A day after Congress spokespersons and Ministers — significantly, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself — came out strongly in Home Minister P. Chidambaram's defence, the government remained in crisis mode, with conflicting signals emanating from the party.
Party spokesman Manish Tewari stressed he had nothing to add to what had been said on Thursday. But a key functionary, when asked whether the overwhelming support Mr. Chidambaram had received from the leadership indicated that he was secure, told The Hindu cryptically, “Nothing can be said at this stage. We will have to wait for the Prime Minister's return.” To another query whether Mr. Chidambaram's future would depend on what happened in courts, he repeated: “Nothing can be said at this stage.”
It was against the backdrop of confusing signals at home that sources told The Hindu that Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee — a key figure in the current controversy — decided to rearrange his schedule in Washington, where he is attending the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, so that he could fly to New York on Saturday night and confer with the Prime Minister on Sunday on the simmering crisis over the 2G spectrum issue. Dr. Singh is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday. (A press conference Mr. Mukherjee was scheduled to address in Washington on Sunday was advanced to Friday.)
Meanwhile, back in Delhi, with RTI activist Vivek Garg — incidentally the head of the Bharatiya Janata Party's RTI Cell — who accessed the Finance Ministry note to the Prime Minister's Office, clarifying that he had made a general request to the PMO and, to his surprise, received a pile of documents, Congress sources were asking why the PMO was “so generous” in releasing so many confidential files.
Sources close to Mr. Mukherjee said he felt that he was being unfairly portrayed as party to a note intended to “fix” Mr. Chidambaram, and that publicising it in no way helped him. He is also believed to have underlined the fact that the document was “merely a background note” sent to the PMO in response to a request from that office.
All this comes against the backdrop of a growing dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister in both the party and the government. A Cabinet Minister said: “No one is questioning the Prime Minister's integrity, but everyone is asking: ‘Why did he not act earlier to stem the rot?'” He also pointed out that with the Anna Hazare movement having separated Dr. Singh from the middle class constituency he had brought to the Congress — visible in the 2009 general elections — the party no longer saw him as being an asset.
If there was a time when senior party functionaries stressed that Dr. Singh could be replaced only by general secretary Rahul Gandhi, now those voices are gradually becoming softer. They say there is no way Mr. Gandhi will enter the picture at a point when the party and the government are looking so weak, but at the same time stress that a change at the top cannot be ruled out if things get worse over the next few months. A party functionary said: “It is in this context that people are sharpening their knives against Mr. Chidambaram. If he does not remain Home Minister, the Prime Minister will get weaker — and that is what an influential section in the party now wants.”