Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Manmohan – Sonia strategy


He said, she said                     




Pratap Bhanu Mehta

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi




The responses of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi to the extraordinary crisis generated by the 2G scam are exhibiting a brazen indifference to our predicament. Attacking the opposition's double standards and lack of credibility is a fair tactic in an adversarial democracy. But it does not provide any reassurance in the face of the moral anarchy, institutional perfidy, economic complacency and political mismanagement of the current government. In their responses, they have not missed a trick. But they have missed the point. Let us just look at their rhetorical strategies.



The first element in this strategy is best captured by an old joke that it does not count as a refutation if you refute yourself. The prime minister does this whenever he speaks of a governance deficit, whether it is in the context of Kashmir or administrative perfidy, almost distancing himself from his own government. It has to be said at this point that, with all due respect, "Prime Minister, you are central to governance: you constitute the governance deficit." The Congress president was correct to say that "nor should we do anything that will denigrate the office of the prime minister." This is, again, a resort to an abstraction to avoid dealing with the real problem. Can there be any greater denigration of the office when the prime minister does not appear to be in charge of government?



The Congress president engages in similar abstractions when she speaks of our shrinking moral universe in the context of corruption. It is a strikingly resonant phrase. But the leader of the ruling party does not have the luxury of an academic discourse on corruption. The shrinking moral universe is not a fact of nature; it is a consequence of decisions taken by leaders.



The second rhetorical trope in this repertoire is something to the effect that "we will get to the bottom of this".

This invitation to plumb is a clear dark obfuscation. It is inviting us to stare at a bottomless pit of investigations when the basic political questions are clear.


Simply put, it is this.

Did the prime minister and the cabinet endorse Raja's actions?

If they did, what was the rationale?

If they did not, what did they do for two years to curb actions that they knew to be wrong?

Answering these questions does not require an inquiry.

It will take the prime minister no more than 10 minutes to set the record straight on these questions. The Congress is asking us to look into the depths because it does not want to look us in the eye.



The third rhetorical tactic is an appeal to institutions. The opposition may well be playing brinkmanship when it comes to a JPC. But the simple fact is that the prime minister's demeanour has consistently undermined the authority of Parliament. Even during the well-conducted previous session the prime minister barely spoke in Parliament; he refused to engage in any serious debate or any serious crisis, except the civilian nuclear liability bill. He refused to invest Parliament with the gravitas it deserves. The CVC, P.J. Thomas, may be entirely innocent. But the Congress cannot get away from the fact that it brazenly ignored the one mechanism we have for ensuring that constitutional offices have bipartisan credibility.



The Congress president also made reference to the fact that her government does not want to "undermine established institutions, such as the PAC and the CBI". There is something deeply disconcerting about this for two reasons.

Why does a JPC undermine existing institutions?

At the very least it does not do it any more than new institutions like the National Advisory Council undermine line ministries.

Does it do it any more than a handpicked single-judge inquiry does it?

The institutional argument has become a disingenuous game; mere references to it are designed to undermine institutions. The references to the CBI are also disconcerting. It is time to ask the government what steps it has taken to restore the credibility of the CBI in the eyes of the public. There is not even a glimmer of acknowledgement that citizens are deeply worried about the CBI.

There is not even the slightest concession to the fact that almost every single institution in government now carries an odour of conspiracy.

Our law enforcement institutions are beginning to resemble an indiscriminate melange of arbitrary powers, randomly exercised. What is frightening about the Indian state is that evidence has no sanctity, arbitrary leaks have become the norm, officers routinely provide a running commentary to plant insinuations, any line of investigation is accompanied by indiscriminate fishing expeditions, and no one seems to acknowledge that citizens have basic rights.



The appeal to the CBI would be more credible if the government had spent the last few years restoring probity to the functioning of these institutions. It is often said that a measure of corruption is not just the exchange of money. It is the distance and dissimulation rulers exhibit in relation to their own governments. On that measure we have indeed reached a low point.



The fourth element in this rhetorical strategy is to hide behind the poor — or worse still, allow other Congress leaders to flirt with the communal card. The Congress leadership has to get over the idea that just because it has promulgated a few schemes for the poor, it can be absolved of the larger structural crisis they have produced in the economy.

Even within the terms of their own paradigm, how do they explain that a pro-poor government is now embedded in a nexus of regulatory arbitrariness that has benefited some corporations at the expense often of honest and genuine small business?

What pro-poor policy can explain that it has become nearly impossible to be an honest businessman in this country?

The Congress president is insulting the country by implicitly suggesting that the sense of moral crisis and betrayal large numbers of citizens feel is entirely a product of opposition politics. She was right to point out that the Congress has at least asked some individuals to resign; the BJP cannot even claim that high moral ground.



But she has to acknowledge that in the current climate those resignations are being seen largely as politically protective measures, designed to absolve the government of responsibility rather than fix it.

And she has not even begun to probe the deeper question: what is the responsibility of the leadership when the country sinks to an unprecedented low?

As for the prime minister:

his worst failing may not be corruption, it may not even be standing idly by.

His worst failing will be that by not coming clean he has undermined any reason to trust so-called good men.

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