How the govt lost its way, and its face
It is now almost an article of faith within the media that a) this is a very corrupt government and that b) its leaders lack the will or the inclination to fight corruption.
Strangely, this view has only taken root during UPAII. During this government’s first term (when much of the corruption we are now complaining about actually occurred), the government had a very different image. Much was made of Manmohan Singh’s fetish for clean government. Sonia Gandhi was seen as somebody committed to a pro-NGO kind of governance and hostile to the corporate sector.
There may have been doubts about the competence of key ministers – Shivraj Patil, P Chidambaram, Pranab Mukherjee, AK Antony etc. – but their integrity was rarely questioned. When a minister was accused of impropriety – as Natwar Singh was – he was dropped.
So why has the government’s image altered so dramatically in its second term?
It is true that there has been a major scandal (2G) and one that is not quite in the same league but is substantial enough anyway (CWG). But when there were scandals that reached higher, during the UPA’s first term, it made little difference to the government’s image.
Take the Natwar Singh saga, for instance. Whether or not you believe that Singh was guilty of any impropriety – and he has not been convicted in any court of law – there is no doubt that he was a substantial figure within the Congress, one of the most senior members of the Cabinet and a man with a strong, close, personal relationship with Sonia Gandhi. But even as that scandal unfolded, it did no real damage to the government’s image.
On the other hand, you could argue that in the UPA’s second term, the scandals that have emerged have all been uncovered only as a result of the government’s own efforts. It is nice for us in the media to take the credit or for the opposition to claim that it did all the digging – but frankly this is simply not true.
Let’s take 2G. The scandal only broke as a result of a report by the CAG. You may or may not agree with the CAG’s computation of the loss caused to the exchequer (and it is now clear that even within the CAG’s office, there were disagreements), but you cannot dispute that if there had been no CAG report, there would be no 2G scandal.
But here’s the thing: the CAG is not part of the media or the opposition. The office is a branch of government. The current CAG, an honest and upright bureaucrat called Vinod Rai, got the job because the UPA Cabinet chose him. His candidacy was strongly pushed by the former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram who knew Rai from his career in the finance ministry.
Once the scandal exploded, the media ran off in all directions, being led up blind alleys by vested interests, but it was the CBI, another branch of government, that made the arrests, pieced together the evidence and filed the charge-sheets.
The media had done little to uncover the Swan Telecom link, for example. Most of us had no idea who Shahid Balwa was or that he had any connection to the scam. It was the CBI that put together the evidence.
So it is with the arrests. Who would have thought it possible that Spectrum King A. Raja would spend so many months in jail with the CBI opposing his bail pleas at every turn? Who would have imagined that the CBI would have the guts to arrest the daughter of M. Karunanidhi, an important Congress ally at a time when the government depended on the DMK’s support for its survival?
Here’s my question: when you consider how the government’s prompt action in the Natwar Singh quelled any storm that might have arisen, why has the same principle not worked during UPA II?
In the end, all of the uncovering of the scandal, all of the investigating and all of the arresting has been done by branches of the government. And yet, nobody believes that this government has any interest in uncovering the truth or in fighting corruption. The credit is given to the courts (who can only act once the CBI brings cases to them), to the media and to the opposition. The government itself gets no credit at all.
I can think of three reasons for the perception.
The first and most important is the lack of visible leadership in this government. I do not dispute that Manmohan Singh is an honest and decent man. But his essential shyness prevents him from coming forward and giving the impression that he is in control. Nor is he surrounded by people who seem to know what they are doing.
When AB Vajpayee was Prime Minister, he gave the impression of being in charge, of running his own government. He had the added advantage of having Brajesh Mishra as his Principal Secretary so his PMO always called the shots (even when Mishra was opposed by Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani).
Manmohan Singh, on the other hand, looks like a befuddled passenger on a suburban train who is not sure if he has boarded the right connection. He never once gives the impression that he is in control or in charge. And so, nobody ever associates him with the government’s anti-corruption initiatives. Frankly, it is hard to associate him with any of the government’s initiatives. (Except, of course, for his beloved nuclear deal which led to the cash-for-votes scam.)
Secondly, while nobody doubts Singh’s integrity, most people believe that, at some stage, he decided to become a survivor rather than a do-er. If ministers made money, he stepped back. And when it came to the allies, he took the line that it was okay for them to line their pockets as long as the PMO was kept at an “arms length” (this is the word that Singh’s own Principal Secretary used in a file noting.)
And finally this is a government that has lost its way. Forget about the battle against corruption. Even on other issues nobody has any sense of what this government stands for or what its priorities are. Ministers do what they like. The bureaucracy runs amok. The courts make up their own rules. There are no programmes. There is no platform.
So here’s what the truth is. No, this is not the most corrupt government is history. It is headed by a decent and honest man. And his government has uncovered most of the corruption cases we read about.
But this is a government without a visible leader. The Prime Minister has made the mistake of sitting back and watching while his allies have made money. And now, while he should be associating himself with the clean-up, he cowers silently at Race Course Road.