The Supreme Court's embarrassing observation that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had inordinately delayed taking a decision on Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy's plea for sanction to prosecute the former Telecom Minister, A. Raja, in the 2G spectrum allocation issue has left both the government and the Congress red-faced and groping for a response.

If the Congress told journalists that it would respond only after it “studied” and “analysed” the court observations, government sources admitted that there had been some bungling in responding to Dr. Swamy's petition. The sources said the new Telecom Minister, Kapil Sibal, had been asked to deal with the matter.

For the Congress, grappling with a united Opposition, still insistent on a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe, the court's observations could not have come at a worse moment, even though the Comptroller and Auditor-General's report, tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, revealed that Mr. Raja's actions resulted in a revenue loss of Rs. 1.76 lakh crore as he had ignored the advice of the Prime Minister and the Ministries of Law and Finance.

The court's observations on Dr. Singh have given the Opposition fresh ammunition against the government. A CPI(M) leader pointed out that the Opposition, having “tasted blood,” was not going to let go of the issue in a hurry.

Publicly, the Congress chose to steer clear of the issue. Party spokesman Shakeel Ahmed, responding to questions on the court's observations, said: “I don't know whether it is an observation or direction to the government. I have not seen the text.” Pressed further, he said: “First, the party and the government will analyse what has been said and then decide about the response to be given. Till then, it will be very difficult to make any comment.”

Privately, Congress leaders stressed that the Prime Minister's public image was so positive that the court's observations would not affect his standing or his reputation for probity. “No one will believe that Dr. Singh could in any way be involved,” the sources said. Merely because Dr. Singh acknowledged letters written by Mr. Raja did not mean that telecom licences were sanctioned with his consent, said a senior leader. When it was pointed out that it was a sin of omission rather than commission that was being referred to, party leaders chose not to respond, even privately.

The Congress was also careful not to damn Mr. Raja, even though the CAG report has indicted him. Mr. Ahmed refused to respond directly to the CAG's strictures on the former Minister, saying now that the report had been tabled in Parliament, the constitutional process would be adhered to — that is, it will be examined by the Public Accounts Committee and only thereafter could anything definitive be said.

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