Congress asserts itself, retains telecom

Congress asserts itself, retains telecom

New Delhi: The Congress on Monday asserted its dominance of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) by handing over charge of the telecom ministry to human resource development minister and Congressman Kapil Sibal, a day after forcing the hand of its partner Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to get its member A. Raja to quit the job.

Sibal’s appointment is seen by analysts as part of a larger game plan by the Congress to rebuild its image, which has taken a severe beating following a rash of allegations over graft in public projects. On Monday, the Central Bureau of Investigation arrested T.S. Darbari and Sanjay Mohindroo, two former officials of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) organizing committee and aides of Congress leader Suresh Kalmadi, who was the chairman of the committee, for alleged irregularities in executing the Queen’s Baton Relay in London ahead of the event. Last week, the party sacked Kalmadi from a key post.

According to a cabinet minister, who did not want to be identified, Sibal will be in charge “till there is a cabinet reshuffle". This person added that Sibal, a well-known lawyer with a clean image, will handle the ministry during the ongoing winter session and also prepare the department of telecom, under fire for alleged irregularities in allowing new entrants into the second generation (2G) telephony business in 2008, for its legal battles.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is expected to stick to the tradition of a head of government not reshuffling his council of ministers while Parliament is in session.

Although Congress claimed that the replacement was done to ensure smooth functioning of Parliament, which has been disrupted by the Opposition ever since the winter session began on 9 November, two senior leaders of the party admitted that it was “keen to take charge and improve its tarnished image".

They said that DMK leader and Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi was not willing to let someone from another party hold the communications portfolio. The DMK has retained the telecom portfolio since 2004 as part of its deal with the Congress, the dominant member of the UPA, of which both parties are constituents.

T.K.S. Elangovan, a DMK member of Parliament, said this arrangement was intact and his “party will propose a name when the actual reshuffle (of the cabinet) happens".

Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Opposition and some allies of the government have not been appeased by Raja’s departure and continue to ask for a probe by a joint parliamentary committee into allegations of corruption over the organization of CWG and the allotment of 2G spectrum. Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, who is also the leader of the Lok Sabha, rejected this demand.

Political analysts say that the Congress move to punish the corrupt is a good beginning. “I think the image loss is an immediate effect because the party has been maintaining a clean image and there is a short-term gain over its decision to sack the leaders," said Vindu Varma, a professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The party last week had sacked Kalmadi from his post as Congress parliamentary party secretary. It also sacked Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan, who had been accused of corruption in the allotment of flats in the Adarsh Housing Cooperative Society in Mumbai, meant for the benefit of those who fought in the 1999 Kargil conflict.

Former Union minister Prithviraj Chavan has taken over as the new chief minister of Maharashtra and is yet to expand his cabinet.

Commenting on the Congress’ efforts to cleanse the political system, analyst T.V.R. Shenoy said: “It’s a good beginning, but it all depends on the follow-up. So far corrupt leaders have paid the price by giving up the post. No politician has gone to jail for corruption in independent India’s history... Unlike in the past, the general public wants to see action against corruption."

Varma added that the Congress can still recover lost ground in terms of image because leaders such as the Prime Minister and Congress president Sonia Gandhi are not involved in any of the controversies.

A representative of the Samajwadi Party in the Lok Sabha said Raja’s resignation won’t change anything. “The country has lost 1.76 trillion. There has to be a proper investigation," said Neeraj Chandrashekar. The number has been arrived at by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India as the notional loss to the government arising from the entry of new companies into the 2G business on favourable terms in 2008—a process overseen by Raja.

Elizabeth Roche contributed to this story