Saturday, December 25, 2010

Does Pawar know his onions?

Of what use is Sharad Pawar to India? There are many reasons to believe that the country would be better off if he were nowhere near power. The latest onion crisis is just one of them.

Like all crises that have occurred during Pawar's watch in the Food Ministry, the current onion crunch could also be seen coming well before it actually hit. The rains misbehaved and onion traders quickly noticed another opportunity shaping up to exploit the people. A watchful Food Ministry could also have seen what the traders saw, but it chose to be otherwise busy.

Even when the crisis exploded threatening grave political fallout, Pawar was typically indifferent. The rains caused it, he said – as if we didn't know. The high prices would last a fortnight or so, he said – as if that was all there was to be said.

It was left to the Prime Minister, already harassed by other crises and conscious of the political potential of onions, to take some corrective action. The PMO and the Cabinet Secretary moved quickly, ordering among other things raids on the godowns of hoarders. It helped to some extent. A concerted action plan by an alert Food Ministry would have made all the difference, anticipating that tomato and garlic traders would also try to take advantage of the situation.

Pawar's erratic handling of his ministry is nothing new. When foodgrains rotted in government godowns, he merely explained it away – blaming state governments, for example – without taking any meaningful action. When the horrible effects of endosulfan were demonstrably proved by the pitiable plight of sufferers in Karasgod, Pawar dismissed it and appointed yet another inquiry committee headed by a man who had already headed a previous committee which had ruled in favour of the pesticide lobby. How irresponsible can a minister get.

A cursory look at Pawar's career will show that using governmental power for the country's good was nowhere in his agenda. His high-profile party colleague in the Union Cabinet, Praful Patel, has grievously harmed Air-India; its assets have been reduced and its schedules have been changed to give advantage to Jet Airways and Kingfisher.

Pawar's NCP has ministers in the Goa Government also. The current status there is weird. An NCP Minister, Mickky Pacheco, had to resign when he became the main accused in the death of his lady friend Nadia. The poor lady drank rat poison, said some people. But the post mortem showed several wounds on her body, some inflicted by a heavy object. While people wondered how rat poison could cause wounds on the body, the American Government said that Pacheco was involved in a “massive immigration and money laundering racket” and soon CBI and Income Tax sleuths raided the man's premises with charges of forgery and cheating. Pacheco, denied bail by Goa High Court and by the Supreme Court, was later given bail by the Margao district and sessions court. That's when Sharad Pawar asked the Goa Chief Minister to make him minister again. That's how much he cares for public opinion or the proprieties of democracy.

Pawar was publicly annoyed with Delhi for putting the brakes on the Lavasa real estate project. The project got going when the Krishna Valley Development Corporation gave what eventually amounted to 141 acres of land to Lavasa promoters at a ridiculously cheap rate. The Chairman of the KVDC then was Ajit Pawar, Sharad Pawar's nephew. Among the shareholders of the Lavasa project (until they withdrew in 2006, or was it 2004?) were his daughter Supriya Sule and her husband. How nice and cosy.

In fact land has always been Sharad Pawar's object of fascination. Long before Yeddyurappa knew about the possibilities of denotification, Sharad Pawar, as Maharashtra Chief Minister, denotified 285 plots in Bombay to be sold to industrial houses. Political insiders consider Pawar as the richest politician in India.

India has been of invaluable use to Sharad Pawar. Of what use is Sharad Pawar to India?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Who's protecting the guilty?

In both number and scope, the latest CBI raids on Raja-Radia targets are dramatic. If they mean a newfound determination on the part of decision-makers, it is even more dramatic. Not only were some three dozen raids simultaneously launched; the exercise went sensationally close to touching DMK boss Karunanidhi in person.

Raids on the premises of A. Raja and Niira Radia were daring enough, given their political and corporate connections. Raja was cornered from all sides. Not only his friends and business associates but even the university quarters of his brother were searched by CBI investigators. Among other surprises was the raid on the residence of Pradip Baijal. This is no ordinary IAS celebrity. He was Secretary, Disinvestment when the Disinvestment Ministry sold off government hotels in Mumbai in highly controversial circumstances. He was later chairman of the telecom regulatory authority playing a role in the 2G spectrum pricing mess. On retiring from that post, the gentleman straightaway joined Niira Radia as a paid staff member. Inconvenient coincidences on which the CBI will now have some useful information.

Significant as these raids are, they are dwarfed by others that can only be described as politically defiant. For the first time, Karunanidhi's most prominent wife, Rajathi Ammal, and their favoured daughter, Kanimozhi, came within the CBI's orbit. The two ladies had already figured in the published Radia conversations – and not in a flattering light. Now Rajathi Ammal's auditor had his premises raided. Also raided was a priest, Gaspar Raj, who ran Kanimozhi's favourite NGO, Tamil Maiyam.

Auditors are usually raided when there are dubious financial transactions. Rajathi Ammal's name was also dragged into a major land deal in central Chennai acquired by people close to her. As for NGOs, when the Reverend Gaspar Raj is also associated with activities related to the LTTE, a banned organisation, the altruistic aura of an NGO dims somewhat. That Kanimozhi was a strong supporter of Raja doesn't help either, now that Raja is seen as a bad egg even by important sections of the DMK leadership. She is isolated in the family and is seen as a political novice.

With the CBI looking into the account books and diaries of VIPs hitherto considered beyond its reach, corrective action can at last follow to stop India's drift into corruption-triggered decay. Ay, there's the rub. With politicians we can never be sure of their true intentions. All too often a show of determination on their part is no more than diversionary tactic, leaving the guilty ultimately unpunished.

Two factors make us wonder if the present investigations will be carried to their logical conclusion swiftly and decisively. First, why did the authorities wait so long to take action? For a year or perhaps two, the information brought out by the Radia tapes must have been available to government agencies. But nothing happened. Only when media exposure and public anger mounted, was the CBI told to get into hyperaction. Something suggests that there is someone somewhere who wants to avoid action and let things drift. That someone has to be at the very top.

Secondly, a lack of will has been a distinguishing feature of the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi dispensation every time corruption cases came into the open. That lack of will is still dominant as the top leadership's shillyshallying over Suresh Kalmadi shows. It has reached a stage where the CBI has complained to the Government that Kalmadi and Commonwealth Games secretary Bhanot are obstructing investigations and must therefore be removed from their posts. Why on earth are these hated men still in their posts? Who is their protector? Why? Again the protector has to be at the very top. Is there someone at that height who is desperate to hide something? Silence and the tactic of brazening it out brought the Prime Minister under the critical scrutiny of the Supreme Court. Sonia Gandhi and her unseen advisors will also be under public suspicion if this brazening-out continues.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Leaks: It's people vs. governments

If the arrest of WikiLeak's Julian Assange highlights the essential wickedness of governments, two related developments reassure us about the essential goodness of human beings. First, WikiLeaks will continue regardless. Secondly, there is a groundswell of public opinion in support of Assange. Never was the adversarial relationship between people and governments more sharply exposed.

Let us not forget that WikiLeaks did not reveal any classified information about national security like, say, America's strategic nuclear secrets. What it disclosed was the hypocrisy behind America's operations in Iraq/Afghanistan and the double-speak character of its diplomatic posturings. These embarrassed government leaders – mostly at a personal level. The enraged egoists of the US establishment turned vengeful against the messenger.

The establishment betrayed its own value system in the process. Official documents were leaked not by foreign spies or saboteurs or thieves, but by Americans brought up on the tradition of freedom, equality and human virtues. Some of them were outraged by the cruelties of American policies and the sadism of field troops. The man arrested for some critical leaks, Bradley Manning, said his motivation was the conviction that information must be free and available to the public.

Manning had hit the headlines even earlier. A soldier assigned to Iraq, he had come across US soldiers on a helicopter in Baghdad shooting a bunch of civilians dead. They did it for fun. The video of this savagery became public because a shocked Manning got it released. In jail since May, Manning, who is only 23, is a folk hero. There is a Bradley Manning Support Network (with the motto, “Exposing war crimes is not a crime”), a Bradley Manning Defence Fund, a vigorous internet campaign and public rallies demanding his release.

Another conscience-stricken whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, had leaked the Pentagon papers in the 1970s, official documents that revealed how the White House was lying about the Vietnam war. He had worked with the Government in Washington and in Vietnam and was privy to the goings-on. He too was arrested and tried but he was let off when illegal activities by the Government to trap him came to light.

Julian Assange will meet the same tribulations the earlier crusaders for truth faced. But he too has strong public support. Britain's most celebrated human rights lawyer cut short his holiday in Australia and rushed home to voluntarily assist Assange in his fight against extradition to Sweden. Wellknown public figures have grouped together to stand guarantee for him in his bail pleas. Credit card companies that barred donations to WikiLeaks were hacked by angry donors. Clearly WikiLeak's disclosures were appreciated by people in many countries as earnestly as governments disliked them.

It is a pity that democratic leaders who fight for human rights go into revenge mode when citizens ask them to correct their own record. There is in fact a streak of viciousness in the way the US authorities pursue its whistleblowers. The infamous break-in mafia in Richard Nixon's White House hatched an “Ellsberg neutralisation plan” meant to lace his food so that he would appear like a hopeless drug addict. Bradley Manning is projected as a homosexual with serious psychological problems. Julian Assange is arrested on charges of sexual misconduct. Ironically, the charges are filed by Sweden, a no-holds-barred culture where there is no such thing as misconduct in the area of sex. Call a man a dog before you hang him.

In this case, even when you hang them, they don't die. An Ellsberg may escape jail, a Manning may languish there. But the bid by sinners to hide their sins will never succeed. Even if Assange is taken away by a vindictive America, new forces will come up daring to reveal the secrets of those who should not have secrets. That reality applies to America, to Spectrum Raja, to the Tatas and to celebrity journalists. That's why we will have more WikiLeaks and more Niira Radia tapes. And so be it.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Is Congress courting disaster?

It looks like the planetary position is not favourable to the Congress these days. Its decision-makers are getting bad advice and their moves are alienating public opinion. At this rate disaster may befall the party and catch its eyeless leaders by surprise.

Two decisions in particular are astonishingly dumb: the ones regarding the Central Vigilance Commissioner and the Commonwealth Games fuhrer. As a man against whom a case was pending, P.J. Thomas should never have been appointed CVC in the first place. That’s commonsense because a Vigilance Commissioner should be not only impeccably clean but seen to be so. So why was he appointed? Was he deliberately planted there to serve some secret purpose?

That suspicion was strengthened when the Government took the decision to brazen out a Supreme Court snub Actually, the Court merely asked what every citizen was asking: How could a CVC under a CBI inquiry oversea spectrum corruption inquiries? A self-respecting CVC would have stepped down immediately. A Government leadership that respects public opinion would have encouraged him to go.

Instead, the Government saw to it that the CVC merely “recused” himself from supervising the 2G spectrum inquiry while he retained his post and stayed in his chair. What was the need to perform this circus act? There could only be two reasons. One, the Government was unable to find a single unblemished citizen in our country to fill the CVC post. Two, the Government had something to hide by retaining a tainted man distrusted by the public. By this act the Government itself lost the last shreds of people’s trust in its bonafides.

The Government’s loss of credibility was greater in the Kalmadi case. As the Commonwealth Games concluded, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi realised that Kalmadi was a widely hated figure: they ignored him at public functions and kept him out as they mixed with the medal winners. Why was this realisation not reflected in governmental action? Why was he removed only from a meaningless party post when, in fact, his position in sports organisations was what brought disgrace to the country and therefore those were the posts from which he should have been removed?

Indians squirmed as they watched this detested Indian gallivanting in Guangchow and Monaco and then walking into Parliament House as if he was the darling of the people. His aides were raided and arrested, all of them squealed on him, yet all that we had for too long a time was that the CBI was tightening its noose on him and that he would be nabbed soon. Maybe, but the rope he was given was so long that suspicions spread among the people. Was Kalmadi, like A. Raja, sharing his pickings with people high above?

Similar questions rise in older cases too. Why was Vilasrao Deshmukh, removed from chief ministership because of his insensitive handling of the Mumbai terror attack, accommodated straightaway in the Union Cabinet? Why is Ashok Chavan, in whose watch deplorable acts of omission and commission rocked Mumbai, still a visible presence in Congress leadership circles? For that matter, why was Buta Singh, forced to leave Bihar Governorship in ignominy, made Chairman of the Scheduled Castes/Tribes Commission where too he got involved in disgraceful corruption cases? Why is the other inexcusable gubernatorial offender, Syed Sibley Razi, still in office? He was at the centre of land scams in Jharkhand and his handpicked special-duty staff were raided and arrested, but he himself was only transferred to Assam where he could plunder pastures new.

The Congress leadership desists from punishing the crooks in its ranks. From Bofors days, it has shown a tendency to defend the indefensible. It should not forget what happened when it ignored public opinion, ignored even commonsense, and went on justifying Bofors. That one case of corruption was the reason why Congress was defeated in the 1989 election. There are many cases of corruption round its neck today. And the next election is not too far away.