Fight against graft: Not good enough, mr prime minister
August 10, 2011
Manmohan Singh is an honest man. He should not support those who are not
Here is a lesson for the Indian prime minister’s (PM) minders and advisors: It is not merely enough to hear social media chatter; you must listen to it carefully. An angry India wanted its prime minister to speak to the people, an editor ruminated about it in his column and in days we had a press interaction. If the idea was to ‘counter Opposition propaganda’ that the PM ‘had power without authority’, it ended up doing more damage.
The fallout is best described by Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s scathing observation that the interaction was “…not just a damp squib; it was a wretched exercise which showcased a weak-kneed head of State at his helpless best, taking cover for all the ills plaguing the nation using the fragile shield of ‘coalition dharma’!”.
Strong words from a senior leader; but even Dr Singh’s admirers would admit that the meeting failed to showcase him as a leader or an economist determined to press on with an economic agenda. In fact, his team of aides and advisors also came off looking silly at the end of this badly choreographed interaction before a carefully-chosen audience of six editors. For starters, what could have provoked the PM to say that “at least 25%” of Bangladesh’s population was “very anti-Indian”? Was it even relevant to the context in which the interaction was organised? How did that comment make it to the official release and stay on the PM’s website right until it sparked off anger in Bangladesh? The PM’s press advisor seems quite blasé about the incident, merely saying that ‘it was a mistake that had been corrected’. Had Bangladesh not been looking for financial aid from India, this would surely have been a much bigger embarrassment for India.
Let’s look at the more serious issues that triggered the PM’s interaction and his responses to them. Predictably, the PM accused the media of being judge, jury and executioner rolled into one and blamed it for the environment of ‘cynicism’. He also criticised the Anna Hazare movement for an independent Lokpal. While that was to be expected, the naïve belief that the stupendously expensive programme of biometric tagging—the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) project—would eliminate graft and help reach subsidies to the poor is a shocker. As was the PM’s implication that in exposing corruption through hard-hitting reports, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has overstepped its Constitutional mandate.
These astonishing comments have to be seen in the context of mounting evidence of how politicians and big business was systematically looting public resources across the spectrum—telecom, aviation, sports, petroleum, mining, realty, infrastructure and even poverty-alleviation programmes.
Not only did Dr Singh fail to stop this—but he couldn’t even prevent his power-drunk ministers from using pliant investigation and enforcement agencies from raiding, persecuting, and terrorising anyone who dared to question their actions. In each instance, the PM’s personal reputation for honesty does not absolve him of the charge of failing to act.
Thanks to the CAG and the Supreme Court, the 2G spectrum scam and the Commonwealth Games (CWG) scandal have already exposed the cost of the PM’s silence. But there are plenty of other questions that he must answer.
It is to Dr Singh’s credit that there isn’t even a whiff of financial impropriety on his part, but the prime minister’s job demanded decisive action. Dr Singh did nothing to rein in telecom ministers Dayanidhi Maran or his successor A Raja, despite specific knowledge of their strong-arm tactics and corruption. In fact, the tapping of Niira Radia’s phones alone ought to have given the PM enough ammunition to initiate a series of corrective actions. After all, let’s not forget that Ms Radia was working overtime to keep Dayanidhi Maran out of the telecom ministry only to help her client Ratan Tata. Can Dr Singh truly say that Mr Tata, who is on the prime minister’s advisory council, has never complained to him about Mr Maran’s behaviour and actions? Did he also not know about the Aircel case? In fact, Tamil Nadu’s businessmen have innumerable tales of being threatened with fake police complaints and being coerced to sell their businesses to DMK (Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam) goons for a fraction of their true value.
One needs to analyse the Radia tapes objectively and go beyond middle-class outrage to understand the milieu that made her so powerful. At a time when all the important jobs and government contracts were for sale, she had the guts and the intelligence to skillfully manipulate all key players in the process—the netas, babus and the media. And she had big bucks from her clients to grease the process. Ms Radia’s phones were being tapped for two years. Did the PM never ask for the findings? And if not, why not? Surely the invasion into the personal privacy of Ms Radia and her many powerful clients had a purpose and a finite goal?
The PM appears weakest when it comes to brushing off the responsibility for the CWG fiasco. It is now clear that his then minister of state, Prithviraj Chavan, warned Mani Shankar Aiyar, a staunch Congress Party loyalist about the CWG loot. The PM incorrectly dismissed Mr Aiyar’s letters (posted on Moneylife’s website) as being mostly ‘ideological’. Mr Aiyar has since said that letters by his two predecessors—MS Gill and the late Sunil Dutt—were also ignored and that P Chidambaram as finance minister did not even acknowledge his letters. Surely there was no coalition dharma compulsion in allowing Suresh Kalmadi to plunder resources?
One editor justified Mr Singh’s inaction by saying, “When all of politics is funded by corruption, did it make sense for an honest Prime Minister to risk the cohesion of his rickety coalition and the survival of his government to stop individual acts of corruption?” In the free-for-all that marked the UPA’s decision-making, Murli Deora, a close friend of the Ambanis, who had not even contested elections from his South Mumbai constituency, was brought in as petroleum minister. He was accused of being openly partisan. When the 2G spectrum allocation scandal spun out of the government’s control, Mr Deora was quickly shifted to the ministry of corporate affairs (MCA) where he immediately got busy with the job of giving an outrageous clean chit to the controversial Loop Telecom (it declared that Loop was not an associate of the Essar group) and Swan Telecom (where it said there was no connection with Anil Ambani). Mr Deora is known to be extremely close to both these business groups. What ‘compulsion’ forced Dr Singh to appoint an unelected Murli Deora to such key ministries? Was he was merely obeying orders from 10 Janpath?
Politicians hope that the Anna Hazare-led movement will fizzle out, but when the educated middle-class, notoriously self-absorbed and caught up in its social and financial aspirations takes to the street in protest, it is a sign of a deep and dangerous malaise. The PMO has quietly ended any serious discussion on the many gaffes during the media interaction (it is easily done by threatening exclusion from important briefings and junkets); but this is unlikely to suppress voices of dissent and discontent anymore.
It is crises time, Dr Singh. India needs you back in the 1991 mode—but, this time, you are the prime minister and the buck stops with you!
Sucheta Dalal is the managing editor of Moneylife. Subscribers get free help in resolving their problems with select providers of financial services. She can be reached at[email protected]