Monday, September 26, 2011

Power & Politics / The Sunday Standard /September 25, 2011

Between the Lines Wicked Leaks Saga is Collective Irresponsibility

If one goes by the antics of our politicians during the past few months, it seems Indian politics will soon be made compulsory reading in social science studies in all universities. It is a fascinating study in the Art of Impossibilities. Those who wrote the Indian Constitution laid down the principle of collective responsibility for all members of the Union Cabinet, including the Prime Minister. But now what we are witnessing is a new democratic mantra of collective irresponsibility: no one is held accountable and punished. Not a day passes without a minister in the UPA government blaming another one for inane wrong doings or committing administrative improprieties. Some of them even accuse their colleagues of taking decisions which could lead to criminal culpability. The latest round of note-leaking involving Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Home Minister P Chidambaram on the highly sensitive 2G Scam reflects the growing pass-the-buck tendency among even those who are considered to be the UPA government’s most productive assets. Both had earlier been in the news for the wrong reasons. While Pranabda suspected that he and his trusted aides were under electronic surveillance, Chidambaram was hurt by unsubstantiated insinuations made against him. But there seems to be some method behind this so-called Cold War between the two giants who owe their political rise to two generations of Gandhis. Mukherjee was discovered and promoted by Indira Gandhi and he became the most powerful Minister of State for Finance ever, during the Emergency. Chidambaram, a wealthy and well-spoken Chettiar advocate from Tamil Nadu, was patronised by Rajiv Gandhi. Coincidentally, there is also a similarity between them. Both left the Congress party briefly to join or promote their own regional parties. But the reasons were different. Mukherjee left because Rajiv ignored him. Chidambaram joined the Tamil Manila Congress only after Prime Minister Narasimha Rao implicated him in a stock scam. While Mukherjee has always seen himself a strong contender for prime ministership, Chidambaram does not nurture such an ambition. In fact, there was strong speculation about Mukherjee making a strong pitch for the top job soon after Indira Gandhi’s tragic assassination, which was nipped in the bud by the then President Giani Zail Singh who swore in Rajiv without the formality of even a formal Congress Parliamentary party meeting.

Political observers are now trying to find the genesis of the undeclared war between the two leviathans, which has led to a dangerous erosion of the Government’s authority. What baffles the Congress party veterans is the finance minister’s use of petty and middle-level officials to fight his proxy war. Even in the chewing gum controversy, it was a coterie of junior finance ministry officials that implanted a fear psychosis in Pranabda’s mind. He first hired a private detective agency to investigate and later wrote to the Prime Minister, instead of taking his colleague Chidambaram into confidence. The Prime Minister worsened the situation by asking the Intelligence Bureau to give its report directly to the PMO, and not to the home minister. It was obvious that even the Chief Executive of the country wasn’t aware of the concept of collective responsibility. At that time, Pranabda described the entire bugging episode as a non-event and made fun of the media.

Things haven’t changed. A lowly factotum writes a verbose note on 2G policy, making indirect comments about former finance minister Chidambaram’s role in the scandal and sends it to Pranabda through proper channels, for his eyes only. It is then dispatched to another joint secretary in the PMO. Finally it finds its way to the media through an RTI activist. Never before in the history of Independent India have Union ministers sought a certificate of good conduct through widely leaked official correspondence on controversial issues. Earlier, it was work done that spoke about the performance of each. But now, written words against each other differentiate the bad from the worse. Pranabda and Chidambaram aren’t the only ones to be caught in the Leakstorm. Others like Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, Minister of State for Industries Ashwani Kumar, Telecommunications and HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, Tourism Minister Subodh Kant Sahai, Corporate Affairs Minister Veerappa Moily as well as senior law officers of the Government have been in the headlines for writing or speaking against each other, or for making controversial statements. Unfortunately, the art of governance has taken such an ugly turn that it is the posture of denial than the grace of owning up a mistake that has become the parameter of permanent political success.

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