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Tensions within the party

Deepening disquiet

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STANDING BY HIS MAN: Manmohan strongly defended Kumar at a Congress core committee meeting

Party managers in the Congress fear that Ashwani Kumar's continuance has become a prestige issue for the PM, exacerbating tensions within the party.

The fire engulfing law minister Ashwani Kumar threatens to singe Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as he battles to save his protêgê from an ignominious exit from the Union cabinet after the Supreme Court slammed the CBI, and by implication, the government too, for breach of trust in the ongoing Coalgate investigations. By going out on a limb to defend Kumar, the PM has created a crisis of credibility for himself, not just with the Opposition but with his own party which wants the law minister to quit so that the government and the Congress are saved from further embarrassment.

The battle lines were drawn at a recent meeting of the Congress core committee where the PM surprised the top leadership, including Sonia Gandhi, by springing to Kumar's defence. The PM rarely opens his mouth at these weekly discussions but that day, he spoke up. And according to a source familiar with the deliberations, he was unusually agitated as he backed Kumar for reading and making changes in the CBI's draft status report before it was submitted to the apex court on March 12. There was no question of Kumar resigning, the PM is believed to have asserted, as the law minister had done nothing wrong.

What happened that day is significant because the PM's intervention was a riposte to finance minister P Chidambaram who was roped in to speak on behalf of the Congress leadership. It was Chidambaram who flagged the issue at the meeting, indicating that it was a matter of grave concern if Kumar had indeed made changes to the report as alleged. Interestingly, the matter was dropped after the PM came out in belligerent support of the man he had handpicked to be the law minister.

This is not the first time that Manmohan Singh has been at odds with his party but the storm over Kumar is developing into a full-blown crisis for the Congress. Party managers fear that the law minister's continuance has become a prestige issue for the PM and they are not quite sure how to defuse matters. Gentle hints to Kumar to do the "honourable" thing don't seem to have worked either. In fact, Kumar hit back with leaks to the media from "sources close" to him in which he tried to pass the buck to attorney general Ghoolam Vahanvati. It was Vahanvati, the leaks suggested, who decided to call the CBI director to that fateful meeting where the changes to the status report were made. Kumar followed this up by telling some Congress leaders that he was being made a scapegoat. Congress circles see the bid to blame Vahanvati as a proxy attack on Sonia's political secretary Ahmed Patel. Vahanvati is considered close to Patel.

The face-off has only deepened the disquiet in the Congress which is divided over the viability of going into the 2014 polls with Manmohan Singh as the PM mascot. While everyone hastens to point out that there is no question of a change at the top, some candidly admit in private that they are worried. Their fear is that Singh has become the face of the scams buffeting the government and three years of non-performance, policy paralysis and an economic downturn have taken away the sheen from the man once hailed as the father of the new economy.

The first indication of the mood in the party came on March 27 when general secretary Digvijaya Singh, who is considered a close aide of Rahul Gandhi, questioned the diarchy system of power sharing between Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. In the first and most open criticism of the model evolved when Sonia refused to become PM in 2004, Digvijaya Singh said that it had not worked. It seemed to be a direct hit at Manmohan Singh.

The statement set the cat among the pigeons. The PM was most upset and is believed to have taken it up strongly with Sonia, saying that such remarks were damaging his government and making it impossible for him to function. It took a full week for the Congress to react officially. When it did, it issued a statement in defence of the dual power-sharing arrangement, adding that it was a great model for the future. But the statement did little to quell the growing restlessness in the party.

The events of the past two weeks have exacerbated tensions. Apart from the law minister's misadventure with the CBI, there are grave concerns over the manner in which the government has handled the intrusion by China into Ladakh and the brutal assault in a Pakistani jail on prisoner Sarabjit Singh which resulted in his death in a Lahore hospital. It is difficult to shake off the perception that the government has been too soft, bordering on weak, and has not responded with adequate gravity to two acts of extreme provocation by hostile neighbours.

Foreign policy has been an exclusive domain of the PM, one which he has not shared with unstated rivals like Pranab Mukherjee and now Chidambaram. Consequently, he cannot blame anyone for successive foreign policy disasters, particularly with the neighbouring countries. China and Pakistan have lit fires that the PMO is hard pressed to extinguish amid the mounting jingoism of commentators.

As the government dithers, the PM seems to be fighting with his back to the wall. While his defence of Ashwani Kumar may seem misplaced, it is understandable. There is little doubt that the law minister's exit will be a huge personal blow to the PM. Losing a man so closely identified with him could leave him defenceless and vulnerable. It's not a happy place to be in as elections near, neither for Manmohan Singh, nor for the Congress.

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