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Mainstream, VOL XLIX No 31, July 23, 2011

The Twilight Zone

Monday 25 July 2011, by Nikhil Chakravartty


Half-way through the crucial elections to the State Assemblies, with Arjun Singh having been expelled from the Congress, it is a twilight zone of Indian politics. Reactions are many and varied, expectations galore.

The fact that Narasimha Rao has suddenly exerted himself in both his avatars—as the Congress President making a short shrift of Arjun Singh throwing him out of the party, and as the Prime Minister going in for the long-awaited induction into the Cabinet—not really a reshuffle but only some additional hands getting re-employment—these two items taken together might spread the impression that at last the supremo of the ruling establishment has woken up from his protracted slumber of indecision.

However, a careful scrutiny of both these events makes it abundantly clear that each one of these leads to new questionings, new prospects for serious divergences which cannot but have their impact on the Congress party and the government as well. Arjun Singh’s release of a huge mass of ministerial correspondence brings out many questions about the government’s unexplained passivity at the time of the demolition of the Babri Masjid—the question which needs to be answered to clear the government of the charge of inaction during the stormy days of December 1992. In fact, what has been released by Arjun Singh deserves to be pursued through a proper commission of enquiry.

For, the episode need not be taken as just a joust between the two—however exciting that may appear to be—but having touched on matters of extreme public concern having a direct validity for our democratic functioning. Whatever has already come to light through the release of material by Arjun Singh startlingly shows the poor state of Cabinet functioning today. The talk of collective management has indeed become a myth. For all one knows, with the rebuttals and explanations that have been trickling out from the official side, this impression is confirmed and not dispelled. It is amazing that such a huge sprawling outfit presiding over the destiny of nine hundred million people should be in such a state of disarry as could be seen from the sheaf of papers released by Arjun Singh.

To expect that this sorry state of affairs will be set right by half-a-dozen Ministers just appointed will be totally unrealistic. The deterioration in the government’s functioning is seen at all levels—from the Prime Minister’s Office down to the underlings in the different Ministries. The so-called steel frame has become thoroughly rickety. The misdoings of Ministers have been mainly responsible for bringing about this appalling deterioration in the functioning of the administration as a whole. Instead of servicing the purpose of governance, the civil service, at many crucial junctures, is nowadays found to be in an active accomplice in ministerial malpractices.

The appointment of new Ministers to Narasimha Rao’s depleted team has been a welcome step, however halting it may have been. Most of them are tested hands, though their past record is not necessarily uniform in all cases. Since the Prime Minister has himself disclosed that there would be a thorough reshuffle in the near future, it would not be proper to comment on the portfolios entrusted to different Ministers. It would have been certainly reassuring if Madhavrao Scindia with his past experience had been entrusted with the Railways considering the misdoings of the present incumbent. P.A. Sangma’s well-deserved promotion to the Cabinet has been welcomed on all hands. The long-delayed decision to have a functioning Foreign Minister is welcome; it is important that a political leader of experience and competence like Pranab Mukherjee has been entrusted with the portfolio, particularly when foreign affairs has been a neglected area of the government’s functioning. It would certainly be unfair to ascribe this neglect to the record of the two very active Ministers of State. A senior Cabinet Minister for External Affairs has become necessary in view of the major issues that confront the country abroad today. The return of Chidambaram to Commerce was expected though the reason for his continuing as a Minister of State has nothing to do with his undoubted competence as a Minister.

The induction of the new Ministers will certainly help the Prime Minister particularly in the context of the Budget session of Parliament which has just commenced. They will certainly help to bring some order in the day-to-day functioning of the government which was for months hamstrung by the Prime Minister himself holding a record number of portfolios. What is, however, urgently called for is the improvement in the quality of the government’s functioning. Not only Arjun Singh’s disclosures but the cropping up of magnum-size corruption cases in which the ministerial responsibility was directly involved—such as the securities scam and the sugar scandal—underlines the urgency of steamlining the government itself. To cry hoarse in seeking the foreign investor with piteous ‘come-hither’ calls, cannot possibly be the be-all and end-all of a government ruling over a country beset with so many problems—though that is precisely the impression carried by the President’s lack-lustre address at the ceremonial opening of the Budget session of Parliament.

The issues that confront the country today are formidable. The spectre of rising prices has been a matter of acute concern for the over-whelming majority of our country. The govern-ment’s new-style assurance that it was going to look after the poor via extra allocations to the agricultural sector, carries little weight with the common man facing immediate hardship. In fact, that is the only face of economic reforms that he has seen so far. With all the pledges of the economic reforms drive being irreversible that the Prime Minister emphasises in every talk with VIPs from abroad, the perceptible worry over the prospect of foreign funds flowing in after the Mexico crash as also the lessons needed to be drawn from that crash irself can hardly be overlooked. The impact of the FIIs’ manipulation at the stock exchange, leading to sharp differences with the Indian corporate world, needs to be examined so that it may not damage the structure of the economy itself.

The conspicuous dependence on the Fund-Bank wisdom throughout this period is having its inevitable repercussions on our foreign policy bending before Washington’s pressure. The latest in the line is the undeniable compromise indicated by the government’s agreeing to the US nuclear monitoring move, which has been rightly interpreted by the public as a slide-down from the country’s long-standing approach towards the NPT. The insensate drive towards handing over the power and oil sectors to the US multinationals has evoked criticism from within the government, as could be seen in Planning Commission member Ramakrishna’s warning about it. Allied to this is to be seen the reckless manner of the accord being finalised with Oman for the supply of gas which, if allowed to be clinched, may involve a million-dollar scandal that no government, not certainly the present one, can survive. It’s time that our political leaders looked upon their job as something more than entertaining a particular brand of VIP with iftaar hospitality.

(Mainstream, Februry 18, 1995)

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