Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Government Clueless, India Defenceless/The Sunday Standard/April 01, 2012


Government Clueless, Opposition Shrinking, India Defenceless

With a faction-ridden BJP for an opponent, the UPA should be laughing all the way to the bank. Instead, it shows ominous signs of bankruptcy, lethargy and paralysis. After damning revelations from the Chief of Army Staff, General V K Singh, landed at the doorsteps of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Defence Minister A K Antony, the government went into hiding. It had neither a solid argument to defend the beleaguered defence minister nor a strategy to wash away the stink of the bribery scandal. Meanwhile, the Opposition lost the plot and failed to grab the opportunity to corner a
government maimed by the largest number of scams since Independence. The only grace for the ruling party is that both Manmohan and Sonia Gandhi are not linked directly or indirectly to the controversy. It is not that Congress credibility is eroding faster than that of the Opposition, but people aren’t taking their opponents seriously because of their public conduct. This is good news for the Congress. India’s talk-less Prime Minister appears to be afraid of invoking his personal integrity to save his defamed government’s image. Like his political guru P V Narasimha Rao, not taking a decision is taking a decision. Recent scams may have grabbed headlines and prime time, but they haven’t impacted the minds of the people enough, thanks to a divided and confused Opposition.
It is the first time, after almost a year, that opposition parties were happy to merely stage a few walkouts or make meek interruptions in Parliament. Compared to what the united Opposition did to Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 over the allegation of massive payoffs in the Bofors deal, this time around it is pleading for restraint in dealing with defence-related issues. The BJP even ignored the nasty treatment it got from the Congress over coffin imports during the NDA regime. While in 1989, over 100 Opposition MPs resigned, now there isn’t even a whimper on organising nationwide protests over the defence scams. Worse, some who were in the forefront of the anti-Rajiv campaign have now joined ‘Sack the General’ chorus. It took the BJP over 72 hours to demand the resignation of the defence minister.

When former Chief of Army Staff General K Sundarji made similar accusations in 1997, he was lauded a national hero and feted by the same Opposition. During election rallies in 1989, non-Congress opposition parties went to the extent of keeping an empty chair onstage for Rajiv to answer allegations. For almost two years, he faced harrowing personal attacks over Bofors. After his death, his wife wasn’t spared either, despite a judicial acquittal. Compared to the monumental sums involved in the current scams, the Rajiv government was taken to the cleaners for an alleged `64-crore payoff. It had such a massive impact that Rajiv became the first Gandhi since Independence who couldn’t win a second mandate. In 1989, a CAG report rocked Parliament, paralysed the government and forced the Rajiv government to run for cover. However, in 2012, scores of such reports, letters and even judicial verdicts could inspire the Opposition only to stage a few walkouts.

What’s most mystifying is the attempt to shoot the messenger than take the message seriously. V K Singh’s patriotism was questioned. His timing of writing legitimate letters was ridiculed. His dismissal was sought on flimsy grounds. It was finally left to Antony to declare the government has full faith in all the defence chiefs, including Singh.

The Tale of Two Defence Scams is a telling story about the nature of protest. In 1989, it was against Rajiv who was perceived as a political outsider. He was catapulted to India’s most powerful post not because of a genuine mandate, but because of his mother’s tragic assassination. He ruled with the help of his corporate computer boys. In the process, Team Rajiv made fatal mistakes. The hardcore Opposition, grounded by a massive Congress mandate, grabbed the opportunity to oust Rajiv. From the extreme Right to the volatile Left, all united to regain power from the cabal of elitist leaders. In 1989, the people trusted the Opposition’s voice; they adored its leaders and voted them to power.

2012 is not 1989. It is difficult to tell the BJP from the Congress, NCP or BJD. Economic reforms that took the nation by surprise led to economic and cultural compatibility between the mainline opposition and the ruling establishment. Now, the emphasis is more on creating and boosting the wealth and net worth of individual leaders and parties. Tainted deals and insider trading are considered essential engines of growth. The Opposition’s failure or unwillingness to take to the streets against the government on rising corruption reflects either its vanishing
credibility or the mindset of its urban-dominated leadership.

Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

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