Byline by M.J. Akbar :Post-prime Minister
Candour is injurious to the health of any government. This is a widely-accepted non-partisan fact. Any President or Prime Minister who went about distributing truth with the sincerity of the Salvation Army would soon find himself in the Salvation Army. But to treat Parliament like a bunch of gulls is not very good governance either. Opposition MPs may be on the wrong side of the House because of past foolishness, but that does not make them gullible.
Parliament was in an understandable uproar after Justice Pathak found former foreign minister Natwar Singh guilty in an odd sort of way: of having used influence to get the Iraq oil deal, presumably for friends as well as the Congress, but without gaining any personal financial benefit either directly or through his son. Parliament’s anger was over the fact that the inquiry report had reached media before it was shown to Parliament. Dr Manmohan Singh has applied his familiar remedy, yet another committee, this time to enquire. If he thinks that this is a bandage for yet another self-inflicted wound, then he is in some unreal world. He has merely added weight to suspicions that his government and party may have more to hide than the principal accused.
Justice Pathak seems to wear a robe with two pockets. One is a very large pocket. It is stuffed with chits that are so clean that you cannot find anything on them. These are the clean chits he hands out to the Congress. The second pocket is very small. It holds only one chit, an unclean one, soiled with the scrawl of contorted logic. This he has handed to Natwar Singh. There shall doubtless be rewards for doing so. Shall we say, a chance of becoming Vice-President of India next year with the help of this government?
Natwar Singh is being held guilty of doing something which he never denied — writing a letter of recommendation. If this was the standard benchmark of public probity, no Cabinet minister would last in his job. Actually, the biggest money-grabbers in politics never write letters at all. Their word is sufficient guarantee for any corrupt deal.
If Prime Minister Singh really wants to find out who leaked the Pathak inquiry report, all he has to do is telephone his finance minister, P. Chidambaram. Chidambaram is a clever and knowledgeable man who makes it a point to know far more than he tells. I would not advise the Prime Minister to telephone his home minister, Shivraj Patil, despite the fact that the latter is in charge of the police, both the public and the secret police. Shivraj Patil knows far less than he tells, and he doesn’t tell too much.
There is the palpable reek of failure in the high offices of the Manmohan Singh government: home, foreign and finance. Defence is managed ably, because it would be difficult to mismanage this department, but the relevant point is that defence minister Pranab Mukherjee is not interested in his job. He is certain he should be in charge of a more active office, and given the disarray elsewhere, surely he has a point.
The high crisis areas are home and finance. If Shivraj Patil continues as home minister much longer, Mumbai’s Muslims will soon stop worrying about Narendra Modi. The home ministry is taking revenge upon the city’s Muslims, particularly those who are poor (in other words, most of them) for the terrorist outrage on Mumbai’s trains on July 11. Groups have complained to Mrs Sonia Gandhi and while she has given them time, there has been no effort to change the attitude of the home ministry. You can see the seepage of this culture in the shocking and shameful incident in Delhi, where the rooms of a visiting Pakistani delegation were searched by spooks in their absence. The delegation included as eminent a visitor as the human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jehangir. It was kind of Prime Minister Singh to write a letter of apology, but words are less important than action. His letter confirms that the incident did take place, and the home ministry was guilty. Has the Prime Minister held any officer accountable? Is there a departmental inquiry? Will any action ever be taken? Does the home minister have anything to say?
No is the probable answer to all three questions.
The finance minister thinks that his core responsibility is the protection of share prices rather than vegetable prices; while economic reform, the ballast of this government’s declared momentum, has ground to a halt. Strangely, the Congress part of the coalition government has begun to come apart under the pressure of time. Strange, because the Congress has the experience, and wanted to rebuild his support base with effective use of power. Instead, non-Congress ministers are the new stars. Lalu Yadav, who disguises a sharp mind with gallery humour, is now the subject of discourse in management schools. Dayanidhi Maran keeps the DMK flag high. Praful Patel is doing a fine job in a tough ministry. Kamal Nath is the only Congress minister who has enhanced his reputation — and will probably be punished (as Mani Shankar Aiyar was) for being too successful.
The foreign ministry is floating in a vacuum because it has lost its head. This may be a bad pun, but I can’t think of a better one. Jokes may be ill-suited to a time of violent turmoil across the world, but gallows humour has its virtues. There is a fusion of wars in the Middle East, that is not only changing the region dramatically at this very moment, but which could set off fires towards our doors. America and Britain are trapped in a morass they do not understand. Iraq and Lebanon are becoming one war: I wonder how George Bush would have reacted if hundreds of thousands of Shias had gathered in Baghdad to support Hezbollah under Saddam Hussein’s watch. Washington would doubtless have accused Saddam of abetting "terrorists". Well, an Iraqi regime wrought by George Bush and Tony Blair has not only officially condemned Israel but has also permitted the most massive pro-Hezbollah demonstrations in the region. Hezbollah, of course, has turned conventional wisdom on its head and won significant battles against overwhelmingly superior forces armed and re-armed by America; its success will have ground-breaking implications.
The region is in turmoil and the land up to the Nile is in flames. Never has India been so marginalised as under the watch of Dr Manmohan Singh. This is not a reflection of the stature of India in the world, but reflection of the stature of this government. India’s foreign policy is the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, who made this nation synonymous with a virile independence. Four decades after his death, India’s voice has been reduced to an occasional bleat from the shadows. I cannot imagine Nehru or Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi without a role to play at such a moment; but then they never decided that their foreign policy would become "congruent" with America’s.
Ironically, the Natwar Singh letter to the Saddam government is also proof of a time when the Congress was considered a friend of the Arab world. This relationship, built with care and consideration by Nehru and Indira Gandhi, had enough depth and credibility to permit India to improve relations with Israel without affecting its ties with the Arabs. We had become, with time, a unique resource in international diplomacy. The drift from the Arabs began with the BJP, although Atal Behari Vajpayee tried, sporadically, to try and check the drift (relations with Saudi Arabia, for instance, improved dramatically under his watch). Under Dr Manmohan Singh the drift has turned into a directionless swirl. He is clearly a foreigner in the foreign ministry.
The moment has definitely come for the Prime Minister to reinvent his government. If he does not do it soon, Mrs Sonia Gandhi will come under pressure to reinvent the whole government, including him.