The Message from the AICC plenary (Article)

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New Delhi, Dec 28 (ANI): Faced with its gravest political challenge since it came back to power at the head of the United Progressive Alliance in 2004, the Congress has unveiled a tentative plan to fight the BJP and the Left on the issue of corruption.

The plan outlined at the AICC plenary session in Burari on the outskirts of Delhi last week is a mix of 'offence is the best part of defence' and looks reasonable while considering the opponents' viewpoint.

Both the Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in their speeches at the plenary, brought out clearly how they are going to meet the opposition challenge.

Sonia Gandhi unveiled a five-point plan to tackle corruption, which includes action both by party leaders and the government. She sought to give the fight against corruption an institutional character by calling for the fast tracking of corruption cases against politicians and other public servants, abolishing the government's discretionary powers in allocation of land, transparent auctioning of mining leases and state funding of elections.

Sonia Gandhi also pointed out that while the Congress has been prompt in acting against corrupt elements, the BJP had done nothing against Karnataka Chief Minister B. S. Yeddyurappa, even though he was allegedly involved in allotting government land to kith and kin for a pittance.

Recognising that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is being targeted by the opposition, especially the BJP, for turning a blind eye to the wrongdoings by his ministerial colleagues and other people around him, Gandhi came out in his defence solidly. She described as 'downright despicable' the BJP attacks on Dr. Manmohan Singh, calling him an "embodiment of sobriety, dignity and integrity." She praised the Prime Minister for his "unwavering devotion to the progress and prosperity of the nation."

Remarkably, this was the third time since the opposition launched its campaign for a joint parliamentary committee probe into the 2-G spectrum allocation and other scams that Gandhi had come out in defence of Dr. Manmohan Singh.

The Prime Minister himself in his speech at the AICC plenary said that he had nothing to hide. He offered to appear before Parliament's Public Accounts Committee, which is examining the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on the 2-G spectrum scam, if the committee wanted to question him. He said that as proof of his bonafides, he would be happy to appear before the PAC if it chooses to ask him to do so, even though there was no precedent for that.

Dr. Manmohan Singh said that he is making the offer because he sincerely believed that like Caesar's wife, the Prime Minister should be about suspicion. Through the AICC plenary, Dr. Manmohan Singh assured the nation that those against whom evidence is found in the ongoing enquiries into the 2-G spectrum allocation scam and the Commonwealth Games mess would be punished. He said: "No guilty person will be spared - whether he is a political leader or a government official, whichever party he may belong to and howsoever powerful he may be."

Significantly, there has been a flurry of action by the CBI against those allegedly involved in the 2-G spectrum scam and the CWG irregularities right after the AICC session. Former Telecom Minister A. Raja has been questioned extensively and his residences and other premises searched. The CBI has also carried out raids at the residences and offices of CWG Organising Committee Chairman Suresh Kalmadi at different places in the country.

While appearing to convey that the Congress and the UPA Government it heads are serious about tackling corruption, the ruling dispensation has also taken steps to reach out to the opposition. Seeking not to be seen as responsible for the deadlock in Parliament during the winter session on the corruption issue, the Manmohan Singh government has offered to hold a special session of Parliament to debate the opposition demand for a JPC probe into the 2-G spectrum allocation scam. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said that the government is prepared to hold a special session to end the standoff.

But the opposition did not fall for the tactic and rejected it outright. Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley said the opposition does not want a debate on the JPC but wants the government to form a JPC to probe the scam. CPI-M leader Basudeb Acharia said that holding a special session of Parliament would be a futile exercise as the opposition is firm on its demand for a JPC.

The BJP had earlier accused the Congress of suffering from a siege mentality. The Congress responded to this at the AICC plenary session with the allegation that while the ruling party had been acting against tainted persons in its fold, the principal opposition party had been ignoring wrongdoing by its leaders.

Actually, the Congress has a reason to suffer from a siege mentality. The opposition parties have locked on to corruption as the issue to pull the rug from under the feet of the party leading the ruling coalition. Within one and a half years of its victory in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress has been forced to go on the defensive. What is particularly worrying for the party is that its key allies have also started sabre-rattling, sensing an opportunity to gain at the cost of the national party.

Both the government and the opposition are sticking to their respective stands on the JPC demand, not because of any principles, but for political reasons. The government has pointed out that it has already started probes by different agencies into various aspects of the 2G spectrum allocation issue. What is more, the Supreme Court is monitoring probes by various agencies into the scam, and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), has been asked to submit its first report in the matter in the apex court by February 10.

The Public Accounts Committee, headed by a senior BJP leader, is going full steam ahead with its probe into the 2G spectrum allocation issue. It has issued advertisements inviting suggestions from the general public on the issues before it. CAG Vinod Rai appeared before the PAC on December 27, 2010 to put forth his viewpoint on the loss suffered by the national exchequer. The CAG report had put the loss at Rs. 1.76 lakh crore. But even this has failed to mollify the opposition, especially the BJP.

The reasons for the opposition obduracy on the JPC demand are not difficult to fathom. The 2G spectrum allocation scam and the slew of corruption cases, which have surfaced recently, have come as a god-send for the opposition searching for issues to puncture the claims of the Congress-led UPA government on working for the aam admi (common man), unprecedented economic growth and achievements on the foreign policy front.

The BJP, which has been on a downhill slide since 2004, would not let go of the opportunity at any cost. The Left parties, facing an uphill battle in the 2011 Assembly elections in West Bengal and Kerala, would also not like to let slip an opportunity to embarrass the Congress and the coalition which it heads at the Centre.

It is in the interest of both the BJP and the CPI (M)-led Left parties not to take the heat off the government on the corruption issue. The BJP objective is to create a situation like the one, which developed in 1986-87 during the anti-Bofors gun deal deadlock in Parliament.

As a result of the bad name brought to the government by the opposition agitation, the Rajiv Gandhi led Congress had to bite the dust in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, a far cry from the party winning nearly fourth-fifths of the total Lok Sabha seats in the 1984 elections, which followed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination.

While the BJP would like to repeat the Bofors phenomenon once again, the Left parties would like nothing better than to create a situation, which would allow them to seize victory from the jaws of likely defeat in the Assembly elections in West Bengal. For the first time in more than three decades, the CPI (M)-led Left Front is staring at defeat at the hands of the Trinamool Congress-Congress combine in the state.

Sensing the difficulties being faced by the Congress, the allies are become more assertive.

Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, the second largest party in the UPA coalition, has already raised the banner of revolt on the issue of joint operations by central and state forces against the Maoists in West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee says joint forces are targeting innocent people and Trinamool Congress supporters. She has also been obliquely talking about quitting the Congress-led coalition, if the Centre does not take action to stop what she calls the misuse of the central forces by the West Bengal government to target political opponents of the ruling Left Front in the state.

Mamata Banerjee's potential threat assumes significance because of the uneasy relationship between the Congress and the DMK, the party to which dropped Telecom Minister A. Raja belongs. Raja, claiming innocence in the 2G spectrum allocation scam, has repeatedly said that whatever he did in the matter was in the full knowledge of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The Congress is on the horns of a dilemma on the issue of continuing the tie-up with M. Karunanidhi's DMK in Tamil Nadu. Continued association with the DMK would give a handle to the opposition to assert that the Congress has been allegedly protecting corrupt elements in the UPA coalition. Breaking up with the DMK would mean looking for an alliance in Tamil Nadu with the All India Anna DMK led by J. Jayalalithaa, who is not known for sticking to any alliance. Going it alone in Tamil Nadu in next year's Assembly elections may not be a viable option in the light of the reverses suffered by the Congress in Bihar this year.

Another difficult choice before the Congress is on Dr. Manmohan Singh's continuance as Prime Minister. While there is no issue about Dr. Manmohan Singh's being clean, the perception is growing among the people that corrupt elements continue to flourish in the government under his stewardship. It may be good enough for a private person to be personally honest, but a person heading an organisation or the government of a country cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the acts of corruption and wrongdoing of the men and women in his team.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi is continuing to back the Prime Minister to the hilt and has derided those trying to 'belittle' Dr. Manmohan Singh.

While it is good to stand up for one's associates, one cannot but wonder if the reason for this solid defence of Manmohan Singh is the inability to find a worthy successor to him in the government.

Rahul Gandhi, whom most Congressmen would like to see succeed Dr. Manmohan Singh, is perhaps not ready to take up the challenge just now. The Congress and its president Sonia Gandhi would perhaps like him to take over at a more opportune time when the ruling coalition has overcome its contradictions and is on a surer footing. But for this, the Congress has to seize the political initiative back from the opposition; otherwise the opportunity may never come.

Attn: News Editors/News Desks: The views expressed in the above article are that of the author B.L.Saini. (ANI)

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