So many scandals only show the vibrancy of the system!

In spite of the series of latest scandals, one minister gone and another seems on his way out, it looks our democracy is emerging a sustainable system. With the various organs of the state playing a more activist role. In particular the media has been playing its role credibly bringing out the scandals and also managing throwing out the guilty men. Like in the developed USA and UK, here too democracy is growing on the strength of a freer and liberal press freedom.The new year starts with a note of ominous trend. A series of scandals come to the fore and the government with a ‘nominated’ Prime Minister has been in office for well over twenty months.

When this coalition government took office there was this hope the new Prime Ministerial face would bring some decency and transparency. Decency Dr.Manmohan Singh had surely brought to his role as the chief of the political order. But transparency? That is the missing link in that hotchpotch of a coalition. The Left is emerging as the joker for they neither contributes to the effective articulation of any new ideological clarity or vision nor they participate in an open minded manner so that the new coalition evolves its own economic development strategy and try to break out of the mental blocks into which now find themselves.

The New Year-eve scandals have one common feature. Not only had the ministers in the ruling party but also those in the Opposition parties also come under scandals. The BJP in its own peculiar way came out with a controversial video on one of its ‘puritan’ pracharaks. Not less important is the Brinda Karat of the CPI who raised a controversy on a Hindu ayurved sanyasi and in these we saw the curious lineup of the parties. The CPI (M) stood isolated for the time being. With Ajar Singh telephone tapping scandal came the most unexpected. A Congress party man files a suit against the UP CM “unaccounted wealth” and the court sends a notice to the formidable CM.

The Prime Minister has cut a sorry figure in so many of the latest scandals, be it phone tapping of prominent Opposition leaders( you cant just keep mum when more than one Chief Minister of a former Chief Ministers, other than Mr.Amar Singh who is now spearheading the attack on the government’s questionable role in this invasion into the privacy of individuals who are also leading political figures. Certainly, one would expect that the Prime Minister would come out and clarify the exact truth. Whether it is the private operators, detectives or whether the government had a role in this are not made clear. The Prime Minister operates for most of the time not as a leader leading from the front but as a backroom operator. Soon after came the Bofors pay off case against the Italian gentleman who is widely known to be an influential person with the Gandhi family. As such, the PM or the UPA chairperson both keep mum when the whole country so agog with the new revelations. It is too much to make the country believe that the CBI, as it now says on second thoughts would have done this job on its own. Nor the Law Minister who is again a shadowy figure for most of the time, but an old hand of the Gandhi family, would have had no hand in directing the law official to travel to London to do the hatchet job!

Even here the PM is not playing the role expected from the high office. The country is not being led by any leader with credibility. Leaders must be seen as leading a people. Here we see the very reverse being the order of the day!

A latest biography of Gopal Krishna Gokhale by Govind Talwalkar (2006) makes an interesting reading and invariably invites comparisons with the present times!

Gokhale was of course a well-known figure of rare virtues and this book with lots of new material, not covered by B.R.Nanda’s definitive biography of the great man, gives some more insights in the very unusual liberal mind of the man who didn’t see any personal reservations whatever when he made one last bid to reconcile with the great Tilak in his last days. All that was overwhelming for Gokhale was the unity of the Congress which was then split into the Moderates and Extremists. Chapter 11(Last Phase) was very moving and we see in Gokhale a rare politician who always set great ideals. This time it was unity of the Congress that, even within the first decade of its formation was faced with internal splits.

Gokhale was not a member of the Congress in the first few years. He was then entering the profession of a teacher. Yet, how his moderate politics, the rule of law, Constitutional government had lasted for ever with us.
My mind raced to the more recent times, to the 1969 Congress split and as I was more closer to some of the leaders of the Congress at that time I saw a different mindset of politicians, a mindset that saw no principles whatever except sheer personal survival.

From Indira Gandhi to Sonia Gandhi we see a different political culture. Shorn of any pretence of idealism, what we see seems to be personal equations. With the colleagues in the party and the Opposition allies. The allies are all set on one thing. Political survival at all costs! How long this politics devoid of any idealism or vision can sustain our democracy? There seems to be not much cause for pessimism. The people have become more awake. The press is more daring, the Supreme Court and the Election Commission had emerged as the conscience of the citizens. So, there is all reason for much optimism!

What is the position today? A noted Indian journalist who reviewed the British book by Britain’s Ambassador to the US at the time of 9/11 and the Iraq war (Christopher Meyer) says: “This book’s reflections on the press, diplomacy are relevant to the Indian situation. Indian politicians are spoilt bratsal ready, even in the age of tape-recorders, with lies about “misquotation” or “quotation out of the context”. None of them would be able to survive in the UK or the USA with their rude replies or dishonest prevarications”. Yes, we see that Indian politicians somehow manage to survive, even if they were caught red-handed, they find some excuses or other to come “clean” and manage to survive!

Take the case of the Cabinet decision to cut subsidies and reduce the supply of subsidised ration of food to the BPL/APL families.

The government decides to do one thing and when the decision invites serious reaction from the populist allies then immediately the government goes back and puts on hold the decision.

Though unrelated the role of the Congress party also becomes relevant now with the AICC getting ‘revamped’. In fact, there was no revamp but continuing with the same old order or the old mindset. The Congress party Constitution is kept in cold storage and the same mindset of nomination process works in the oldest party. The Working Committee is supposed to have half the members ‘elected’. But that is dispensed with. Also, the very short-sighted approach of familiarity with the family only seems to matter. Thus, Karnataka has so many persons in the AICC office. Pondicherry has two while the biggest state in the South, Tamil Nadu has none! TN was once the bastion of the Congress party and also a state that produced some of the greatest Congress leaders who were also visionaries and mass leaders. Even today, the state has a long tradition of nationalistic political tradition and ever since the Congress split in 1969, the TNCC became an irrelevance with the Central leaders. The same is the case with the other states where once the Congress was a force, as it was once in UP and Bihar.

What is disconcerting for the nationalist minded leaders and citizens is the utter lack of grasp of the Congress leadership today in reviving the party in any of the major states in a serious way. The only consolation for the Congress, in a cynical way of course, is the disarray in which the major Opposition party, the BJP finds itself today. But this is a poor consolation. For the keen political observers, it should be clear that the Congress has only 145 MPs and the BJP has 135 MPs. So, the chance to form the government in 2004 came in an unexpected way and even now the coalition proves to be a fragile arrangement and anything can happen at any moment.

The Congress fortunes are in the decline and the past history of the party could be an object lesson for the Congress leaders if they care to know their past. The men and women around Sonia Gandhi are not the sort of persons who care to know the past of the Congress party and they might even find this lesson very uncomfortable. Whoever happens to be in the cosy circle of power, they enjoy it for the moment? There is nothing wrong in this human frailty. We are all after all humans and we have our own failings, are we?

So, why bother about other questions, bigger or small questions. The going is good and so carries one, seems to be the message from New Delhi. Anyway, those who care for some different perspectives there are one or two points. The Congress even with the first 15 years of its coming into being, that is in 1909,at the Lahore session, soon after the first split in the Surat session in 1907,the official Congress records show there were only 243 delegates. In 1912, Bankipur session which was attended by Beatrice and Sidney Webb the Fabian Socialists, the actual delegates dwindled to 207. (Talwalkar’s book page 483).

The party was seriously split into moderates vs extremists and by the time Gokhale died in 1915, all the attempts made by Gokhale and others to bring about unity didn’t succeed. So, one lesson for today’s Congressmen is that the party had this tendency to remain plit into factions from day one!

Even after the Coming of Mahatma Gandhi, there was this tendency to outwit one leader by the other. Jinnah’s life needs to be studied afresh (poor L.K. Advani paid a price for trying to do so) by Indians of this generation for we find Gokhale was not only the political guru of Gandhi but also of Jinnah. But somehow we, in India, seemed to have ignored this facet of the rise of the Hindu-Muslim divide which, as Talkalkar shows was part of the Congress party history from the early days.

So, what new lessons to learn from the past? Today we are a free country with a nearly six decades of parliamentary democracy experience. We also see a new type of power equations among the three wings of the Executive, Parliament and Judiciary. There is a weakening of Parliament’s prestige and authority, as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha is slapped with a notice from the Supreme Court on the power of Parliament to expel its members. The Executive under Dr.Manmohan Singh is faced with a series of unprecedented controversial decisions, be it the Bihar Assembly dissolution or the defreezing of the Bofors-linked Quattrochi’s UK bank accounts, not to mention the Volcker report naming the former foreign minister and the Congress party. As we have noted in the last month’s column that Volcker is no ordinary man and his documentary evidence can be dismissed and one day it might surface with more devastating consequences.

The other major change of the present times is the role of the media, both the print and the electronic channels. The government might pass the Right to Information Act but for all intents there is no confidence in the government to share information with the citizens. This applies to the routine information at the grass roots and also at the top levels where bigger secrecy seems to be followed. The very Quattrochi ‘deal’ was exposed only by one resourceful private TV channel. Then only all the hell broke out!

So, today when we find our democracy run not in any transparent manner. There is no evidence of any transparency but all indications to run the government in a great deal of secrecy. Only in terms of someone’s individual interests the party and the government seem to be run, the charge of dynastic politics sticks easily. Dr.Singh has lately been seen more and more as a facilitator of so many murky deals and even the Natwar Singh’s resignation wad forced on him by Parliament’s relentless exposure and also aided by the new revelations of Natwar’s retainer. This time too the Bofors ghost won’t easily go away and who knows that it could haunt the UPA term with unexpected turns. As the Supreme Court is seized of the matter the government can’t wash its hands-off so quickly.

The Congress party of course wont wither away, as it had always grown by splits and over-ambitious individual leaders right from the first day of the Congress organisation in 1885.When we read now the old history we find that not all our much admired old leaders were angels. Gokhale, for instance charges Tilak as given to intrigue! They had their own limitations. So, who knows the present leaders too in the distant future might look to their countrymen as more than average men, more than of average capabilities.

But what gives our current politics some dynamism and character is the power of the media. Just now, I was reading through a review of two books (The Spin Doctor’s Diary, Inside No.10 with New Labour and Dirty Politics, Dirty Times, My fight with the New Labour). And they seem to give us some insights into the working of a democracy. The reviewer says: “I would place a large bet that in most democratic countries, politicians are more honest than they ever were. Whether or not public morals have improved can be debated. What cannot, however, is the fact that the scrutiny politicians are subjected to is much greater than it was in the past. Parliamentary enquiries, judicial challenges, commissions of enquiry and above all the media now surround politicians, pushing the chances of faleshood’s detection easier”.

How exactly apt are these lines are these lines for India? Yes, they are quite apt and also quite in tune with the aspirations and interests of the common people to scrutinise and expose and if possible throw out the guilty persons. Britain, says the reviewer, has the most accountable parliament and the most intrusive and scandal hungry media. The politicians exposed get thrown out by the media pressure, “however, much the prime minister may wish to keep him”. This is also becoming true with the Indian democracy. The one basic difference from the UK politics and the media and the Indian counterparts is the fact that the Spin Doctor was in fact the press officer in the PMO there and when he chooses to reveal he goes to the utterly great heights of honesty. He admits how many times he lied to save the situation etc. In India we are yet to reach this level of maturity. Though again like the British media, the media owners also play roles in shaping the government’s many actions, soliciting favours and getting them all out of all the established norms and conventions.

There is one difference in the case of the USA. There the corrupt and the wrong doers, more so the corporate bigwigs are charged and brought to trial and even out in jail. In the UK, it is the relentless exposure and pressure from the media that sees the wrong-doing politicians go away. In India, we don’t catch the wrong doing politician nor we catch the corporate wrong doers. May be we would evolve into the next stage when both these categories of wrong doers are really caught red-handed. The day is not far away, it seems!

And now money plays a very big part in the way politics is shaping up. All regional parties and their leaders are very rich; there are new ways and new camaflagues to hide the ill-gotten wealth of the politicians. Invariably, every known politician with a clout is known to have cultivated the industrial houses, everyone knows who are the Congress Rajya Sabha members from the corporate houses, and so too the others from other parties. Amar Singh is perhaps being very honest about his association with industry and the film world. The other leaders are no less dishonest.

There are two observations here. One, the Supreme Court in various pronouncements had made the role of the criminals in politics more difficult. The MPs’ case of cash on camera might also give another jolt to corrupt politics. The EC is also after the many corrupt elections practices and already what the EC had done in Bihar is widely welcomed and what it is going to do now in W.Bengal and TN would also be watched with keen attention.

May the time have come to enact some law to make the parties accountable to the money they receive into their kitty? Along with scrutinising the rule of the party organisations to allow for some internal elections to the various organs of the party and also making the audit of the party funds mandatory our democracy might become a more vibrant institution. Peoples’ trust in the political system is the first guarantee of any stable and vibale society and polity.

In this sense, Indian democracy is moving in a positive direction. The many scandals affecting all the parties are a reflection of the vibrancy of the system only.

– V.Isvarmurti

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