Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Congress should sack Ashwani Kumar….focus on core issues….and play on the front foot….

The SC has stung hard. And rightly so. The Minister of Law has been shown to be a buffoon. By his actions, he has brought embarrassment to his party and to the PM, who put him in his job in the first place. More importantly, he has diverted attention from the core issues in the alleged coal scam – where the Congress can put up a strong defence – to matters of propriety – where clearly the Congress has no defence.

Thanks to the SC’s strict words, many  (if not most) ordinary people in the country think the Congress has something to hide. They believe that the Congress has indeed indulged in corruption. That Ashwani Kumar did what he did to shield the PM. And worse, the episode has created the perception (though the Bansal issue shows it’s not true) that the Congress controls and directs the CBI’s investigations. For all of this, Ashwani Kumar needs to be sacked. In politics, “cutting losses” is an important concept; and in Ashwani Kumar’s case that concept needs to be immediately practiced.

In my opinion, while the SC is right in all its observations – that the CBI has become a caged parrot, that it mouths its masters’ voice, that it shouldn’t have shown the draft report to anyone in the Government and also that the Government had interfered with the investigation – it is wrong in stating that “the heart of the report has been changed”. If this is true, then it should have explained how so. The deletions made looked minor indeed; and they certainly didn’t appear to have changed “the direction of the probe”. The SC owes it to the people to explain how the direction of the probe has changed if it has. Has anyone been spared? Has anyone been wrongly accused? Have any charges been dropped? I think the SC has acted emotionally here.

The SC had made a similar emotional decision in the 2G case when it arbitrarily canceled 122 licenses, jeopardizing tens of thousands of crores of telecom investments, depressing the overall investment climate in the country, and contributing to many many thousands of job lossess. Not all of those 122 licenses were wrongly won. What wrong had MTS done for instance? It followed the rules laid down by the Government, and brought in investments in good faith. It didn’t bribe anyone, nor did it jump any queue. But the SC decided that the policy of administered allocations – followed for several years before Raja – was wrong and EVERYONE including MTS must suffer. This is an emotional response, not expected of the highest court of the land.

The Congress, by sacking Ashwani Kumar (and Pawan Bansal as I have stated earlier) must start the process of correcting its course. It has to bring the focus back on the core issue in the coal scam. Was the PM – the one who first thought of auctions, was held back because of legal infirmities and opposition from the BJP and other parties, and who finally succeeded in doing so a few years later – guilty of anything? Was he a villain, who launched the opaque screening committee system, or a hero who dismantled it? Is the PM known to be someone who makes policies that favor crony capitalism or as someone who dismantles it (prior to his 1991 reforms, neither Sunil Mittal nor Narayanmoorthy nor Kiran Mazumdar Shaw nor Kishore Biyani even existed; business was all dominated by the Tatas, Birlas and Ambanis)? By letting Ashwani Kumar interfere, the Congress has suffered. Not surprising then that Sonia Gandhi wants Ashwani Kumar out. Apparently the PM is resisting. Someone needs to teach the PM the lesson that in politics, its important to sacrifice small turf battles temporarily to win large battles permanently. In politics, the eye must ALWAYS be on the larger picture.

The Congress has made a fundamental mistake on both coal and 2G. In both cases, it chose not to attack. In 2G, when Kapil Sibal said “zero loss”, the party developed cold feet. Sibal was right. The Government had consciously chosen to continue with administered allocations of spectrum at cheap prices. The Rs 1.76 lac crore (the highly imaginative number concocted by a politicized CAG) was not a loss to the exchequer; it was a corruption-free way for subsidies to be passed on to the aam aadmi in the form of lower prices. Yes, there was corruption, but it was at the local level and the CBI should have brought that out clearly. The CAG had no business to comment on policy; the SC’s cancellation of licenses should have been challenged. But the Congress chose to be defensive; it fell into the BJP trap and got embroiled in petty matters – whether a JPC should be set up or not (which incidentally was a silly BJP demand, considering that the JPC Chairman would be a Congress MP), whether the PM and Chidambaram knew of the policy or not (of course they knew), whether Raja briefed them or not (of course he did), and whether Raja, Chidambaram and the PM should depose before the JPC/PAC or not (they should have confidently). It fought on the backfoot, creating the impression of a scam. It should have fought on the front foot, owning its decisions, and made a huge political statement in the process – that the party stands for the aam aadmi, inclusive growth, etc and that it would repeat the cheap spectrum policy if it had a chance. The party would have been right, as subsequent auctions have been a failure, and have put the telecom industry into a downward spiral.

Likewise in coal, the Congress should be on the offensive. It should expose the NDA’s double-speak – continuing with the screening committee system, opposing auctions, indulging in local corruption. It should highlight the role of the PM in changing this opaque policy to a transparent one. It should fight on the front foot; not be on the back foot thanks to bafoons like Ashwani Kumar.

The real truth is that both Ashwani Kumar and Pawan Bansal need to go. The Congress is a far better party, with far better leadership and policies, than these two members are making people think. The party has just trounced the BJP in Karnataka, exposing that it is no one to talk of corruption. The Congress has to be on the front foot….believe in itself….and communicate far far better. It should learn from Narendra Modi – whose spin doctors have floated stories today that the Karnataka defeat will actually trigger a demand for him to be anointed his party’s PM candidate. In a democracy, a party needs to be able to turn its deficiencies into its strengths…….the Congress woefully lacks those skills.

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