Monday, September 12, 2011

Race Course Road/ The Sunday Standard/ September 11, 2011

Manmohan tries to plug leaking cabinet

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is more concerned about the leaks regarding secret Cabinet meetings than the Opposition’s attack on him in Parliament. For the past few months, informal discussions on important issues have been finding their way not only to prominent Opposition leaders but also to TV news channels. The Prime Minister is already peeved over the public display of differences between senior ministers on various issues. Since the Government was under severe attack for its inability to handle graft, a couple of over-enthusiastic ministers mooted the idea of enforcing news guidelines. One suggestion was to impose a time limit on advertisements and mass agitations. A legislation to prevent cross-ownership of various news platforms was also suggested. While there was no formal decision on the formation of an Empowered Group of Ministers, a minister immediately sounded out friendly Opposition leaders. The move to muzzle the media through a regulatory authority were made known to select journalists and BJP leaders; when the news broke, the embarrassed Government beat a hasty retreat. It has also come to the PMO’s notice that a couple of ministers were spotted lunching with Opposition leaders in the south Indian restaurant of a five-star hotel soon after, or on the eve, of Cabinet meetings. They run key ministries, which decide the fate of mega projects. Premature leakages of the Government’s move have given opponents a political advantage. Outsiders know the details of the agenda even before it reaches the Cabinet, as well as of Cabinet notes. The PMO is now evolving ways and means to plug these leaks. To begin with, the Cabinet Secretary will be directed to ensure that those ministers who aren’t entitled to attend a full-fledged Cabinet meeting don’t stay on after their item on the agenda is dealt with. As per rule, all Cabinet ministers are expected to leave their agenda papers on the table after the meeting is over. But many carry them back. The Cabinet Secretary will now keep a count of numbered copies. In addition, the Prime Minister himself will monitor all media coverage on Cabinet proceedings to spot habitual leakers. Since some of them claim proximity to 10 Janpath, Manmohan will have to walk the extra mile to either contain them or get rid of them.

No Urgency for Core Group Meet

Though Congress President Sonia Gandhi is back after her successful surgery, she didn’t attend the party’s core group meeting held last week. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided to hold it at his residence the day after terror struck the Delhi High Court, instead of calling an emergency sitting on last Wednesday’s terror attacks. Home Minister P Chidambaram, Defe
nce Minister A K Antony, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and political adviser to the Congress President, Ahmed Patel, attended. Besides discussing the terror attack, the group also confabulated on the confrontation between the BJP and the UPA over the appointment of a Lokayukta in Gujarat. But some of the Congress leaders are surprised over the delay on the Prime Minister’s part to convene a meeting on terror soon after his arrival from Dhaka on September 7. He had landed in New Delhi by early evening, and various officials in the Home Ministry, Cabinet Secretary and intelligence agencies were kept waiting for a possible review meeting. But the call never came. However, the home minister had briefed the Prime Minister when Manmohan was still in Bangladesh.

Teesta Fiasco Endangers NSA

The relationship between the Prime Minister and a chief minister is a sensitive one. It has now acquired much more importance in view of coalition compulsions. Chief ministers are becoming more powerful than the Prime Minister. The recent fiasco over the Teesta water allocation to Bangladesh has exposed the disconnect between the PMO and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had disclosed that Banerjee was fully involved in finalising the agreement. On the other hand, Didi made it clear that the final draft was at variance with what was approved by her. Then who is responsible for the embarrassing miscommunication? National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon is the usual suspect. He had met Banerjee a couple of times to discuss the finer points of the agreement. Now, both the Congress and Trinamool leaders feel that Menon exceeded his brief and was pushing his own agenda. Since Menon is the Prime Minister’s most trusted adviser, he has often been found wanting in striking a balance between political compulsions and diplomatic concessions. He has been blamed for ignoring national and state elements while drafting statements and agreements. Earlier, for the Sharm el-Sheikh fiasco—the joint Indo-Pak statement on delinking terror from dialogue and Baluchistan—he had to be reprimanded for including a few phrases which were against the spirit of the dialogue. Recently, his overt eagerness for a dialogue with Pakistan hasn’t been taken kindly by the Congress leadership. Not surprisingly, the voices seeking his resignation are getting louder.

More Politics Please, It’s the PMO

With National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon on a sticky wicket, the PMO is under heavy pressure to re-examine the role of his office. Congress leaders are peeved with the dominance of officers drawn from the Indian Foreign Service in the PMO. According to insiders, Menon wasn’t alone in drafting the aborted Teesta water agreement with Bangladesh. Another IFS officer who claims expertise over geographical history aided him. Now the party wants people with political grounding to advise the Prime Minister. Manmohan has already appointed Pulok Chatterjee, a Gandhi loyalist, as his principal secretary, replacing TKA Nair who has been elevated to adviser. Chatterjee is likely to join on October 4. Contrary to popular perception that Chatterjee stayed back in New York to look after the Congress president, he was holidaying in another country and planning the wedding of his daughter before he plunges into his new high-voltage job. But he is unlikely to have the full run of the PMO his predecessor enjoyed. Manmohan has decided that Nair, a Singh loyalist, will reign supreme over a Gandhi loyalist.

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