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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 11, March 2, 2013

Political Profligacy

Wednesday 6 March 2013, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

After the setback suffered in the June by-election reverses, the Congress-I leadership—that is, in effect, Rajiv Gandhi himself—was expected to take a serious view of the declining prestige, influence and authority of his regime and strive to adopt remedial measures. In the six weeks since the by-election results, the only tangible measure taken has been the reshuffle of the Union Cabinet in which berths were found for some of the Chief Ministers who had to be displaced because of the mounting factional attacks against them. Nothing has been done upto the time of writing these notes about revamping the party organisation of which Rajiv Gandhi is the President.

Meanwhile, cracks in the Congress-I are getting visible: gone is the formidable phalanx that used to extend full-throated support to the leader in Parliament. The Treasury Benches do try to shout down the Opposition, but the old vim is no longer there; the air of certitude that prevailed in the past is conspicuously missing; and in the Central Hall the muffled rumblings among the Congress-I MPs can be distinctly heard.

The Prime Minister himself has been attending Parliament less and less. It was sharply noticeable when Vishwanath Pratap Singh opened the Opposition gun on the Bofors scandal, and remarked with deadly effect that the one person who would perhaps have known where the kickback money had gone was not present in the House. Equally conspicuous was the conduct of the Prime Minister when in violation of long-standing norms he did not himself make a statement on his two rounds of overseas trips in June and July covering seven countries as also the UN and instead got the External Affairs Ministry to place a statement in Parliament on the subject on July 29. It was indeed odd that the External Affairs Minister should have been made to make a statement on trips which covered not only issues concerning foreign policy, but economic policies as well. Under the Rajiv dispensation, the age-old conventions and institutions seem to have very little relevance.

This flouting of time-tested convention could be seen in the appointment of Dr Alexander as the acting Governor of Andhra Pradesh in addition to his substantive responsibility as the Governor of Tamil Nadu. For strange reasons, the practice of appointing the State Chief Justice as the officiating Governor when the permanent incumbent could go on leave, was abandoned, and a Governor who is already invested with the full-time responsibility of running the administration in a State under President’s Rule, has been asked to take up gubernatorial responisbilities in another, one of the largest States in the Indian Union.

A precedent of another type was broken by Home Minister Buta Singh when he flew into Kohima on the collapse of the Congress-I Ministry in Nagaland. With its majority heavily collapsing by large-scale revolt, the Congress-I should in normal course have resigned and let the Opposition, now solidly reinforced by the Congress-I rebel group, form a new Ministry. Apart from Central Minister Rajesh Pilot rushing there—since he is supposed to belong to the latest batch of Rajiv’s whiz-kids—Buta Singh also turned up, instantaneously provoking the new Opposition combine to rightly warn that the Union Home Minister’s dramatic visit was meant to convey the threat that if the Congress-I Ministry was allowed to collapse, the State would be put under President’s Rule—in other words, the rebel Congress-I members would not be permitted to form an alternate government. Understandably, all the denials by Buta Singh have carried no conviction either with the Opposition or with the public, either in Nagaland or outside.

Judging by the present state of nervousness in the Congress-I circles, it will not be far-fetched to assume that they are worried about the political fall-out of the sudden collapse of the Congress-I Ministry in Nagaland. The fear is that this might produce a chain-reaction in other States. Already the Bihar Congress-I Ministry is in deep crisis with Chief Minister Bhagwat Jha Azad messing up affairs in a difficult, if not unmanageable, State. There is no reason to doubt that the dispossessed factions within the Congress-I would not take advantage of the Chief Minister’s mismanagement. The situation in Rajasthan is also rather serious for the Congress-I, since the faction led by the displaced Chief Minister, Harideo Joshi, would not like to be left in the cold for long. In UP the despatch of Narayan Dutt Tiwari as the Chief Minister was the only way the effete Congress-I Ministry could be salvaged. However, the faction-fight in the UP Congress-I shows no sign of abatement. The recent induction of as many as 33 new Ministers into the original 13 shows that Chief Minister Tiwari has been trying to pacify the warring groups and he has also held out the bait that more would be made Ministers after the current Budget session.

Meanwhile, the prestige and credibility of the Rajiv Government has touched a new low with more disclosures of high-level corruption in the Prime Minister’s immediate proximity. The Bofors scandal has not been cleared up. Rather the new disclosures have made it amply clear that the government had so long been misleading the public by playing down kickback commissions as “winding up charges”. The growing public distrust of the government’s version about the Bofors scandal will not be allayed by the reported theft of sensitive documents from the high security area of the Defence Ministry. Would this turn out to be the Indian version of Watergate? And now comes the latest exposure that one of the persons very close to Rajiv Gandhi has salted away a pretty good amount of over Rs 6 crores as “consultancy fees” for two oil deals with a Japanese firm about which the government had made no investigation until the information came from the Japanese Government sources. Even then, the party concerned operating a bogus company has not been hauled up but has been treated by the tax authorities with the utmost care and compassion—obviously because of his VVIP connections. In the Parliament debates on these two issues Defence Minister Pant and Finance Minister of State Gadhvi gave splendid perfor-mance of how to mislead the public and, when pinned down, to go on for dishonest alibis.

But the government’s nighmare is not going to end. The German submarine deal is yet to be taken up as also the Westland helicopter scandal in both of which Rajiv Gandhi is directly implicated. What the government does not seem to realise is that its sweated painstaking efforts at providing lame defence is making its position more ridiculous every time, and with it, its credibility is plummeting further. Even the serious revelations about Khalistani plans to assassinate the Prime Minister and Home Minister with Pakistani conspiracy, have not been able to work up nationwide abhorrence that such reports are due to evoke.

No government since independence has, in the eyes of the Indian public, earned the encomium of being corrupt and with such emphasis as the Rajiv Government. A point seems to be reaching soon when the man in the street might start saying in utter disgust that any government will be better than this corrupt bunch in power. 

(‘Editor’s Notebook’ in Mainstream, August 6, 1988)

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