Thursday, September 13, 2012

Congress launches damage control blitz on Coalgate

NEW DELHI, September 13, 2012

In the five days since the monsoon session of Parliament ended without witnessing any business, thanks to the release of the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) controversial report on coal blocks allocation, Union Ministers and top Congress functionaries — as part of a concerted strategy — have been visiting State capitals to defend the government, even as party spokespersons simultaneously gone as far as to equate the BJP with the CAG.

Unlike in the case of the 2G spectrum scandal, this time, the Congress and the government were quicker off the mark to try and do some damage control.

The party has not just gained experience — this time, those under fire don't belong to a friendly party; some of those being mentioned are in the Congress. Worse, at the time when some of the decisions that are being questioned were taken, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, himself, held the coal portfolio.

There is a strong sense in the party that it has conceded too much on 2G to the Opposition, even accepting the setting up of a joint parliamentary committee to go into the issue. "We are paying now for the loss of political nerve and our penchant for expediency, which was underscored by our abject surrender in 2010, when the CAG report on 2G came out," a Congress functionary told The Hindu, adding, "We thought we could cut our losses by hanging everything on the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, but we were wrong."

Indeed, it is at Congress president Sonia Gandhi's instance that Ministers and party functionaries are travelling around the country to present the government's case while taking on the Opposition frontally.

Sibal takes on BJP

On Wednesday, Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal was in Kolkata, accusing the BJP of trying to subvert the country's growth story. He said the latter was suffering from 'paralysis' as it was not allowing Parliament to function, returning the barb directed at the government by the Opposition.

On Tuesday, even as Minister of State for Commerce Jyotiraditya Scindia addressed a press conference in Patna stressing that the BJP, not the Congress, was sidetracking the issue by refusing to discuss the issue in Parliament, Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh were in Lucknow. There, Mr. Singh drew comparisons between the Opposition's current campaign against the government and that against Rajiv Gandhi on Bofors between 1985-1990. That was also on the basis of a report by the CAG, incidentally a CAG who, Mr. Singh pointed out, went on to become a BJP MP – T.N. Chaturvedi.

On Monday, Mr. Azad accompanied Law Minister Salman Khurshid to Hyderabad where they vigorously defended the Prime Minister, giving a point-by-point rebuttal of the Opposition's allegations. And on Sunday, Minister of State for Communications and IT Sachin Pilot and party general secretary B.K. Hariprasad were in Chandigarh. Mr. Pilot said the BJP stalled Parliament as it did not want to explain why its own Chief Ministers had written to the Centre strongly opposing any change in the mode of allocating coal blocks.

But even as the damage control blitz continued, a functionary stressed that while the Congress was confident that it would be "able to deal with the BJP" — as that party too had things to hide — Coalgate had just added to the perception of a corrupt government at the Centre, coming as it has done in the wake of a slew of scams.

In the Congress, there are also those who say that the party must go beyond press conferences, as it amounted to fighting the Opposition "on its own turf." "We need to change the terms of the debate. Take some key decisions, reverse the sense of a crisis of governance, and tackle food inflation," a party source said. A government source too said that some key economic decisions were being planned to try and take the attention away from Coalgate.

The fact that the government is engaged in fire-fighting, Congress sources added, could also impact the planned changes in the Council of Ministers, possibly later this month. This was meant to be the last major reshuffle before the 2014 general elections, but with party general secretary Rahul Gandhi still reluctant to take on a role in government, the changes could be limited to filling the vacancies and admitting a few ministers from the DMK, government sources said.
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