The Opposition must be feeling mighty pleased at the prime minister’s rebuke that it was out to “destabilise our polity” by targeting the government on the ‘2G note’ issue. The BJP must be wondering what exactly it has done to deserve this medal of honour, considering that the government has single-handedly dealt a stunning blow to itself in dealing with the imbroglio.
So with the squabble between the two most senior members of Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet on public display, one may as well ask whether anyone in the ruling disposition likes anyone else. We all knew that home minister P Chidambaram and finance minister Pranab Mukherjee never got along like a house on fire. The less said about the fondness that UPA ministers have for their boss — and by that I mean Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — the better.
Every government has its share of internal quarrels. But when the very essence of governance becomes all about managing these spats, there is something wrong going on. Oddly enough, for a government that is pretty adept at keeping its cards close to its chest when it wants to, the leaks of information suggesting that its ministers don’t see eye to eye seem more than a coincidence. In fact, it isn’t a coincidence but part of a bigger plan — that went terribly wrong.
Here is my theory of what the original plan was. As part of the larger effort to protect a government pummelled by corruption charges, the PMO let loose the little missile of a ‘bureaucratic note’ that would trace itself back to the then finance minister Chidambaram’s okaying the ‘first come first served’ method of allocating 2G spectrum. The most expendable of the senior Cabinet ministers would be holding the 2G can and the UPA government would be exorcised of the ghoulish taint brought in by those fellows from Tamil Nadu. At least, according to my theory, that was the plan.
Unfortunately for the Congress in particular and the government in general, Chidambaram, I am told, didn’t quite want to play according to this script. The message from his corner was that if the government wanted to tip the rubbish, it wasn’t going to be on his head alone. It would have to include the prime minister and certainly his successor in the finance ministry, a gentleman by the name of Pranab Mukherjee. Thus, the rumours of Chidambaram’s ‘offer’ to resign — and perhaps calling for an ‘interesting’ press conference after that.
With Chidambaram all ready to play Samson, bringing the house down on everyone’s head including his own, a compromise (read: Plan B) was sought. Both Chidambaram and Mukherjee were chided by Congress president Sonia Gandhi who told them to kiss and make up. But have no doubts about who between the two ministers has come out looking prettier. When Chidambaram responded to Mukherjee’s explanation of the 2G note not “reflecting his views” by stating that he was “happy about the statement made by my senior and distinguished colleague”, topping it off with the line “I accept his statement... the matter is closed,” you can bet your top rupee that if my theory is correct, the plan to implicate Mr C boomeranged on the conspirators.
Which now brings me to what Plan B could be. The government still has to quarantine itself from the corruption muck. With scapegoats within the Congress not taking the bait, one could be left with the prospect of a change at the top. One Congressman told me with the confidence of a Congressman that Manmohan Singh could not be replaced before the Punjab elections next year. That, to my ears, automatically suggests that a time schedule for Plan B is already in place. But despite all this speculation, those in charge of running the country seem to remain unconvinced that now, more than ever before, is the time to work together. Escalating prices, terrorist attacks and corruption cases are challenges tough enough for any government. They become especially difficult for a government busy putting out home fires. Last week, what we saw was a government in which each man was for himself, while the PM tried unsuccessfully to shift the blame on to a practically non-existent Opposition and a bemused media.
The rift, according to Manmohan Singh from inside an airplane, was evident only to conspiracy theorists within the media. I wish it was. And the ministerial pie-fight was certainly not an invention of the Opposition. If things don’t settle down to business as usual soon, I’m afraid the Congress will push the button on Plan B. Even if there’s no Man B ready for the cleansing purpose yet.