The latest charges against Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh could not have come at a worse time for the Congress. Electoral defeats in four States and the shadow cast on the way the Congress-led government in Maharashtra handled an enquiry report on the Adarsh Housing Society scam have put the party on the defensive. Its attempts to retrieve the moral high ground — withdrawing the ordinance to prevent disqualification of convicted legislators, enacting the Lokpal Bill and forcing an official rethink on the Adarsh Society issue — have had only limited success. These steps came after political pressure on Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to walk the talk on his high-decibel advocacy of public probity. The impression that denial and reflexive support to those facing corruption charges mark the Congress party’s initial response cannot be easily erased. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s remark that he had not had the time to apply his mind to the allegations against Mr. Virbhadra Singh contained in a letter to him by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Arun Jaitley, indicates that the party is buying time. For the present, it seems to be backing his claim that Mr. Jaitley’s charge pertaining to the Himachal Pradesh government giving a 10-month extension to a power project is politically motivated.
Media reports suggest that the Income Tax department is already on Mr. Singh’s case. The Central Bureau of Investigation is also examining a diary recovered by tax officials during a raid on a steel company, in which there were entries indicating payment to someone referred to as ‘VBS’. Mr. Virbhadra Singh was Union Steel Minister during the relevant period. Corruption charges have dogged him in the past too. He was forced to quit after a court framed charges in a case dating back to 1989. However, he was acquitted on the eve of his taking charge as Chief Minister for a sixth time in December 2012. The present situation poses a moral and political dilemma for the Congress leadership. On the one hand the party has to maintain that it stands for credible measures against corruption, but on the other it has to assess the political costs of acting against its key regional leaders. Mr. Singh has offered to face a probe by the State Lokayukta, a position now held by a retired Supreme Court judge; the BJP has, however, begun a campaign for Mr. Singh's ouster. Demands for his resignation may be premature now as there is no formal indictment yet. But a full and credible probe is certainly called for.