Whatever be the situation in other countries, in India it is assumed that whenever a minister speaks to the public, he or she is lying. Once, an educationist known to this columnist spoke for more than an hour to a Cabinet minister on the phone. His comment was: “The minister called up and gave his name. That was the only truth he uttered. The rest of what he spoke were lies.” Although the United Progressive Alliance government advertises itself as being a representative of the “common man”, the reality is that the Manmohan Singh Cabinet has more billionaires in it than any previous team had. As for UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, although on record she and her two children are middle class (with Sonia Gandhi not being able to—according to her written statements—afford even a car or a television set), the reality is that one or two or all of them travel abroad almost once a week, and while sojourning in expensive locations in Europe, do not lack comforts that only money can buy, and that too, a lot of it.
Of course, the media in India is terrified of Sonia Gandhi (who has her protection squad headed by Political Secretary Ahmed Patel and including heavyweights such as Home Minister P Chidambaram, a team that can be relied upon to ensure that media outlets who go against Sonia Gandhi very soon realise and accept the error of their ways). Hence no report of any such travel ever appears in the local press, not to speak of a photograph. This is in contrast to genuine democracies, where photographs and news reports of leaders and their families going abroad are common.
Because of the awesome power of patronage that is theirs to command, the ruling branch of the Nehru family (now comprising Sonia Gandhi, her bachelor son Rahul and daughter Priyanka and her husband Robert Vadra) can boast of numerous senior officials who are proud of flaunting the fact that they are servitors. BV Wanchoo, for long head of the Special Protection Force and one of the seniormost police officers, has been shown on television running alongside vehicles conveying Sonia and her close family members. He has repeatedly been promoted and given extensions as a reward for such loyalty. Another police officer, Ashwani Kumar, became a talking point among police officers in Himachal Pradesh because of the time he is reported to have spent in ensuring proper construction of Priyanka Vadra’s mansion in that state.
Kumar too was rewarded for his fierce loyalty by being appointed Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), one of the most lucrative posts in the Government of India. Or to give another of numerous examples, Pulok Chatterjee (who has just taken over as the all-powerful Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister) has distinguished himself for the dedicated way in which he looks after the desires of India’s ruling family. Indeed, officials say that it was Chatterjee who conveyed to the Cabinet Secretariat that “Madame” (as Sonia is known) wanted Kumar to be the new CBI chief. In the process, the individual who had already been slotted for that post, M L Sharma, was bypassed at the last minute in a humiliating manner. This although Kumar did not have even a fraction of the investigative experience of Sharma, although it must be said to his credit that he certainly knows how to construct a beautiful home.
Now that Pulok Chatterjee is in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office, the writ of Sonia Gandhi will run there unfettered. However, the problem facing the public is that few of the political and personal linkages of favourite officials ever comes to light in a media that is very, very careful not to upset the truly powerful and the very vindictive. Not merely that, these officials and their political masters usually lie through their teeth, so as to mislead the public. It was therefore a surprise to see Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee stand by a truthful officer in his department who had—for once within the “committed to political control” senior bureaucracy—told the truth in an official memorandum about the involvement of high-ups in the case of 2G spectrum. This in the face of immense pressure from Congress Party bigwigs to disown the officer and protect the guilty. It may be remembered that the Government of India lost a minimum of $12 billion because of its refusal to auction spectrum instead of practically giving it away to a few favoured companies. Since the Supreme Court started taking an interest in the matter, the Central Bureau of Investigation has worked overtime to convince both the court and the public that the ruling Congress Party had nothing to do with the allocation of 2G spectrum. The CBI has thus far sent only those who are allies of the Congress Party to jail, such as former Telecom Minister A Raja and MP and poetess Kanimozhi. Next week, the CBI looks set to send yet another Cabinet Minister to jail, this being Dayanidhi Maran, again belonging to an ally of the Congress Party.
Although they are too frightened of the consequences to go against the Congress leadership in public, despite the fact that it is this group that has made them a sole scapegoat for the scam, yet senior allies of the Congress claim in private that “60 per cent of the bribes received in the 2G allocation went to the Congress Party”. They even allege that Attorney-General Goolam Vahanwati (a close friend of Political Secretary Ahmed Patel) was the individual who pushed for a particular company to be given spectrum. Of course, there is no proof for such a claim, and friends of the Attorney-General say that he does not even know anyone connected with the acquiring of 2G licenses, and hence could not have recommended any company for the same. The CBI, of course, will not investigate the Attorney-General, for exactly the same reason why it has refused to investigate Union Home Minister P Chidambaram. The CBI is staffed by draftees from the Indian Police Service (IPS) and Vahanwati and Chidambaram have the clout to damage careers of those within that cadre, hence they are kept outside the ambit of investigations. Usually, only scapegoats are proceeded against, with the masterminds escaping. So slack is the CBI that it routinely loses legal cases against influential people, most recently against Abu Salem, who is wanted in India for terror offences. A court in Portugal threw out the CBI’s case a few days ago, because of legal technicalities that seem to have been deliberately planted so as to ensure that Salem escape. Either that, or the lawyers advising the CBI in the case (who were chosen by the Attorney-General’s office) are among the worst in the country.
In such a murky atmosphere, it has come as a welcome relief to find a Cabinet minister who is not afraid to speak the truth, even if in the process, he may annoy UPA Supremo Sonia Gandhi and lose his job. Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has declined to whitewash facts relating to the decision-making process involving 2G spectrum, even if in the process he exposes the role of P Chidambaram, a Cabinet appointee who is a favourite of Sonia Gandhi. Unfortunately for Mukherjee, his formal boss, the Prime Minister, is not known to have the backbone needed to stand up to the fund collectors in the Congress Party, and hence may agree to toss Mukherjee aside to satisfy party VVIPs. The period since 2004 has been a sad one for those who admire Manmohan Singh. The PM is either unable or unwilling to stand up for principles that he believes in, such as integrity. True, neither has he nor have his family members made any money out of government decisions, but can this excuse the fact that he has allowed several scams to take place under his watch? Only for the past year has there been a change in his See No Evil attitude. For the first time, the PM is enforcing accountability, although as yet not to those from within his own party, a party where fund-collectors have huge influence at the expense of sincere party workers.
The example of Pranab Mukherjee will hopefully get followed by the PM himself, and by all the others who are honest and disgusted at the way the administration is run by those who seek only personal gain. Even within the police or the other branches of the administration, the majority of officers are honest and sincere. Sadly, they have almost always been pushed aside by dishonest colleagues who pander to the wants of key politicians. The more the honest among them raise their voice, and the more they get political support the way Mukherjee has backed his officials, the sooner will India get free of the quagmire that graft and selfishness have pushed it into.
By MD Nalapat