In a display of assertive
leadership, Sonia Gandhi seems to have played a major role in the
sacking of the two Union ministers, Ashwini Kumar and Pawan Bansal,
whose names had come under a cloud.
The fact that the dismissals took place within hours of her
"unscheduled" meeting with Manmohan Singh is not without
significance. Aware that any further dithering might irreparably
damage the Congress's and the government's image, the Sonia Gandhi
saw to it that it was hers, and the party's, views which would
In the process, the prime minister's reputation has taken a hit,
for it was suspected that he was reluctant to remove the two
ministers, and especially Ashwini Kumar, since the latter's
sacking would have exposed the prime minister himself to the
direct line of fire in the coal mine allocation scandal.
Since the dismissal of the railway minister would have
automatically led to the demand for the axing of the law minister
as well - as it indeed happened - Manmohan Singh was evidently
unwilling to take even the first step. The delay, however, via
self-serving explanations, by spokespersons about how everyone was
innocent under the law unless proven guilty, and that
investigations were on, was proving fatally damaging to the
What was more, it was taking the sheen of the Congress's victory
in Karnataka. Arguably, if the Karnataka result had not come out
at this particular time, the government might have continued to
maintain that there was no need to pre-empt the findings of the
probes against Bansal and his relatives, and the Supreme Court's
final judgment on Ashwini Kumar, by dismissing them. The
willingness to let things drift could be seen in the abrupt
decision to adjourn the Lok Sabha sine die to stifle the
opposition's demand for the ministerial resignations.
However, what the government appears to have overlooked is the
politically damaging consequences of public opinion, moulded to a
considerable extent by an overactive media, which suspected a
cover-up. This was truer of the law minister since he was seen to
have been overzealous in changing the "heart" of the Central
Bureau of Investigation's (CBI) report on the coal scam.
Since the prime minister's name has come up in this connection,
the surmise was that the law minister tampered with the portions
unfavourable to his boss. The presence of bureaucrats from the
Prime Minister's Office (PMO) by Ashwini Kumar's side - while he
was supposedly correcting grammatical errors in the CBI report to
the Supreme Court - deepened the suspicion. For the first time,
therefore, since Manmohan Singh became the "accidental" prime
minister, his Teflon image no longer seemed adequate.
From the vantage point of being outside the hothouse atmosphere of
the government, Sonia Gandhi had evidently sensed that any further
dragging of the foot on the two ministers was politically
untenable. If the Karnataka verdict brought forward the day of
their sacking, the approach of the anniversary of the United
Progressive Alliance's (UPA) ninth year in office also made it
imperative that Ashwini Kumar and Bansal would be shown the door.
The celebratory mood, already not all that upbeat because of a
faltering economy, would have been further dampened by their
presence in their official capacities.
This is the third time that Sonia Gandhi has been seen in a
proactive mood. The first occasion was when she engineered the
ouster of the then party chief, Sitaram Kesri, because of the
belief that he was leading the Congress downhill. The second was
when her "inner voice" told her that becoming prime minister
herself in 2004, as the party wanted, would give an unnecessary
handle to a demoralized Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to dramatize
the "foreign national" issue and claw its way backs into public
reckoning. Hence, her selection of Manmohan Singh.
Her latest act is the third time that she has taken a decisive
step on what can be deemed an "official" matter. However, the
initiative is in line with the satisfaction she expressed when
Ashok Chavan and Shashi Tharoor resigned from their ministerial
positions a few years ago. (Tharoor has since been rehabilitated.)
She said at the time that while the BJP talked, the Congress
This time, too, she could not but have noted how the electorate
punished the BJP in Karnataka. It is also not impossible that she
recalled how the Congress itself lost its massive majority in the
Lok Sabha in 1989 because of the Bofors howitzer scandal.
She realized, therefore, that the party's prospects would be dim
if it approached the forthcoming state assembly elections in
Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi, and the general
election thereafter, with a tainted image. As for the Karnataka
outcome, it is obvious that the Congress did not win so much -
after all, its voting percentages remained virtually static - as
that the BJP lost with a steep 13 per cent drop in its vote share.
If the ministerial dismissals mark the beginning of an effort to
cleanse the Augean stables of sleaze, it will be an eagerly
awaited initiative by the people of India.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at