India Insight

Congress’s corruption calamities continue as the Thomas saga unravels

In a season of corruption charges that have shackled India’s ruling Congress party’s political ambitions, the ongoing saga of the country’s tainted anti-corruption chief is perhaps the hardest to believe.

The curious case of P.J. Thomas, the accused fraudster appointed to head India’s corruption investigation agency by the Prime Minister last October, took another twist on Monday to further undermine Manmohan Singh’s party’s ability to tackle graft that threatens to become the overriding legacy of its current term.

India's Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram speaks during a news conference after a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) interior ministers meeting in Islamabad June 26, 2010 REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

In a fillip for the already emboldened opposition, Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said on Monday that the three-man selection committee headed by the Prime Minister that appointed Thomas to the role of Chief Vigilance Commissioner was aware of the pending fraud case against him – but made the appointment regardless.

“We did discuss the names of the panel. In fact, the bulk of the time (of discussion) was regarding P.J. Thomas and the Palmolein case,” Chidambaram told reporters on Monday.

Chidambaram’s statement comes just days after G.E. Vahanvati, the country’s Attorney General, testified to the Supreme Court that the selection panel was not made aware of the charges relating to a 1991 fraud case surrounding the import of edible oils when Thomas was a minister in a state government during the appointment discussions.

Karnataka governor’s sanction: Sagacity or political mischief?

File photo of a worker preparing for a rally by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Lucknow, April 4, 2004. REUTERS/Kamal Kishore/Files The tussle between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Karnataka governor Hans Raj Bhardwaj has reached the President’s House with BJP leaders demanding the recall of Bhardwaj.

Could the Governor have avoided sanctioning the prosecution of Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa in the alleged dubious land allotment deals?

In an interview to Hindustan Times, Bhardwaj defended his decision, claiming there are “documented acts of corruption which have cost the state nearly 500 crore rupees.”

Has Congress lost the plot on inflation?

“Government Plan To Tackle Prices Is Just Hot Air” screamed the front page of Friday’s Mail Today, as India’s political media lined up to belittle what was billed as a list of anti-inflationary remedies but was robustly rejected as “already failed measures and oft-repeated homilies.”

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, ruling Congress party Chief Sonia Gandhi and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee stand to attention as the national anthem is played during an oath-taking ceremony inside the presidential palace in New Delhi May 28, 2009. REUTERS/B Mathur

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meetings this week with senior cabinet ministers to tackle year-high food inflation dragged on long into the night, keeping editors on tenterhooks and assuring Congress of front page headlines.

This morning, those headlines would have made for painful reading. After rumours of export curbs and future markets tweaks, what emerged to be a paltry list of recommendations was seen by many as nothing but ineffective band-aids for a broken economy requiring surgery.

Is Congress digging its own corrupt grave?

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.”

Will the Congress bite the bullet on Telangana?

File photo of activists of Telangana Joint Action Committee shouting slogans as they form a human chain during a protest in front of the Charminar in Hyderabad February 3, 2010. REUTERS/Krishnendu Halder/Files

Almost a year after violent protests over demands for a Telangana state carved out of Andhra Pradesh, the Indian government has to grapple with the issue once again.

A report by a panel set up to examine the issue and suggest options to deal with the decades-old demand was made public on Thursday.

Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, while releasing the B. N. Srikrishna report, urged an impartial consideration of its contents.

Congress takes comfort in DMK smiles, for now

Smiles, handshakes and declarations of friendship abounded during a meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and DMK leader M. Karunanidhi on Monday, as the investigation into a $39 billion telecoms scam that has centred on the Tamil Nadu party appeared to have been forgotten in favour of coalition camaraderie.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) speaks to Karunanidhi, President of DMK (Dravida Munetra Kazhagam) party during an election rally in the southern Indian city of Chennai May 4, 2006.  REUTERS/Babu
With parliament paralysed and DMK MP Andimuthu Raja sacked from his role as telecoms minister as a result of the scam, the last thing Singh needed was signs of dissent from a key member of his Congress party’s ruling coalition.

After appearing to snub the Prime Minister on his arrival on Sunday – choosing instead to “meet a poet” – Karunanidhi, also chief minister of Tamil Nadu, was all smiles during a 25-minute meeting, telling reporters afterwards that the relationship was “strong”.

Singh returned the favour, telling national broadcaster Doordarshan: “The alliance remains as strong as ever”.

Should the Congress agree to a JPC probe?

The parliament building in New Delhi December 1, 2010. REUTERS/B Mathur

With parliament still deadlocked, does it make sense for the Congress to bow to opposition demands and set up a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) probe into the alleged telecoms scam?

If the government does agree to such a probe — and a few allies already think it should — it may well be in for a prolonged period of uncertainty.

A JPC in which the ruling party is in a minority and has to depend on mercurial parties for support will be a loaded gun.

Will departure of embattled India anti-graft chief end Congress party woes?

India’s Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), the country’s federal anti-corruption body, has a self-affirmed mandate to “fight corruption and ensure probity in public life by taking various preventive and proactive initiatives from time to time.”
The Indian parliament on Wednesday approved a $9.8-billion additional spending bill to cover various payments including outstanding government debt, food and fertiliser subsidies, and government pensions. The bill was passed by a voice vote in parliament, a type of vote allowing the government to bypass a three-week deadlock between the ruling Congress party-led coalition and opposition parties caused by rows over a series of corruption scandals. REUTERS/B Mathur
Faced with a windfall of political scandals to investigate, red faces thus abounded at the CVC when media reports showed that its chief, and the highest anti-corruption officer in the country, P.J. Thomas, was himself facing questioning in connection with corruption allegations.

Thomas, who was appointed to the position by the Prime Minister and Home Minister in September despite being implicated in a 1992 palmolein import fraud case while serving in the Kerala state government, on Saturday found himself the subject of strong resignation rumours as the central government desperately seeks to insulate itself from contagious graft allegations

The embattled Thomas has already been stripped of his leadership of a probe into an alleged $39 billion telecoms scam due to the outstanding charges and his tenure as the Telecommunications Secretary during the time that the alleged illegalities took place in the ministry.

War homes scandal rocks Mumbai ahead of Obama trip

High-rise buildings are seen behind a slum in Mumbai April 28, 2009. REUTERS/Arko Datta/Files
Corruption charges are swirling over a new apartment block in an upscale Mumbai district where homes meant for war widows have gone cheaply to politicians and military officers, embarrassing India’s ruling Congress party.

The scandal has broken out days before U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in the city.

When first mooted, Adarsh Housing Society in Mumbai’s tony Colaba area was supposed to be a six-storey building to house widows and heroes of a military conflict in Kargil bordering Pakistan in 1999.

Adviser’s attack on Congress shows party tensions

Appearing to signal dissent in the ranks of India’s ruling Congress party, the Prime Minister’s media adviser told reporters last night that the “status-quoist” party was only concerned with winning elections.

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (C), Chief of India's ruling Congress party Sonia Gandhi (R) and India's Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel (L) attend the inauguration ceremony of the newly constructed Terminal 3 at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi July 3, 2010 REUTERS/B Mathur“The Congress is by nature a status-quoist, pragmatic party,” Harish Khare, media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was reported by the Hindustan Times as saying on Tuesday.

“It does not believe in any conviction. (Its) only conviction is to win elections,” the Indian Express added.

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