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Home > News > Columnists > Aditi Phadnis

The real Ram Setu fight

September 24, 2007

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On balance, the sympathies of the Congress party lie with Ambika Soni, who, so soon after the Jade Goody episode, is in trouble again. Two officials in the Archaeological Survey of India have been suspended for not deleting all three paragraphs of an affidavit presented in the Madras high court over the legality of the Ram Setu. The collective implication of the three paragraphs was that Ram was a mythical figure and, therefore, did not exist. Soni says she had ordered that the three paragraphs that made this assertion be deleted but only two were  cut.

How did this happen? Either the chief of the ASI, Anshu Vaish, omitted to incorporate the minister's directions -- or she ignored them because she was receiving instructions from someone else. Vaish has since conducted an enquiry and two officials have been suspended. That doesn't sound right. The minister has sought Vaish's personal explanation. The IAS officer from the Madhya Pradesh cadre is to give her clarification to the culture secretary.

Additional Solicitor-General Gopal Subramaniam has been drawn into the controversy for not vetting the affidavit properly. But all bureaucrats know that the law ministry will, at the most, tell you whether the affidavit drafted by the ministry is consistent with the law or not -- the responsibility of the contents of the affidavit has to be the ministry's.

What this means is: either Soni is an ineffectual minister whose bureaucrats do pretty much what they like; or she's the one who's goofed and is trying to cover up. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. When the Shilpa Shetty-Big Brother controversy erupted, the ministry of tourism and culture put out several advertisements in British newspapers that appealed to the better nature of Jade Goody and invited her to India to experience its healing nature. Goody accepted the offer with alacrity. Several in India, angered by the openly racist nature of her comments, responded indignantly to India offering to host her. When the matter threatened to snowball, Soni again said she had not been kept in the loop and the advertisements were the brainwave of her bureaucrats. Soni, in fact, sought an explanation from the Indian tourism office in London [Images] and Ireland for issuing the advertisement without consulting her.

No minister can possibly read every affidavit that goes out of their ministry. But in the ultimate analysis, if you are the minister,  the buck stops with you. Soni, otherwise an intelligent, progressive politician, would be the first to agree -- if she did not know that the strings were being pulled by someone else altogether.

This is not the season to be a minister. The action is in the party. That's the fount of power: that's where you can preside over giving tickets, denying them, creating winning strategies� remember the last election? Ghulam Nabi Azad was in charge of Andhra Pradesh and he claimed it was he who brought the Congress to power at the Centre because AP contributed so many Congress MPs. With an election within sniffing distance, everyone wants to return to the party. Soni is no exception.

But there are others who want to prevent this. The Congress leadership has paid no serious attention to the organisation for the last 18 months. That is probably the reason the average age of the general secretaries in the party is 60-plus. M M Jacob is 85 and they expect him to handle complicated states like Karnataka and Jammu & Kashmir. Oscar Fernandes is a minister but he still has the charge of eight north-eastern states, each one driven by a tribal insurgency that has its own complex ethnic specificity. Ashok Gehlot, who should be leading from the front, is a nice guy but hardly the personality to lead a grand revival of the Congress in UP. Motilal Vora is the party treasurer, but the fact is that side of things is much better looked after by Ahmad Patel, political advisor to the Congress president.

In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is Patel who is running the party. There is no other reason why educated but tough young leaders like Salman Khurshid should be sidelined. The great fear is that should Soni return to the party, she might stir up things, upset the balance of power, heaven forbid, maybe even resuscitate the party in some pockets. Things are so much more comfortable when there are no challenges or challengers.

Recall that it was Soni who was replaced by Ahmad Patel as political advisor to the Congress president. Everyone acknowledges that it is Patel's sagacity and good relations with UPA allies that has caused the coalition to run as long as it has. But in the process, he has developed his own stakes in running the system in a particular way. For it to continue to run, potential challengers have to be eliminated or consigned to places from which they cannot return. If Soni is proved inefficient as a minister, there's no way she can be rehabilitated in the party.

Soni, no fool herself, no doubt understands that the Ram Setu controversy is neither about Ram nor about her conduct as a minister. The subtext is to deal her a political blow from which she can never recover. Recognising the emergence of Patel as a parallel pole of power (parallel, that is, to the Gandhi family), there are many who are rooting for her. Others, who are attacking her, have the opposite agenda. In the gladiatorial court politics of the Congress, it remains to be seen if she can fight the lions.

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