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Not Ashwani, not Bansal, it is the PM who needs to go

Author: R Jagannathan
Publication: Firstpost.com
Date: May 9, 2013
URL: http://www.firstpost.com/politics/not-ashwani-not-bansal-it-is-the-pm-who-needs-to-go-766183.html

The Supreme Court has come a long way from the time it wanted to give every benefit of doubt to the Prime Minister (in the 2G scam) to yesterday’s sharp tongue-lashing to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for becoming the government’s “caged parrot”.

In February 2011, the court blamed the PMO rather than the PM himself for not allowing Subramanian Swamy to prosecute A Raja in the 2G scam. “Unfortunately, those who were expected to give proper advice to Respondent No 1 (the PM) and place the full facts and legal position before him failed to do so. We have no doubt that if Respondent No 1 had been apprised of the true factual and legal position regarding the representation made by the appellant (i.e. Subramanian Swamy), he would surely have taken appropriate decision and would not have allowed the matter to linger for a period of more than one year.”

Yesterday, the Supreme Court gave PMO officials a kick in the butt, but this time the kick could not but have brushed past the PM’s posterior. In allowing the PMO’s officials to have access to its status report on the coal blocks scam, and following the changes made in it at the instance of the law ministry, the court said the CBI had allowed the “heart of the report” to be changed.

The heart of the report that got changed is about protecting the heart of the government – the PM himself.

“The latest events show that the CBI has become a caged parrot, speaking in its masters’ voice. It is a sordid saga that it is one parrot with many masters. It is very strange that instead of interrogating them, it was busy interacting with the officers of the coal ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office. CBI should know how to stand up to all pulls and pressures. Yours was an act of indiscretion,” the bench told the CBI.

That the PMO would not do silly things unless it was trying to protect its boss is implied in this statement – though obviously the Supreme Court won’t say it.

However, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the court was willing to use hurtful words but not really keen to drive the knife in and say the PM should have been investigated. In part, this reticence comes from natural caution about not straying into the executive’s domain. The court can act against illegalities and flouting of constitutional norms, but it cannot tell the government what to do with its ministers – whether it is an Ashwani Kumar, the Law Minister who tried lying to the court to protect the PM, or Pawan Kumar Bansal, the Railway Minister whose nephew has been busy promising people better jobs in the Railway Board for a little consideration.

To be sure, the targeting of Ashwani Kumar and Pawan Bansal is like shooting at decoys.

Both these ministers were given their posts at the instance of the Prime Minister, but that is not the reason the PM and the Congress party is still sticking to them. After the Supreme Court’s thundering observations about the CBI, neither minister has the moral authority to remain in office.

But the real issues are these:

The person Ashwani Kumar was trying to protect while doctoring the CBI’s Coalgate report was obviously the PM. The Supreme Court’s observation that the minister and law ministry officials had changed “the heart of the report” was essentially referring to the deletion of crucial paragraphs in the report that talked about the period 2006-09, the time during when the PM was himself Coal Minister.

The court said: “Everybody seems to be keen only on perusing and suggesting changes in PE-2 (preliminary enquiry-2). There could not be direct evidence in such matters and a large part would be based on inferences. But you accept changes suggested to you. It was an absolute mistake on your part and you should now admit your fault instead of justifying it that you had reasons to accept these changes,” reports The Indian Express quoting the bench’s stern advice to CBI.

This is the only reason why Ashwani Kumar himself is important.

Removing Ashwani Kumar means the finger will point directly at the PM in Coalgate. This is also the reason why the Joint Parliamentary Committee won’t even call A Raja to take the witness box. It would again lead to questioning the PM’s role in the earlier scam, the 2G one.

Another interesting dimension comes from a report, quoting sources, that says that Sonia Gandhi would like Bansal and Ashwani Kumar to quit.

Two points need to be made here:

If this is really what Sonia wants, why not make the statement in public? Or why not ask the two to quit in private? Action would work as well as words,

Or, is she trying to throw a hint to the PM, indirectly, that these two can go? And if this is so, why is the PM hesitating to take the hint?

The short answer maybe this. Letting Ashwani Kumar go leaves the PM directly in the line of fire. And leaving the PM in the line of fire means Sonia is immediately behind and vulnerable. After all, who believes that the PM does anything without keeping Sonia in the loop? This is why Sonia may want to hint indirectly to Manmohan Singh rather than directly.

Clearly, it is the PM who needs to go, and not only Ashwani Kumar. The Supreme Court came as close to making that call as constitutional propriety would allow it.

It is now for the PM to act – and make a graceful exit.
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