Hauled over coals

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PM Singh gets soot on his face

It could be a coincidence, but one wonders. This is the first session of parliament in over eight years where Pranab Mukherjee is not in charge of the treasury benches. It is also the first session when government has fallen, not from its legal perch, but flat on its face.

The principal responsibility of leader of the house is to preserve government’s majority, and, in this age of performance politics on television, protect its credibility. In a toss-up, the second takes priority. Without a majority, a government collapses. But without credibility the party disappears.

In 2008, Dr Manmohan Singh would have been defeated over the nuclear deal but for the generosity of Amar Singh. But even at its lowest ebb in the numbers game, Dr Singh’s credibility was on the ascent. His management of the nuclear debate was an excellent illustration of a fundamental rule in democratic politics: the ground on which you take a stand determines the course of a battle. Dr Singh sold the nuclear deal as good for the country, and found a growing number of buyers. He energized an urban middle class eager for better relations with the United States, which saw this pact as axis of a new partnership. Dr Singh would have won the subsequent general elections even if he had lost the vote in Lok Sabha.

Four years later, the situation is reversed. He is now the man who looked the other way while party hacks and allies made money. There is a pervasive smell of sleaze about Coalgate. Begin with just this question: why did Dr Singh appoint Santosh Bagrodia, a businessman from Calcutta without any political credentials, who came from nowhere and returned there unlamented, who added no value to party or country, as minister of state for coal? Bagrodia has chosen silence as his only veil.

Coalgate is not a confrontation between Congress and BJP. If the BJP had accused Dr Singh of causing a phenomenal loss to the exchequer, it would have raised a stutter on the first day and a yawn on the second. The accusation carried weight because Vinod Rai, appointed by Dr Singh to head government’s primary audit authority, CAG, has offered a thick and detailed analysis of the process and manipulation behind the arbitrary allotment of coal blocks and asserted that loss of revenue could be as much as Rs 1.86 lakh crores. [Gone are the days when corruption could be measured in single or even double-digit crores.]

Belligerence is not an answer. Rai was not an RSS swayamsevak when he wore shorts. Nor did he did not carry a hammer in one hand and sickle in the other when in college. He is a distinguished bureaucrat who was made CAG by the Prime Minister, perhaps because Dr Singh saw in Rai the very virtues that he identified with. It’s a thought: is Manmohan Singh the present PM at odds with Manmohan Singh the former public servant?

Would Pranab Mukherjee have been able to cut the government’s losses if he was still in parliament? He led Congress strategy when Coalgate’s elder brother, 2G, stalled the winter session in 2011. His public counterattack was softened by private communication with the opposition. In parliamentary politics, you never subvert any path towards the other side of the floor. Mukherjee also understood that corruption is quivering quicksand, and can quickly drag down those who take a non-negotiable position on it. He found a way out of the 2G blockade at an affordable price. He lost a day’s headlines but saved the government from further battering.

But the game is different now. Every party has its own rules. The BJP demands the PM’s resignation but only to etch another groove into public memory through headlines. It would be a bit baffled if its demand was accepted. Mulayam Singh Yadav is anxious to singe the Congress as long as he is not caught warming the fire. Mamata Banerjee’s partnership with Congress does not extend to elections; she needs Coalgate for campaign rhetoric – later. The Left is too dazed for debate; it only wants rest and recuperation. Mayawati is focused on her calculator, checking out when the Yadav demographic equations will go awry so that she can maximize her rebound. The Congress is in disarray, since its declared heir is invisible, and its seniors are on the way to retirement. This parliament used to be a jigsaw puzzle, where the pieces lay scattered but would eventually fit. It has now become only a puzzle.

Numbers do not dominate the thought process of the present Lok Sabha, in the way they did in 2008, because they have become irrelevant. The tussle has shifted to credibility, or at least comparative levels of this scarce resource. And the credibility game has an unforgiving referee: the voter.

The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.