Monday, September 26, 2011

Race Course Road/The Sunday Standrad Magazine/September 25, 2011

PM's Frequently Flying Ministers Do NY Duty

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is known for unlimited levels of tolerance. So much so, that he allows his ministers not only to skip Cabinet meetings but also to derail one another. Bills and important economic decisions have been postponed because of vociferous objections from just one minister. Now, the Prime Minister has allowed colleagues to earn extra air miles by frequently travelling abroad on one pretext or the other. Last week, over half a dozen ministers were in the US on various official missions. Besides the Prime Minister himself, others spotted in New York include Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, Minister for Heavy Industry Praful Patel, Minister for New and Renewable Energy Farooq Abdullah, Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma and Planning Commission Deputy Chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who was present along with another member. A couple of senior government officials like Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai and National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon were also around. An official accompanying Manmohan joked: “Why should the Prime Minister appoint someone else to handle his responsibilities in his absence from Delhi, when all ministers are with him in the US?” Jokes apart, many ministers who aren’t even part of economic diplomacy have been merrily defying the Prime Minister’s advice to avoid unnecessary foreign travel; in June 2008, the PMO had issued a missive to all ministers in this regard. Obviously it has had no impact because the total government expense on foreign travel exceeds over `200 crore so far. Manmohan repeated this order again in August 2010, which has been ignored with even greater impunity. These frequent fliers are becoming a big headache for Indian diplomats, as they have to organise everything from cars to hotels. Hundered vehicles have been hired by our missions in the US to ferry powerful VPVIPs (Very Powerful Very Important Persons) so far. But the Prime Minister is helpless since he needs their support to stay on in office.

Suffering DMK Tries Solo Ride

If senior DMK insiders are to be believed, a frustrated M Karunanidhi, former Tamil Nadu chief minister and DMK paterfamilias, has revived contact with Congress President Sonia Gandhi after her return from the US. But he hasn’t got a positive response about an early end to daughter K Kanimozhi’s woes yet. This has led him to question the UPA’s motives behind letting DMK ministers and leaders suffer, both at the Centre and in the state. He has joined the ranks of other allies who suspect the Congress is out to defame its regional partners by witch-hunting them. With over a dozen former ministers and MLAs in jail on charges of land grabbing, Karunanidhi appears to have lost all patience and is now willing to bite the bullet. His decision to dump the Congress in the Tamil Nadu Municipal Elections is meant to test the waters. If the DMK does fairly well, it will set the tone for finally ditching the UPA. Since Karunanidhi doesn’t expect any support from the Centre, he would like to further weaken the coalition led by Manmohan Singh.

Jaya Puts Manmohan to N-test

If ministers can dictate terms to the Prime Minister, powerful chief ministers can’t be far behind. After West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, it is the turn of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa to show her political clout. And she hit the UPA where it hurts the most—a Russian-made nuclear energy plant in Tamil Nadu. It is for the first time that the Prime
Minister’s resolve is being sorely tested in the southern state. In 2008, he risked his government for nuclear energy’s sake. Of late, many people have been rising in protest against the construction of N-plants in various parts of the country. These protests were promptly silenced. Apart from Tamil Nadu, in other states, too, all voices against setting up nuclear power plants were quelled through force—for example, Jaitapur in Maharashtra. But when villagers from Koodankoolam in Tamil Nadu went on a fast against nuclear power, not only did the state government support their demands but also refused to take any action. Jayalalithaa then demanded that work on the site be stopped and asked the Prime Minister to send one of his ministers to deal with the agitators. She hasn’t withdrawn her own objections to the plant. Now, the Nuclear Suppliers Group is watching the outcome of the standoff between the Prime Minister and the chief minister with great concern. The outcome will decide not only the future of many multinationals trading in power plants, only but also the Prime Minister’s control over the states.

Babus Deal With Yatra Fears

Though law and order is a state subject, it is the Central government which is losing its sleep over the series of political yatras beginning during festival season next month. According to known plans, nationwide yatras led by Anna Hazare, L K Advani and Baba Ramdev will criss-cross the country almost around the same time. The Prime Minister is worried about the fallout of at least two: the ones led by Ramdev and Advani. Since a major part of the yatra routes fall under states ruled by non-Congress governments, both the PMO and the home ministry are getting ready to gauge the political impact on both state elections and a possible realignment of political parties. Though it is Cabinet Secretary Ajit Kumar Seth’s primary responsibility to coordinate the monitoring, it is Home Secretary R P Singh who has been entrusted with the job of collecting information and passing it on to the PMO and even to the chief ministers. Seth, as usual, seems to be satisfied with being the back room operator as he always has been. Unlike many of his predecessors, he doesn’t throw his weight around.

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