Time to play fair, Mr Deora
M J Akbar Sunday
Is live coverage of Parliament very kind to democracy? A friendly exchange of obscure questions and obtuse answers in the morning, and exclusive footage of MPs in mortal combat against sleep in the afternoon, does not make for high TRPs. The periodic slogan-and-walkout routine has become just that: routine. When the Lok Sabha debated steepling prices of essential commodities on Thursday afternoon, kind cameramen did their best to avoid empty spaces and vacant faces.
Compare this to the sui generis turbulence within the political class over the price of one reasonably essential commodity, gas. There has to be a good reason. The merchants of tur dal have cash in their pockets. The merchants of gas have both cash and MPs in their pockets.
The metaphor is not original. Murli Deora, minister for oil and gas, who tends to get communicative under stress, used it in Parliament. He lamented that alleging "this fellow is in his pocket, this fellow is in another's pocket" did no service to anyone.
It certainly does no service to Mr Deora. An independent MP, Parimal Nathwani, was candid about his personal pocket of residence. He was an advocate for Mukesh Ambani. The Marx in Ms Brinda Karat leapt to the fore and she became instantly cross. She demanded review of the candour clause in House rules, arguing that it had come into conflict with the "dignity of the House". She may have missed her mark by a few notches. She should have been discussing the dignity of the Union cabinet.
An Australian journalist, Hamish McDonald, has written an unauthorized, but semicollaborative (Reliance executives are thanked in the forward), biography of a great, but occasionally errant, genius, titled The Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani. There are five references to Dhirubhai's first ally in politics, an alliance that began when Dhirubhai's vision was buffeted on all sides by cynicism. The first reference, on page 36, is sufficient: "After getting on his feet back in Bombay, Dhirubhai used to make frequent trips to New Delhi. He frequently went in the company of Murli Deora, a fellow yarn trader who was then working his way up the Congress party machine in Bombay... Dhirubhai and Deora used to catch an early flight up to Delhi, and park their bags with a sympathetic clerk at the Ashoka Hotel while they did their rounds of politicians and bureaucrats to speed up decisions on import licences."
The past cannot be held against Murli Deora's present. He might, in fact, justifiably feel that he should have been cabinet minister much before he was finally sworn in. He is certainly one of the more competent ministers. The question is about his portfolio, which he has held since he joined the cabinet. He takes decisions that affect the most substantive part of Dhirubhai's inheritance. Dr Manmohan Singh believes in the Caesar's Wife principle: in public life, you must be above suspicion. Would Caesar's Wife have accepted the oil portfolio if she had been a fellow yarn trader of Dhirubhai?
There is too much that is odd about Murli Deora's insistence on raising the price of a national asset that is in the private possession of Mukesh Ambani. This must be the first government that is determined to raise the price of an essential commodity, rather than bring it down, or indeed keep it at a level that a private company offered and accepted as part of a contractual agreement. On Friday, Sharad Pawar, replying to the debate on essential commodities in the Lok Sabha, blamed the higher price of energy as one of the reasons for rising food prices. Attendance on Friday was higher than on Thursday, with heavyweights present, possibly because it was the last sitting of the session, but was anyone listening?
The fight between the brothers, Mukesh and Anil, is a bit of a red herring. Mukesh Ambani is not going to sell his gas at nearly twice a contracted price only to his brother. NTPC, a nationalized Navaratna company will have to pay at least Rs 20,000 crores more to Reliance. Anil Ambani is a big boy. He can look after himself. If Mukesh Ambani needed a hundred million mobile telephones, Anil Ambani would have tried to double the price of his phones.
But public concern is legitimate when a public sector company cannot defend its interests because its nominated guardian, its cabinet minister, is supporting the opposition. NTPC is in litigation against RIL in the Mumbai high court to protect its interests, while its parent ministry takes a contradictory view in the SC.
Murli Deora's logic for raising the price of gas shifts from odd to downright curious. Gas, he says, is a national asset. The government therefore should fix the price. But who gets the money? Not the nation, but a private company. Finance ministers squirm even when forced to raise energy prices in order to bump up government revenues. But one cannot see a single squirm in this controversy. Patriotism has clearly become the last refuge of Murli Deora.
Appeared in Times of India - July 09, 2009