The idea of public scandal is crucial for the health of any society. For political parties, it ought to be a survival instinct. The most shocking aspect of the missing coal files, therefore, is not just that they are missing, but that the Congress government feels it can breeze through the storm of being caught out. Corruption may be a common political malaise. But brazenness just acquired a new high-water mark.

These missing coal files, in fact, sum up everything that is wrong with the UPA leadership in one word: it’s missing. A year ago, TEHELKA had published a comprehensive investigation on the contours of the coal scam: how Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had presided over a colossal mismanagement of one of the country’s most precious natural resources — delaying the introduction of auctions, and allowing vested interests a free hand, against his own better judgement. Perhaps the incentive was kickbacks for the party; perhaps it was to retain power at any cost; perhaps it was to keep some key businessmen and co-Parliamentarians in good humour. Certainly, the scam seemed very secular: it involved businessmen and political parties of every hue.

But since that original damning accommodativeness, the track has kept getting worse. PM Singh seems to be doing everything in his power to cover up his failures, not just of corruption, but misgovernance. Earlier this year, there was the scandal of former law minister Ashwini Kumar tampering with the CBI report submitted to the Supreme Court. And now there is this: 200 files missing from the coal ministry. It’s almost tempting to say, the CBI need investigate no further: The cover-up is the exposé.

What’s significant though is that the cover-up does not seem to be driven only by specific cases, but an urge to hide the fact that the whole process was arbitrary and infected by cronyism. This seems to be a peculiar Manmohan Singh characteristic: the prime minister does not mind his government covering itself in muck, but he abhors looking dirty himself. And so, despite Parliament being stalled again and again — despite almost no legislation being passed over the past two years — the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy does not deign to speak to the House.

Unfortunately for the country, however, the coal scam is not an aberration. This absence of process, of cohesive vision — of sheer leadership — seems to infect every aspect of the government. Do a story on the Right to Education: it’s a mess. Do a story on water management: it’s a mess. Do a story on nuclear energy: it’s a mess. On 2G spectrum: a mess. Public access to health: a mess. Agriculture: a mess. Defence procurements: a mess. Economy: a mess. Infrastructure: a mess. Private-public partnerships: a mess. Land acquisition: a mess. Environment: a mess. Public distribution: a mess. Foreign policy: a mess. The litany could go on much longer.

Even in its core DNA — its supposed allegiance to a liberal, secular politics — the Congress is suffering from a crisis. Speaking at a function recently, the PM urged the country to oppose “communal forces in elections” as also in “day-to-day life”. But his government scores a red on that as well. Communal forces — both from the Hindu Right and the Muslim Right — flourish in Maharashtra, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, all of which are run by Congress governments. Neither the prime minister nor his chief ministers have done anything to curb that. On the flipside, as many innocent Muslims languish in jails in Congress-ruled states as otherwise. And, there is little to distinguish their social indices in different states.

The dramatic face-off between the speeches of the incumbent prime minister and the self-appointed contender, this Independence Day, therefore, encapsulated a peculiar dilemma India is faced with today. There is very little to choose from. On the one hand, we have a prime minister who is a cipher. On the other, an aspirant who fills every television screen. He is decisive and is capable of muscular oratory. But he has absolutely no qualms about public scandal either. A thousand Muslims died on his watch, but he will not regret it; talk of corruption swirls around his state but he refuses to appoint a Lokayukta. He grants arbitrary largesse to corporate cronies and cooks up figures at will for his speeches. His officers conspire and kill. He lives by one mantra: power is his birthright and he will have it. And then, there is a third player. But he could well be a chimera. Elections are round the corner, and he is yet to condescend to even make his debut.