Public Opinion

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject. He is the Political Editor of Open.

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The Unreliable Source

The second rung of the Congress party, where there is much jostling for power, is the origin of some of the most ridiculous political spin in recent times
THE KAUR GROUP The PM and his wife Gursharan Kaur at their official residence (Photo: AP)
Ashwani Kumar after his resignation from the Law Ministry (Photo: AP)
DUAL CONTROL? Differences of opinion persist only as long as Sonia allows them to (Photo: REUTERS)

Over the past week, as the drama over the resignations of Ashwani Kumar and Pawan Kumar Bansal was being played out in TV studios, anchors peering at their text messages were quick to turn the flow of information into ‘breaking news’ on the screen. But for much of the time there was no news to break, and this hurry to get information out, whatever its veracity, meant that it was ‘sources’ and not anchors who were driving TV coverage and the spin being put on events.

It was in the Times Now studio that I first encountered the ‘Kaur group’. The reference was to a shadowy group of Congress politicians from Punjab patronised by the PM’s wife Gursharan Kaur who were powerful enough to act as a counter to the Congress ‘core group’ handpicked by Sonia. It is a reference that has since made it to print as well, in newspapers and magazines that otherwise purport to bring some seriousness to political reportage. It is also a line that a powerful corporate group was keen to sell Open as well.

How has an amiable woman who we rarely see in public, and who for nine years of Manmohan Singh’s tenure as PM has been considered apolitical, suddenly transformed into the head of a group more powerful than Opus Dei? How has such an absurd premise gained traction? The answer to these questions has everything to do with the state of the Congress party and its incestuous relationship with the Delhi media.

In 2011, the journalist Rashid Kidwai in his book on the Congress, 24 Akbar Road, had observed, ‘By March 2011 when the Wikileaks, 2G scam and Commonwealth Games scam started making headlines … the UPA under Sonia-Manmohan appeared defensive. This was in sharp contrast to the upbeat mood of May 2009 when the Congress party won 206 Lok Sabha seats. Paradoxically most of these challenges came from within—not from without. These events showed that both Sonia and Manmohan lacked a firm grip on the Congress.’

The party was never Manmohan’s domain, and Sonia is not hands on. It takes a great deal for her to intervene. As a result the Congress today is a two-rung ladder with the entire leadership of the party consigned to the second rung and Manmohan perched on the first, while Sonia floats somewhere above, deigning to intervene only when things descend into chaos below. Those on the second rung believe they have a chance to displace Manmohan, and have been busy elbowing each other out of the way while together trying to pull the PM down. They have found willing allies in the media, because journalists who have little or no access to either Sonia or Manmohan need sources of information within the party. In turn, they are willing to spin the news to suit their source. The result is that Sonia remains immune to media scrutiny, Manmohan is the target everyone has in common, and news about second-rung Congress leaders remains contentious, depending on who is planting what about whom.

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Consider, then, the current crisis through that lens. For much of these nine years of the UPA Manmohan has been to Sonia what Ashwani Kumar was to Manmohan for a brief while, a shield against calumny. To talk of a tussle between Manmohan and Sonia is as absurd as talking about a tussle between Manmohan and Ashwani Kumar. What Ashwani Kumar was doing was aimed at avoiding embarrassment to Manmohan Singh, whatever the final result, and what Manmohan does is aimed at avoiding embarrassment to Sonia.

Sonia and Manmohan may have their differences of opinion, but they persist only as long as Sonia allows them to. Ashwani Kumar had to go, but not Manmohan, eventually because Ashwani Kumar was dispensable and another person could well play the same role. Manmohan, as far as Sonia is concerned, is indispensable, even if the rest of the party may disagree.

There is ample evidence for this claim. Ashwani Kumar tampered with a CBI report on the Coalgate scam not because he was looking to suppress any personal wrongdoing. The real problem with the report relates to the period from 2006 to 2009 when the PM held the Union coal portfolio. Having known for nine years that the buck does not stop with Manmohan, the media is willing to suddenly believe it now does. Even the simple observation that the joint secretary of the Prime Ministers’ Office (PMO) who was also at a meeting where the draft of the CBI’s status report was reconsidered, could only have attended with the knowledge and explicit permission of Pulok Chatterjee, principal secretary to the PM but also a 10 Janpath appointee, has not been followed through by the media.

Such reporting suits much of the Congress in Delhi which seems united in wanting Manmohan’s exit. The calculation within Congress ranks is straightforward, even if totally unrealistic. If Manmohan Singh goes, everyone from Satyavrat Chaturvedi to Kapil Sibal believes s/he is qualified to be interim Prime Minister of India. This is, of course, far too optimistic a view. Even within Congress circles only a few are seen as serious contenders in the wake of Rahul Gandhi’s reluctance to step forward. These are P Chidambaram, Digvijaya Singh, Sushilkumar Shinde, Meira Kumar and AK Antony.

Shinde has already managed to embarrass the government and the party on enough occasions in his short tenure as Home Minister, which leaves Meira Kumar the more likely contender if the party chooses to reach out to Dalits. Antony has the drawback of having to answer for Sonia’s sensitivity to any mention of her Christian roots. Digvijaya Singh is part of the Rahul camp, and if Rahul remains reluctant to step forward, it is unlikely anyone who advises him will, and the role he is likely to play is akin to the one Ahmed Patel plays for Sonia as her all-powerful political secretary. The frontrunner then is P Chidambaram, a politician known to have a formidable network in the media.

His recent trip across metropolitan India to review stalled infrastructure, power and mining projects is more than just an attempt to revive the economy. Corporate India is already nervous about a Prime Minister other than Manmohan Singh, and it would prefer Chidambaram over any other candidate of the Congress. The calculation then becomes even simpler. No one can predict the outcome of the election and how the jockeying among candidates sorts itself out if the Congress, however unlikely it may now seem, does get another chance, but Chidambaram would be a frontrunner if an interim Prime Minister is required. It is no coincidence that journalists close to Chidambaram were at the forefront of the talk about the ‘Kaur group’. This is not to suggest Chidambaram was necessarily prompting them or had anything to do with the rumours, but only to suggest how far reporters who have internalised the ambitions of their patrons are willing to go.

Irrespective of how you look at it, the invention of the Kaur group is an act of great ingenuity. It meets the test of initial plausibility—ministers from Punjab such as Pawan Kumar Bansal and Ashwani Kumar, their purported closeness to the Manmohan Singh family nurtured over cups of tea served by Gursharan Kaur at family gatherings, rewarded with lucrative portfolios such as the Railway and Law Ministry. Obviously the moving force in such a group must be the strong-willed wife because Manmohan Singh is too mild to stand up to a strong woman at home or at work.

In Delhi, this degree of plausibility is enough to generate talk and even a few stories, especially when backed by a corporate house assuring you that there are notes and phone conversations that suggest an active involvement in governance by the PM’s wife. But in reality the story does not even stand up to cursory examination. Both Bansal and Ashwani Kumar have had long careers in politics much before Manmohan Singh could have helped them, and much of their rise in the party and the Government was a result of their closeness to 10 Janpath. In fact, Bansal was believed to have been made Parliamentary Affairs Minister in 2009 at Sonia Gandhi’s behest and Ashwani Kumar’s acts in the law ministry seemed aimed more at pleasing Pulok Chatterjee than Manmohan Singh.

This sudden exaggeration of Manmohan Singh’s importance, even if in the guise of his wife’s assertiveness, ironically comes at a time when it is all but clear that he is incapable of the acts of defiance being attributed to him in his interaction with Sonia Gandhi. His reputation for probity only stems from a limited view of the man. He made his own peace with the corruption of the Narasimha Rao Government, and has had few compunctions in adapting to the political circumstances that surround him. His battle for the Indo-US Nuclear Deal now seems an aberration that only further served to weaken him. After that brief display of assertiveness, he lost control over the PMO to Sonia Gandhi and her Man Friday Ahmed Patel. His principal secretary TKA Nair gave way to Pulok Chatterjee whose loyalty is to Sonia and his media advisor Sanjaya Baru gave way first to Harish Khare and then to Pankaj Pachauri, both of whom were far more obliged to Ahmed Patel than Manmohan Singh. At the height of the recent crisis, the PMO was marked by its silence.

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As far as some media organisations such as NDTV and Tehelka are concerned, their closeness to the Congress is no secret. Barkha Dutt’s role in the Radia Tapes did not seem to point to an individual act but an institutional malaise. It is only illustrative that today a Sanjay Jha of Hamara Congress as Executive Director of Dale Carnegie Training operations can hold a workshop at NDTV for those very people who could be asking him questions on a prime-time evening show.

But beyond institutional closeness is the issue of individual reporters who have covered this government over the past nine years. Access requires give-and-take, and several reporters have developed an unhealthy proximity to a number of Congress leaders. In the durbar politics of the party, where it is necessary to strike down potential competitors, the media has played a vital role. Just last week Open reported that the changed status report on Coalgate was actually leaked to the media by a Congress politician, effectively opening up the Law Ministry for contenders.

This nexus between the media and Congresspersons has created an entire generation of Congress politicians who owe their career primarily to their ability to manipulate the media. Under Sonia Gandhi, not a single mass-based politician has emerged in the party, though even the Rajiv Gandhi years saw the rise of a Digvijaya Singh and an Ashok Gehlot. In some ways, the party has cloned Manmohan Singh several times over with all his weaknesses and none of his strengths.

This nexus, except in the case of the select organisations named above, is not peculiar to the Congress but is born of the pressures of prime-time television. Individual reporters who have been close to the Congress will move on. Elections are approaching, the Government could well change, new associations will be forged, a different set of sources will be cultivated. All that some of us can do, the next time we hear of the Kaur group or its equivalent, is ask who the reporter in question is, who he or she is close to, and whose agenda is being served.