When the motives are suspect, the actions lose legitimacy. In conducting raids at the residences of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leaders M.K. Stalin and M.K. Alagiri within days of the DMK leaving the UPA government, the Central Bureau of Investigation showed what ill-timing could do to even honest investigations. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath were all quick to distance the government from the search operation, but the damage had already been done. With the heat turned on him, the Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, V. Narayanasamy, who is in charge of the Ministry of Personnel that handles the CBI, insisted that the agency was an independent body and that politics had no role in the raids. The issue relates to evasion of customs duty on imported cars, including those being used by the sons of Mr. Stalin and Mr. Alagiri, and is a couple of years old, but it seems to have gotten a second wind in the last couple of days with the registration of a case against an official of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence. Whether or not the Congress leadership or senior ministers in the government were directly involved in the decision to search the houses of Mr. Karunanidhi’s sons, the CBI did its own investigations no favour by timing it so soon after the withdrawal of support by the DMK to the government at the Centre. If the CBI did not act thus to please its political masters, then it must have done so to embarrass them. Indeed, the most charitable explanation for this tactless operation would have to be that the agency’s top bosses were either too naïve or thoroughly inefficient. The duty evasion case will now be politically coloured, and difficult to pursue with the necessary rigour and righteousness.

For the Congress, the political damage is at various levels. The general impression that the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party were threatened with CBI cases to ensure that they extended outside support to the government will now gather strength. Worse, the SP and the BSP will now be under greater pressure to prove to the world that they do not back the UPA in their selfish interest, but as part of their larger stated strategy to keep “communal forces at bay.” Already weakened by the exit of the DMK, the UPA will now have to deal with the doubly emboldened SP and BSP. Over the long term, the Congress risks aiding the perception that it is using the CBI to further petty political ends. When it needs allies the most, when it needs to be seen by them as accommodative, the party appears to have given them enough reasons to run away. If ill-timing could be perfect, then this is it.

More In: Editorial | Opinion