Monday, October 3, 2011

Race Course Road/The Sunday Standard Magazine, October 2, 2011

Sonia Leaves Cabinet Illness to the Doctor

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may pooh pooh all charges of growing dissension within his Cabinet, but the conduct of his senior colleagues leaves little to the imagination. Most are not on speaking terms; they communicate only during Cabinet meetings or through written notes opposing each other. Last week, the Congress party was pushed into a corner when a note written by a junior finance ministry official—concerning Home Minister P Chidambaram and spectrum pricing—to the Prime Minister was leaked. Both Manmohan and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee made all the right noises defending Chidambaram. Pranabda even called his “valued colleague” Chidambaram from the US, as well as from New Delhi after he returned, but apparently did not have the inclination or time for a face-to-face meeting. He refused to make any statement on the note, even as other ministers and Congress functionary came out openly in the beleaguered home minister’s support. It was evident that even Congress President Sonia Gandhi is aware of the soured chemistry between the two UPA top guns. When matters careened out of control, she decided to play mediator. But Sonia discovered it would be calamitous to summon both to discuss the contentious note together. Perhaps she knew confabulations would be impossible with both Mukherjee and Chidambaram present at the same meeting. She didn’t want a third party around either. So, she decided to listen to each one individually. It is not clear whether Sonia was already in possession of the voluminous correspondence between the PMO and the finance ministry on the issue because both Chidambaram and Pranabda spent hardly 20 minutes each with her. It was their first meeting with Sonia after her surgery. According to insiders, both exchanged pleasantries with her and gave a short brief on the controversy. Chidambaram insisted that the finance ministry take some sort of action to remove the cloud of suspicion hanging over him. But Pranabda did not budge. Instead, he sent a long letter to the PMO supporting his ministry. Sensing a major confrontation, Sonia has now left it to the Prime Minister to clean up the mess and restrain his ministers from washing dirty linen in public.

Steel frame on show in America

PMO officials were baffled to see former foreign secretary and now India’s ambassador to the US, Nirupama Rao, in New York during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit. Rao was not only present at the airport to welcome Manmohan, she also made it a point to attend all non-official functions held for the Prime Minister or External Affairs Minister S M Krishna. Normally, the Indian ambassador is not a part of India’s official UN delegation during the visit of the Prime Minister. Rao may not have contributed to the deliberations on Manmohan’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly, but she did provide gracious company to Gursharan Kaur, the Prime Minister’s wife. Rao sat next to her all through the Prime Minister’s speech. Along with her husband, Rao also checked into the same hotel in which other dignitaries were staying. She wasn’t the only senior Indian official hanging around in New York; around six Cabinet ministers also were present. Around half a dozen senior babus also found their way into Manhattan on one pretext or the other. It is evident that as the political leadership gets weaker, bureaucracy is regaining its steel frame once again.

Rahul sticks to comfort zone

Rahul Gandhi’s final destination may be 7 Race Course Road, but for the time being he has decided to stay away from India’s great plains after the rather rowdy welcome he received at a Delhi hospital following the High Court blasts. Instead, he has chosen to visit only those states which have Baba-friendly chief ministers. After keeping a low-profile for a few weeks, Rahul surfaced in Gangtok, Sikkim, last week to meet earthquake victims. Since he wasn’t entitled to official transport for what was a purely political visit, it was left to Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling to organise a helicopter for Rahul’s visit to the forward areas. Normally, the Prime Minister or Sonia Gandhi visits areas hit by natural calamities. Since neither could go, the Gandhi scion stood in. But Rahul sprang another surprise by landing in Srinagar without a formal programme. He visited the university in jeans and a kurta. He also followed the age-old Gandhi tradition of paying a visit to Hazratbal shrine. Rahul was the first Gandhi to go to the shrine after his father Rajiv visited Hazratbal in 1986. There is no record of Sonia ever having gone there. But Rahul wasn’t able to visit the Kheer Bhawani temple where his grandmother Indira Gandhi would pray without fail. But Rahul’s Kashmiri pedigree did help him in connecting with the local youth.

All leaks and no work in UPA

With the wicked leaks on the 2G Scam inflicting serious wounds on many UPA ministers, their babus have chosen to remain totally neutral and stay away from the corridors of power. For the past few weeks, no bureaucrat has sent any important file to their ministers for a decision, only routine files. Even senior secretaries have stopped looking at the Congress manifesto to draw up notes for legislation promised by the party. Over a dozen important ministers dealing with key social and infrastructure ministries haven’t been able to finalise a single note for the Cabinet to take a final call. Most of them don’t even go to work, visiting office only to meet important visitors. Chief ministers have stopped calling on Union ministers, including the Prime Minister, because they don’t get any response. Even the meetings of the Committee of Secretaries that handles inter-ministerial disputes have been rare as nothing is brought for discussion. The agenda for the Cabinet is shrinking faster than the image of the UPA government.

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