Is Congress digging its own corrupt grave?

January 13, 2011

Telecom Minister Kabil Sibal’s attack on the competency of India’s independent state auditor appears to show Congress’s growing desperation at its inability to silence corruption charges, and the inevitable backfire may illustrate just how out of touch India’s ruling party has become with the current political climate.

Kapil Sibal, Indian Minister of Telecoms attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 31, 2009. REUTERS/Pascal Lauener

Last week’s allegations by Sibal of the “utterly erroneous” calculations in a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) estimating a $39 billion loss to the exchequer during the 2008 2G spectrum sale have led to a barrage of criticism from opposition politicians and the CAG, and appear to have only resulted in increased pressure on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is reportedly mulling a breach of privilege motion against Sibal – a Congress heavyweight – for his insinuation of “serious errors” in the independent investigation, the CAG has suggested his remarks were “in contempt of the House” and the opposition, already riding high on the ruling party’s seemingly endless list of corruption-related woes, accused the minister of attempting to “overreach the Parliamentary process.”

In short, his attempt to discredit the report, with the assumed blessing of Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, has only led to more headlines and headaches.

Sibal may be correct in his assertion. The loss to the state is essentially incalculable – the CAG even admitted that in its report. But in failing to address the issue of improper practices undertaken during the spectrum allocation that the report also noted, he risked appearing to shift the blame away from his sacked predecessor, A. Raja, a member of a party crucial to the success of Singh’s ruling coalition.

Similarly to Prime Minister Singh’s December promise to appear before the PAC to answer questions on the 2G scandal, rather than agree to a joint parliamentary committee as demanded by the opposition, Sibal’s analysis of the CAG report was seen by some as an example of half measures by the government in tackling corruption, and a failure to address the allegations head-on.

As Siddharth Varadarajan wrote in The Hindu on Wednesday, the danger for Congress is its inability to seize the initiative on corruption by taking direct steps to address the various accusations: “If the UPA government continues to remain in denial, it will pay a heavy political price.”

It may be a new year, but newspaper reports citing corruption charges against the central government have continued unabated, as the crucial budget session of parliament looms without any sign of conciliation with an emboldened opposition.

Despite promises from Singh of a program to tackle graft issues that threaten to irreparably tarnish his government, continued excuses and attempts to shift the blame risk fuelling the fire instead of stamping it out.

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