New Delhi, Aug. 31: The coal-block crisis seems to have spurred Sonia Gandhi into taking the job of political management into her own hands and doing her bit towards defeating the BJP’s plan of forging a wider Opposition unity.
Congress leaders say the exit of Pranab Mukherjee forced Sonia to shed her hands-off style, especially as the new leader of the Lok Sabha, Sushil Kumar Shinde, is yet to prove his credentials as a political manager.
To stop the BJP from becoming the Opposition’s voice, the Congress president personally approached Left leaders to repair ties and walked the extra mile to keep Mulayam Singh Yadav in good humour. Congress leaders say her prompt response saved the government from getting severely burnt by the coal block allocation controversy.
Sonia, who met the President today, seems deeply worried about the continuing slide in the government’s image, which may worsen in the coming months as CAG reports on several other ministries’ functioning are in the pipeline. The seemingly endless tide of misfortune now threatens to spoil her plans for recovery in the last leg of this government’s tenure.
According to sources, Sonia is even willing to scrap the coal block allocations if that helps the party out of the mess but the government has advised her to go slow. She has been told that wholesale cancellation of allocations through a policy directive would involve enormous financial and legal risks.
The government, however, has activated the coal ministry to explore the possibility of case-by-case cancellation of allocations on the basis of contract violations. Sources said that this line of action appeared to hold promise.
While 25 coal blocks had already been de-allocated in May this year, 17 others that fall in no-go areas can easily be cancelled. Some allocations are under CBI scrutiny with the possibility of punishment if wrongdoings are found.
The government is considering action on these grounds after the monsoon session of Parliament without making any dramatic announcement about a reversal of the decisions of the screening committee that allocated the coal blocks.
Sonia, who called top party colleagues for discussions this afternoon and attended the evening core committee meeting, is said to be agreeable also to the idea of ordering a judicial probe, as demanded by Mulayam. The core committee discussed various options but nothing was made public.
Earlier, Sonia had successfully got the message across that Manmohan Singh’s removal would mean fresh elections since she would not run this government with another Prime Minister. At the same time, she had mollified the Left and the Samajwadi Party by hinting at sympathetic consideration of their demands on the coal-block controversy.
The Left-Samajwadi bloc soon emerged from the BJP’s shadow, giving the government some bargaining points to break the deadlock.
Sonia is said to be livid with the BJP for the direct attack on the Prime Minister and therefore unleashed the barrage of rebuttals. The usually reticent Congress lined up big guns P. Chidambaram, Ambika Soni, Salman Khurshid, Kapil Sibal, Digvijaya Singh and Janardan Dwivedi to confront the BJP along with the regular spokespersons.
Sonia herself made a powerful speech at the Congress parliamentary party meeting, following it up with another at a rally in Barmer, Rajasthan.
Some lobbies within the Congress have, however, begun talking in terms of changing the Prime Minister to give the embattled government a drastic image makeover. But others feel that the ruling combine would have crumbled under the weight of so many scandals without the shock absorber in the form of Manmohan Singh’s impeccable personal image.
Sonia seems to have sent out a message by leading the fight against the first serious attack on Singh’s personal probity instead of dumping him for a new face.