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Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 9, February 19, 2011

Manmohan a Role Model, but as PM Can Never be Above Suspicion

Monday 21 February 2011, by Diptendra Raychaudhuri

“I sincerely believe that like Caesar’s wife, the Prime Minister should be above suspicion and it is for this reason that I am prepared to appear before the PAC even though there is no precedent to that effect.”

—Manmohan Singh at the plenary session of the Congress party, December 20, 2010.

We know that when a system faces the possibility of degeneration the leaders try to make absurd emotional appeals to convince the common man about their infallibility. This is often done by the Communists, dictators and junta leaders. At times democratic rulers also take recourse to such phrases, but only when they face failures all around them.

No doubt, Indian democracy has come to a pass and has started failing. Democracy has given way to elitism: dominance by a section that consists of about ten per cent of the population. Worse still, a large section of the elite is corrupt, and the spread of corruption has taken a cancerous dimension in the society. Parliament Members, political and non-political executives at various levels, and even members of the judiciary (including a couple of former Chief Justices) have come under the cloud of suspicion. However, a minuscule minority of them have ever faced scrutiny by the police or any other investigative agencies. A negligible number has ever got convicted.

Under the circumstances, if our Prime Minister feels that fingers raised at him are unjustified, he should explain everything in public. All of us want to hear from him his counterpoints (and I still believe he has those ready) against every allegation levelled at him. That is not only about the 2G scam. We also want to know why he allowed an expenditure of seventy (or fifty, or ninety?) thousand crores in the name of the Commonwealth Games while a vast majority was rotting in sub-human conditions. We also want to know why two decades after initiation of the new economic policies he unleashed, there is still so much poverty, hunger, and such high degree of malnutrition? He owes an explanation to the nation. We want to know why ten thousand young boys of Delhi have no roofs and no guardians (they spend the coldest nights in the open), while the government has spent tens of thousand crores for beautification of Delhi in 2009 and 2010. We want to know what does Dr Singh understand by ‘beautification’.

The PM knows the Public Accounts Committee is a closed forum. We, the people of India, believe such closed forums can easily be managed. To be above suspicion each and every PM of this country will have to explain everything publicly. Instead of doing that, our PM has taken recourse to an inappropriate proverb and unconvincing appeal.

Caesar’s Wife: Inappropriate Allusion

IT is another matter that Caesar’s wife too was shrouded in suspicion and Caesar divorced him. Caesar divorced Pompeia, according to the 2nd century Greek historian Cassius Dio, saying that ‘my wife ought not to be even under suspicion’. If the Prime Minister is so obsessed with the phrase, he should not have kept silent on the 2G issue for so long. We are witness to the fact that both the Leftists and the BJP were raising all these doubts for a long time, at least for more than the last two years. Thus, his allusion to Caeser’s wife was self-defeating, as he himself created the cloud about him for inexplicable reasons.

Probably the Prime Minister’s speech-writers are so Westernised that they picked up this one to make such an appeal, while any Indian could have much more easily understood an allusion to ‘agni-pariksha’ of Sita Mata. Or else, it maybe so that the speech-writers lost their nerves to mention the most revered name in traditional Indian life.

Whoever was mentioned, Caesar’s wife or Mother Sita, the purpose itself was defeated. For in both the cases their husbands could not satisfy the society about their purity and took steps against them.

In this regard, we should remind ourselves a simple thing. For ages, women have been victims of suspicion, and this suspicion invariably stemmed from doubts about the purity of their character. Be it Sita Mata, or Ceaser’s wife. The suspicion fell on the question of their chastity. This is condemnable male chauvinism. So, it was not proper for a veteran like our Prime Minister to allude to this.

Probably this was a point that did not occur to him. And so he read the sentence to stake the claim of innocence.

Probably whenever he utters the word ‘Prime Minister’, the images of Nehru or Shastri come to his mind, making him believe in the aptness of such a statement. What he forgets is that he is not a PM of the fifties or sixties when the people of the nation still had hope, for they believed the Prime Minister and other Ministers would lead them to a future where hunger, poverty and living a life of dangerous uncertainty would become a thing of the past. Instead, he is a Prime Minister of the first decade of the new millennium. Now it is quite evident that the successive governments have served the elite only. The government has become by the elite and for the elite. While two-thirds of the population still live a poor and uncertain life, rosy pictures about shining India or superpower India are flashed to confuse the people. Thanks to the politicians, who are generally perceived as corrupt to the core, Indian now shines for ten per cent of its people. In this country, politicians, who occupy the chair of the PM, cannot be kept beyond suspicion if only an agency like the PAC exonerates them. Legalese is something and credibility is something else.

A Broader Perspective Required

IF the PM really wants to keep himself beyond the clouds of doubt he should immediately act tough. Mere repetitions of appropriate or inappropriate phrases, or choosing at will a forum where he should justify his actions (or inactions) on a particular issue will not do. He should keep in mind the perspective in which people (the whole people, not merely the elite) are judging his words.

Those of us born in the sixties (this is true also for those born between 1955 and 1975) have not seen many of those who as politicians sacrificed a comfortable life for the cause of the poor. We saw a motley set of people as politicians. Some have become politicians as they did not have any better option. Some for making money. Someone for the sake of enjoying power. The others are in politics because they want both power and everything associated with it. I do not need to explain what I mean by ‘everything associated with it’. Every Indian knows it.

Thanks to these politicians, a nexus has grown among all sections of the leading elite. Politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, police and Army officers, lawyers and even some judges are part of this nexus. This has now reached such a low that a housing society in the name of the Kargil martyrs has been usurped by such people, including the ex-Chief of the Army. Who does not know in this country that a jawan’s family cannot buy a flat that is being sold for Rs 80 lakhs? Who does not know that anyone whose income does not exceed Rs 30 thousand cannot even buy a house costing Rs 40 lakhs, forget about Rs 80 lakhs. So, it is self-evident that the idea was contemplated and the rules for the society were framed only to make way for providing some of the top elite underpriced luxurious accommodations. I do not need to go into hundreds and hundreds of such instances of corruption as all of us are quite aware of all those. A common man is also aware of the fact that the politicians of all parties are in hand and glove in this loot.

Such politicians go up the ladder and become contenders for higher posts. Manmohan Singh must know that he is presiding over a system where politicians have lost all credibility and respect. Our generation has seen the demise of people like Jaya Prakash Narayan and marginali-sation of people like Surendra Mohan. We have accepted it as a fact that people will enter politics for individual gain. Again, the blessings of these politicians have blinded almost all the others who form the elite.

To be above suspicion a PM has to wage an all-out war against such malaises. But then, he has to risk his job. Can Manmohan Singh do that?

Again, at the end of the first decade of the new millennium, a sessions judge of Chhattisgarh has gone a step ahead to strike at the base of democracy with all the might the judiciary enjoys. He has given life sentence to a man who sacrificed an easily-available life of comfort, and for three decades has served the poor and neglected adivasis of Chhattisgarh. Binayak Sen as a people’s doctor and human rights activist should have been recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize. But Indian democracy has put him behind bars. The alarm bell has started ringing.

The people for whom Binayak Sen worked still live a miserable life under the auspices of an establishment that did not consider them worthy of getting attention. Forget them. They were and are invisible people. But the urban poor are visible. The rickshaw-wallahs, the vendors, the artisans and masons and carpenters and so on are visible on the roads or at the side of the roads awaiting a call from someone to earn their daily livelihood. Even they are battered by governments that take no measure to pull down the price of onion before it touches Rs 80 a kg. This represents the nature of work of the government Dr Singh presides over. We, ordinary citizens, wonder why our top leaders remain indifferent and allow the price to go up three-fold from a normal high range of Rs 20-30. If they are so unintelligent that they cannot even foresee the future when the price crosses Rs 40, then what right have they to occupy the posts of top Ministers? Probably, it is not so that they are not intelligent. There are other hidden reasons.

As a consequence of such callous indifference India still harbours the largest number of poor. People are still without any social security measures. Malnutrition, infant mortality, paucity of pure drinking water and, in short, almost every social indicator shows the colossal failure of successive Indian governments.

To be above suspicion, a PM has to prove that his priority is not the benefit of the elite, but the uplift of the majority of the people. Uplift means providing them regular livelihood, education, safe drinking water, health-facilities and social security measures in case of inability to work. The Indian state has performed miserably in this regard because of mere lack of intiative.

Manmohan Singh cannot absolve himself from taking responsibility for this all-round failure, for he is in the ring for so many decades. Can he prove that his prority was not on how to make the rich richer, but an all-out attack against poverty and social insecurity?

Nothing Personal

MANMOHAN SINGH is not an elected leader. He has never won a popular election. In today’s England, he could not have become the Prime Minister. That does not mean he should say things that undermine the base of democracy. A thriving democracy expects its leaders to continuously go through acid tests about their integrity and infallibility. Otherwise, there would have been no question of debating issues in Parliament or forming institutions like the CAG, Vigilance Commission, or Lokpal. Or a JPC. Any attempt to escape such scrutiny at best can be termed dubious. Any attempt to make a person or a post holier than thou is just the beginning of an autocratic practice.

People have a wrong notion that democracy means only multi-party elections. No. That is only the starting point of the democratic practice. The strength of democracy (say, as manifested in the US) is indicated by its ability of (a) working for the benefit of the whole population, (b) resolving all the conflicts peacefully, and (c) allowing the maximum right to dissent. Our successive governments since the seventies failed to work for the whole population and did the minimum for more than half the people. So, the ability of Indian democracy to resolve conflicts peacefully has declined year after year. And, now during Manmohan Singh’s era things have come to such a pass that the crooks have become brazenly bold, and even session judges have become bold enough to concoct judgements to please the ruling elite and destroy the basic fabric of the democratic system. It is now quite evident that the system is failing, running the risk of disintegration. The Niira Radia tapes have brought things before the people who were not aware of all these. Whosoever was behind the leak has done a great service to the nation.

Now, the only hope for the non-elite of India rests with the high judiciary that is making a glorius attempt to provide people shelter, food and a little bit of security. It is shameful for the Indian Parliament and executive that even the mid-day meal scheme became universal only because of the Supreme Court’s intervention.

All these have happened because the leadership was and is weak, indifferent and lacking in capability to deliver maximum benefit for the maximum people. A Prime Minister is symbol of this system. He can in no way be above suspicion, for corruption does not mean only committing financial irregularity. The very thought of taking steps to benefit a minuscule number of people at the cost of the vast majority too is corruption, and often more dangerous.

We all know that Manmohan Singh’s personal integrity is beyond question. It simply means he does not accept bribe. In this country this has become a virtue, as though everyone in public service or public life is expected to be corrupt. But the common man still believes in high moral values. Corrupt people in public service and public life are hated by the common man. But, they cannot do anything against them. That is why they look at Manmohan Singh for punishing them. Nothing else than doing that can put the office of the PM beyond suspicion.

Manmohan Singh is a model of what one should be in public service and public life as far as one’s personal life is concerned. But, seen from a wider perspective, this honesty is just the minimum requirement from a civilised person, for dishonesty is both a crime and a sin. Manmohan Singh must go far, far beyond his obsession with such personal honesty and make an all-out effort to cleanse the system from the clutches of dishonest persons whose right place is behind bars. And he should explain why he spent so much from the public exchequer in the name of the Commonwealth Games. Otherwise he too will remain under suspicion. For ever.

Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a journalist and author of the novel A Naxal Story.

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