Coalgate: How long can PM hold on to Ashwani Kumar?

If the coal scam was bad, the cover up attempt is proving to be worse for the UPA government.

If Ashwani Kumar thought it was his duty as the Law minister of the country to protect his benefactor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, from any finger being raised at him at any cost, even it amounted to violating the oath of allegiance to Constitution he had taken while assuming office, it's all coming unhinged. So are the cases of the joint secretaries of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Coal ministry.

To top the problem is the nation’s top most law officer, Attorney General of India, GE Vahanvanti, lying in the Apex Court on the coal scam status report and thereby forcing one of his own deputy, Additional Solicitor General, Harin Rawal, to lie (as mentioned in ASG’s letter to AG). The government, it appears, has dug more that it could fill.

The Supreme Court observations are undoubtedly harsh. In fact, no other government in India has been criticised in such words. But then no other government perhaps went this far in taking the top judicial body for granted. If the legalities of the case is troublesome and could put the prime minister in a spot of bother, the political consequences would be equally heavy for the Congress and the UPA regime. A reflection of the prevailing unease in the ruling establishment was visible on Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s face when Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj attacked the government on the issue in Lok Sabha today. Sushma later accused Sonia of instigating ministers and party MPs to disrupt her speech.

Faced with Supreme Court’s further directive to the CBI director Ranjit Sinha to file a fresh affidavit by next Monday who others had seen the report apart from the Law minister and two joint secretaries in the PMO and the Coal ministry and what authority they had to summon the status report of an ongoing probe looked into by the court, Manmohan Singh today came out mildly: "We are studying the Supreme Court’s observation on Coalgate. Whatever action is called for will be taken after I study SC observations."

He did have meetings with several of his ministerial colleagues and Ahmed Patel, political advisor to Sonia Gandhi, to mull over the fate of Ashwani Kumar and see how far they could salvage the damage. How long can he hold on Kumar in the government is the key question.

The PM’s current position is a clear climb down from an uncharacteristically tough position he took on Saturday, standing firmly by Kumar’s side and completely ruling out his removal. "There is no question of the Law minister resigning." By making that defence of the minister, Singh exposed himself to a greater risk. He was perhaps hoping that Supreme Court would not be so tough on his government. But the situation has now changed.

 Coalgate: How long can PM hold on to Ashwani Kumar?


With a series of adverse observations from the Supreme Court and Opposition BJP demanding his resignation, other political rivals seeking a personal explanation, Singh faces the biggest trouble in his nine-year regime. This not just affects his credibility as being an honest prime minister but could also put a question mark on his continuance in office if things come to a pass whereby he is made to sacrifice Law minister Kumar. The Law minister is in any case considered close to him. Singh’s personal authority, whatever was there as prime minister, stands eroded now. A dysfunctional Parliament and a paralyzed government are making matters worse for him.

The key question is on whose behest the Law minister, joint secretaries in the PMO and coal ministry asked the CBI to dilute the status report? Who did they want to protect? What was assurance of their own protection when they knew that this was being monitored by the Supreme Court? Was Manmohan Singh so innocent or unaware all the while when so many things were happening around him, particularly when he is minister-in-charge of the CBI? Singh would have difficult time answering these. He can’t even say it’s a motivated criticism.

After all, the Supreme Court has termed the CBI’s admission of sharing its report with the Law minister and others as "very disturbing" and slammed the agency for having kept the court in the dark on the issue. The bench’s unhappiness with emerging twists in the tale was apparent when it said "suppression" of the fact that CBI has shared its probe report with the government is "not ordinary".

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Updated Date: May 01, 2013 08:50:15 IST