Turning a blind eye to corruption: A lesson Congress forgot (Comment)

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS
Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Congress must have realised by now that it gave too much leeway to Andimuthu Raja, the former telecom minister, who has been christened “spectrum” Raja by the media because of his suspected involvement in a gargantuan Rs.1.7 lakh crore (nearly $40 billion) corruption scandal relating to second-generation (2G) spectrum allocations by his department.

Even a day before he resigned, Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan was repeating the tired lines about the imperatives of “coalition dharma”, the convenient explanation for turning a blind eye to the misdemeanours of an ally so that it would not pull down the government.

In trotting out this cynical excuse for inaction, the Congress seemingly forgot that being sensitive to a partner’s concerns should be inversely proportional to the size of its alleged malfeasance. If the quantum of the scandal exceeded a certain limit, succumbing to its self-serving demands could hurt the government - and even the prime minister.

This is exactly what has happened. Failing to convince Raja’s party, the DMK, that he was becoming a grave liability because of the mounting allegations about his unprofessional conduct as a minister, the government tried to take cover behind the fact that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was probing the matter.

Besides, the issue was before the Supreme Court, the Public Accounts Committee of parliament and the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) office. But such patent tricks to avoid taking the obvious step of asking the minister to go were less than persuasive.

As a result, Raja has achieved what the opposition Left and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could not during Manmohan Singh’s six years as prime minister - hurt his reputation. Given Manmohan Singh’s high reputation for integrity, the dragging in of his name in the swindle is the saddest blow of all. Perhaps it is the fate of every decent individual since he cannot always match his gentlemanly instincts to the devious ways of his political colleagues.

It is no secret that neither the DMK, nor its octogenarian patriarch, M.K. Karunanidhi, who is the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, is regarded as a model of rectitude in public life. It should have been obvious to Manmohan Singh, and to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, that expecting them to respond with outrage to the allegations against Raja was unrealistic.

Karunanidhi and his sons, M.K. Stalin, who is deputy chief minister, and M.K. Alagiri, who is an MP, are supporting Raja even now along with Kanimozhi, the patriarch’s daughter, who is also an MP. Considering that they do not have much of a reputation to lose where probity is concerned, their ostrich-like behaviour about Raja’s alleged misdeeds is not surprising.

But it would not be easy for the prime minister to erase the stain that he was initially helpless before the DMK’s threat of withdrawing support if Raja was touched. The belief that passing the buck to the CBI would deflect criticism was curious, to say the least, because the agency has long been seen as being under the government’s thumb and, therefore, incapable of acting professionally.

The prime minister’s advice to the CAG that it must distinguish between “wrong-doing and genuine errors” was also ill-timed since it coincided with the organisation’s stinging indictment of Raja.

But what has inflicted perhaps the maximum damage to Manmohan Singh’s reputation is the Supreme Court’s criticism of the inordinate delay by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to respond to the petition by Janata Party president Subramaniam Swamy for prosecuting Raja. If the PMO had rejected the application, it might have been a face-saver for Manmohan Singh. But sitting on the file for nearly a year suggests a deplorable failure to make up one’s mind - and an

indirect admission of Raja’s guilt.

The DMK has been one of the Congress’ most troublesome allies, always ready to exploit the government’s minority status to feather its own nests. For instance, it had blocked the government’s move to disinvest the Neyvelli Lignite Corporation and played hardball over the ministerial assignments of Raja and T.R. Baalu.

The latter’s controversial tenure as the road transport and highways minister in Manmohan Singh’s first government from 2004 to 2009 cost him his ministerial position when the new government took office. But the shadow over his name pointed to the kind of people the DMK was nominating under the coalition arrangement where the prerogative to select ministers from parties other than the Congress was not the prime minister’s, but the ally’s.

Now that Raja has followed Baalu out of office, the DMK must have realised that its scam-tainted followers are depriving it of the capacity to browbeat the Congress. In normal circumstances, the DMK would have raised a hue and cry over Raja’s resignation. But not only have the charges of venality silenced it, the party has also been weakened by its internal problems caused by the feud between the two brothers, Stalin and Azhagiri, over who will succeed Karunanidhi.

Like the DMK, the BJP too is unable to train all its guns on the Congress because it is trying to defuse yet another scandal in B.S. Yeddyurappa’s government in Karnataka about the allocation of land to the latter’s relatives. Among the other opposition parties, the Communists are now very much a demoralised entity after its setbacks in the last general election.

It is possible that the opposition’s weakness made the government treat the Raja episode somewhat casually. But it had forgotten how issues of corruption had fatally wounded earlier governments, notably Rajiv Gandhi’s in 1989 because of the Bofors howitzer purchase scandal.

(20-11-2010-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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