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Buck passes: Pranab to PM


At the first cabinet meeting after Pranab Mukherjee resigned to begin the run to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the chair he used to occupy as the designated second-in-command on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's right was taken by NCP chief and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar. Those present immediately understood the not-so-subtle power play at work. Pawar was staking his claim to the number two slot as the seniormost cabinet minister after Mukherjee's exit.

For Manmohan Singh, it was yet another reminder that a sagging economy was not his only headache. Steering UPA 2 without its ace trouble-shooter could spring bigger problems than reviving the growth rate. Pawar had already presented him with two tricky ones in as many days. The day before the cabinet meeting at which he sought to establish the new pecking order, the NCP leader had dropped another bombshell. He refused to take Mukherjee's place as head of the empowered group of ministers (EGoM) that was to fix the reserve price of spectrum for past, present and future license-holders. In a letter to the PM, the NCP leader washed his hands of the EGoM to protect himself from further scandal. "Attempts have been made in the past to unnecessarily drag me into the (2G spectrum) controversy. . . The allegations were false and motivated and I had refuted them strongly. At this juncture I believe my association in the decision-making process as chairman of the EGoM on telecom will motivate vested elements to try to drag me into the controversy. As such, I thought it will be appropriate for me to recuse myself from the position as chairman of the EGoM, " he wrote.

As the PM hunts for another chairman to handle the spectrum hot potato, it must be evident to him that he has a far bigger problem on his hands than he had anticipated when he bade farewell to his finance minister. Mukherjee was not just a man for all seasons with a mindboggling capacity to juggle roles demanding variegated skills. Over eight years of UPA rule, he had also emerged as a buffer for Manmohan Singh, the man to whom the buck was passed when the going got tough. He was the fall guy, stepping in to bail the PM out on every tricky issue, be it telecom, aviation, foodgrain exports, the gas pricing war between the Ambani brothers or oil subsidies. All contentious issues were passed on to him for resolution through an EGoM or GoM (group of ministers) and the time-honoured practice of discussion and decision in the cabinet was virtually abandoned. The power shift, from the union cabinet to EGoM/GoM, was evident from the number of such groups set up since 2004: 80 odd in UPA 1 and 52 in three years of UPA 2.

With Mukherjee gone, so has the buffer. As the Pawar episode revealed, few are willing to take on the burden Mukherjee shouldered, willingly or unwillingly. The buck, it seems, will now have to stop with the PM. "Why should we get into controversy?" exclaimed an NCP leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We didn't create the 2G scandal. Let the PM and the Congress handle it. "

The Congress has read the message loud and clear and is shaken by its implications for the party and the government, both headed by persons who lack the political skills that Mukherjee had in abundance. "It's going to be difficult for the PM to escape his responsibilities as head of the government. He will have to start taking decisions, however contentious the issue. And the party will have to go along with him or sink, " admitted a Congress leader who did not want to be identified.

Consider the minefield that's looming ahead. Mukherjee headed all the 13 EGoMs that were set up in UPA 2 and 21 of the 39 GoMs in addition to seven committees. Some were fairly nondescript but many are tasked with the responsibility of taking decisions on volatile and politically sensitive issues. There is, for instance, an EGoM to consider the pricing and commercialisation of gas which involves the interests of the Ambani brothers. There is another to consider the demand to do away with subsidies on diesel, kerosene and LPG. This is one of the big ticket reform measures that are supposed to boost the economy and reduce the budget deficit. A proposal has been prepared by the petroleum ministry. The EGoM has to take a decision that threatens to stir up a political storm. The government's coal policy, currently caught in a controversy stoked by a draft CAG report and Team Anna's anti-corruption warriors, is with another GoM. So is the pricing of government-held shares in PSUs up for disinvestment.

With as many as 14 of his senior ministers reeling under a slew of corruption charges levelled by Team Anna, the PM may find few takers for the job of heading groups like these which have to take decisions that are bound to be questioned. The next general elections are less than two years away. As Pawar made abundantly clear in his letter to the PM, who wants to get caught in a maelstrom of accusations at this critical juncture?

The obvious reluctance to fill Mukherjee's shoes could well mean a continuation of the policy paralysis that has gripped the government of late. Take the spectrum issue. The finance ministry, now headed by the PM, is caught in a war with telecom minister Kapil Sibal over a TRAI recommendation to fix and apply a reserve price for the auction of spectrum across the board, for old and new license holders. Sibal wants a go-ahead for the TRAI recommendation but is being opposed by the PM and Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who is functioning as de facto finance minister these days.

With the 2G cloud hovering over the government, the issue is so delicate that even a seasoned player like Mukherjee, as EGoM chairman, desisted from taking a decision in his final days in the government. He simply did not convene the scheduled June 21 meeting and left the matter hanging fire for the next chairman to resolve. Now, with Pawar too dodging the ball, the PM has to find someone willing to take on the onerous responsibility. Defence minister A K Antony's name is being mentioned but it's not clear whether he's ready to put his Mr Clean reputation on the line for this.

Those who monitor the telecom sector feel that the government will ultimately put off a decision, taking shelter behind the plea that a presidential reference on auctioning of national resources is pending with the Supreme Court. "The government can always argue that till the SC disposes of the presidential reference and clarifies the position on auctions, it cannot decide on the methodology for spectrum pricing, " the analyst said. If it means a delay in issuing spectrum licenses to telecom operators, so be it, he added.

The cabinet secretariat is grappling with the EGoM/GoM conundrum. An informed government source said the entire list is under review and given the obvious reluctance among ministers to take on additional responsibilities that could make them a target of attack, some GoMs could be wound up, including the more sensitive ones. For instance, home minister P Chidambaram's name is being mentioned to head the EGoM on petroleum which is to take a call on the contentious subsidy issue. If he is reluctant, the ball may land in the court of the ministry, which will put it up to the cabinet to decide. This is how it should be and there are many in the government who will be relieved if the cabinet system of decision-making is revived.

Recent media narrative has suggested that the PM was happy to see Mukherjee bow out of the government, not just because of their differences over the handling of the economy but also because he felt overshadowed by his politically astute finance minister who was once his senior and had appointed him as Reserve Bank governor many moons ago. But as problems pile up at his doorstep and he finds that he cannot evade the responsibility thrust on him by virtue of his position as head of the government, the PM may well remember what he told the media shortly after Mukherjee was nominated as the UPA's presidential candidate. He said, "It will be very difficult to fill Pranab Mukherjee's shoes. "



Auction of 3G spectrum Divestment of government shares in all Central Public Sector Enterprises Drought management Management and pricing of foodgrains and proposed food security bill Ratnagiri Gas and Power Pvt Ltd Gas pricing and commercial utilisation of gas Implementation of the National Highways Development Project Cases related to divestment in PSUs during 2000-2003 Ultra Mega Power Projects Mass rapid transit systems (metros) Proposals from railways ministry Proposed withdrawal of subsidies on diesel, kerosene and LPG On SEZs



Review subsidies on fertilisers Location of the national war memorial Trade in goods between India and ASEAN Reports of the Administrative Reforms Commission Civil aviation Coal Mines (Amendment) Bill, 2000 WTO Termination of contract for Barh thermal power project between NTPC and Russian firm Ethanol blended petrol project MOU for highways between India and Malaysia Caste enumeration in census 2011 Energy security Draft mines and minerals bill Demand for law relating to honour killings Licensing methodology for phase III of FM radio Complaints regarding "paid news" Measures to tackle corruption Environmental issues related to coal mining Recognition of cold wave as calamity for National Disaster Response Force Cairn India-Vedanta oil deal Amendments to Competition Act, 2002


Cotton pricing and export Trade policy National calamities compensation Coal pricing Standing committee for the National Ganga River Basin Authority Joint drafting committee (with Team Anna) for Lokpal Bill Standing committee on Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor

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