Monday, July 27, 2009

POWER & POLITICS / Mail Today, July 27, 2009

PARLIAMENT has never been known to be a hotbed of black humour but after the shame of Sharm- el- Sheikh, a lot of it originates there. In the last tumultuous week when even Congressmen were seen ready to go for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s jugular, I ran into some ministers in that circular edifice and they were debating amongst themselves about the level of trust they could have in the mandarins assigned to their ministries.

After Foreign Secretary Shiv Shanker Menon’s confession that the fiasco in the Egyptian resort was nothing more than a case of “ bad drafting”, ministers are becoming, and justifiably so, quite wary of bureaucrats.

One mantriji , fortunate enough to have been to the best of colleges in the world, told me he pitied several of his colleagues who have just a fleeting acquaintance with the English language and could fall victim to bureaucratic machinations.

Never in the past has a prime minister read and endorsed a statement that would later come to haunt him so much. Having passed the statement, Manmohan ideally should own responsibility. Not since the IAS and the IFS replaced the old ICS after Independence have our “ world class officers” put the country in such an embarrassing position before a worldwide audience. Anywhere else, including the tinpot dictatorships masquerading as democracies in our neighbourhood, such “ wordsmiths” would have been sacked. But in our India that is Bharat, they carry on unscathed.

I only hope that it is one- off. Because these are times when India is increasingly dealing with the outside world and bilateral and multilateral joint statements are a weekly occurrence. It therefore would not be out of place to ask: are our “ draftsmen” up to it? The errors are not in their language — not when men of eminence such as TKA Nair, MK Narayanan, Shiv Shankar Menon and others are involved — but their understanding of the nuances. Time was when ministers and bureaucrats gave press interviews and then went into denial mode to say they were misquoted. I thought the advent of TV channels would make things slightly more difficult for them, but I was wrong.

Because when caught on tape in an awkward situation, they blame TV channels for doctoring tapes and quoting them out of context. But this is the first time I have found officialdom trying to disown a joint statement by simply saying “ that is not what we meant, it was something else”. What next? Nobody really knows to what extent babudom will go to cover up their follies but a minister friend has a solution. I find it a very practical one, considering that two weeks after Shame el Sheikh, they have not Menon: In dock been able to identify the culprit behind the bad drafting. It is my friend’s contention that in future, all agreements be brought under the ambit of the Right to Information Act, so that when things go wrong, as they did in Egypt, accountability is immediately established. As in Bollywood movies where the credit- titles are scrolled at the end, all bilateral and multilateral statements that India signs should have similar credits showing who drafted the statement, who vetted it, read it and passed it. These should be uploaded to the ministry’s website.
That will show who is culpable. After that, there is no escaping.

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