City City Bang Bang, Columns

Dr Singh & the rest of the iceberg

The more the Congress party extols Dr Manmohan Singh as a man of integrity, the more they hang him out to dry. For in the bland finality of that characterisation, lies a story that speaks poorly of both the PM and the ruling party. It is good that Dr Singh is personally incorruptible, and even the opposition parties that are agitating for him to face the JPC are not labelling him otherwise, but for that to become all that we can say about the leader of the nation is less than satisfactory. It points to the fact that the Congress implicitly accepts that other leaders in the party do not share this trait of Dr Singh’s and therefore this unique distinction somehow qualifies him to take on prime ministerial responsibilities. As PM, of course Singh is expected to be honest; that should hardly be the pinnacle of his achievement, merely a minimum qualifying standard for the job. Also the notion of integrity is not just about personal probity, it involves being true to the responsibilities of the office and that certainly does not include overlooking the obvious infractions committed by a ministerial colleague because of the compulsions of coalition politics. By continuing to describe him exclusively in these terms along with a few references to his scholarship and erudition, what the Congress is essentially telling us is that we should be grateful that we have as our leader someone who looks the part and that Dr Singh’s intrinsic qualities are good enough, and that his actual performance does not matter.

It is obvious why this is good enough for the Congress for it allows the division of responsibilities between Sonia Gandhi and the PM to continue. It would be one thing if this particular arrangement, however unorthodox, resulted in the PM being able to focus on running the country while the Gandhi family gave their exclusive attention to winning elections for the party, but it is increasingly clear that this is not the case. The government seems to have gone to sleep and in a few months the euphoria of a second term has got replaced with the aimless drift of purposelessness. And the PM himself seems to have little ability to find strength from the approval, however indirect, he has received from the electorate. When the Supreme Court has to pull up a minister for not listening to the Prime Minister, we know that the hierarchy in the Cabinet serves a symbolic rather than functional purpose. The belief that the business of government can be separated from that of politics has been exposed as being untrue, and the PM’s inability to command respect and compliance from his colleagues has resulted in his abandoning any attempt to drive an agenda.

It is easy to focus our questions on the party in power but the behaviour of the opposition has been equally undistinguished. By focusing on the JPC and by converting the entire 2G issue into an occasion to target the PM personally, the BJP is showing its lack of interest in the more substantive underlying questions. The problem is not that the demand for a JPC is unjustified, but that even if the demand were to be met, nothing material is likely to come out of it. The challenge is a larger one, that of curbing the discretionary power of the Government to distribute largesse and to tackle corruption at a systemic level. This is something that interests no party, for most of them are in the same boat.

Most interesting has been the complete lack of interest shown by the opposition in the revelations of the Radia tapes. No serious demand has been made for the publication of the rest of the tapes, nor has there been any reaction to the tainted journalists and not a single politician raised the issue in any of channels in the few days in which media has blanked out the news. More tellingly, while there have been enough clues in the tapes that point to more scams involving more corporates and politicians, no one has put forward a demand for investigating these.

What we call politics is turning out to resemble a highly skilled staged performance where the cast comes together daily in the Parliament and on our television screens to entertain us with the spectacle of democracy. There is a loose script but very clearly demarcated areas where no one will venture and the reality show goes on for our benefit. The problem with corruption in India is that the political system depends on it; it is the grease that lubricates the machine and therefore it is virtually impossible to weed out. Of course, what the Radia tapes have done is given us a glimpse into what really works behind the scenes. There is now a soundtrack to what was earlier merely a suspicion and we now know what politicking sounds like. We now know that nothing of what we hear in media is remotely close to what the powerful say to each other when they speak to each other off-screen.

Perhaps the underlying reason for this state of affairs is the absence of a strong relationship between transparent governance and electoral performance that we have in most parts of India. The fact that the government at the centre is the product of cobbled together alliances based on a loose coalition of caste and other interest groups makes the relationship between the performance of a government and its performance at elections even more tenuous. As a result, we have a PM who is content to look the part, a cabinet focused more on maintaining their little empires of profit, an opposition that enacts outrage without wanting real change, corporations that pay material obeisance to anyone who counts and media that is seduced by the power of it all.

There is a problem with Dr Manmohan Singh, but the rest of the iceberg ain’t so pretty either.