage, the PM’s examination wasn’t required.’’ He did not deny The Indian Express report.

The Rahul Gandhi effort to undermine the PM must be seen in this context.

“Such outbursts do not come without a plan. And, more importantly, the CBI campaign against the PM carries more fatal blows than such kind of outbursts. And this can’t happen without Sonia Gandhi’s blessings,’’ the bureaucrat sums up!

The smoke signals suggest that Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi are not any more on the same wavelength as in 2004.