New Delhi: Is A.K.Anthony going the way of Rajiv Gandhi’s defence minister, V.P.Singh, kicked out of the Union cabinet to become his political enemy number one? Not in the detail perhaps, or even in the denouement, but Anthony seems headed for the United Progressive Alliance’s doghouse, with the only consolation that the Sonia Gandhi-led regime will be thrown out forever. Yes, that looks distinctly possible.

Anthony and V.P.Singh are in some ways similar, and the circumstances that have tested their honesty and integrity also enjoy some likeness, with critical differences as well. Their ultimate bosses were and have been the Nehru-Gandhis, Indira and Rajiv in V.P.Singh’s case, whilst Sonia has been Anthony’s chief. The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is Anthony’s “immediate boss”, as they say in the subcontinent, but the final authority remains Sonia Gandhi.

There is still a critical difference between the situation in 1987, when V.P.Singh pounced on the H.D.W. submarine scandal and began his own investigation of the Bofors’ kickback, and now, with the opening floodgates on the AgustaWestland scam. Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister during the unfolding Bofors’ scandal, and the buck stopped with him. Sonia Gandhi, to the contrary, is not in the government or heading it, but is the government nevertheless.

For those who have hateful Mandal-related memories of V.P.Singh, he actually started out as Mr Clean, and was Rajiv Gandhi’s first finance minister on account of that image. His raids on industrialists close to the Congress saw him moved to the defence ministry, where he didn’t last for any length of time. Here is where the crucial difference with the situation then and now surfaces. Rajiv Gandhi was surrounded by a nasty crowd that was acidic in its attacks on anyone perceived to be opposed to his interests. This crowd turned its guns on V.P.Singh, goading him to leave the Congress. It is arguable if Rajiv Gandhi wanted to hound out his trusted former minister, but the fact remains that V.P.Singh left the party he had served up to then deeply distressed.

The forces ranged against Anthony for unilaterally ordering a probe into the AgustaWestland deal are not so viciously arrayed as against V.P.Singh, but his position is becoming equally and increasingly untenable by the day. The prime minister is no use to him, and Manmohan Singh has already taken the Sonia Gandhi line that the “government has nothing to hide” in the deal. With all the wrongdoing around him, Manmohan Singh has an easy conscience, and to remain prime minister to the last day of his term, he is willing for any barter with the Nehru-Gandhis.

Anthony is not every different from Manmohan Singh in this respect, but the trouble is that the defence minister is also a man with a conscience. To his credit, he has blacklisted more foreign defence manufacturers than any of his predecessors, and he is genuinely anguished when he says “something somewhere went wrong” despite all the checks he had instituted. Now it is a question of taking decisive steps against the deal knowing it may hurt those he owes his position and power to. Will he go all the way? Something tells this writer he will, or he will resign and fade away, since he does not have a future like the late V.P.Singh had in North Indian politics.

The diminishment of A.K.Anthony will happen in the most decent way, with the defence minister protesting his loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhis and the Congress till the end. But the die is cast. At some point, people like Anthony, who have remained honest at great personal cost, will decide compromises for power are no longer possible. Some of his officials have taken voluntary retirement unable to stand the pressure from interested political quarters. Anthony promised to protect them and couldn’t and finally let them go. He must be the lone honest man in the cabinet with a pricking conscience, and it seems increasingly difficult that he can go on as before. If the government consents to a cancellation of the deal and the integrity money-back clause is triggered, Anthony may remain. But if the government goes against him, he will have no other option. If the Bofors’ scandal is any parallel, we are seeing the slow decline and end of Saint Anthony.