Saturday, March 12, 2011

Democracy: Threat from unseen forces?

For the first time in our history the viability of India's democracy is being doubted. This should cause serious worry because the distinguishing feature of India has always been, undoubtedly, its democracy -- noisy and chaotic, but firmly rooted and strong.

Now Mark Tully tells the BBC's listeners that India's democracy is not delivering. Deepak Parekh, among the most respected voices of Indian business, says that investors are going away. The Supreme Court asks bluntly what the hell is going on.

Indeed, what the hell is going on? It is tempting to answer: Corruption. But corruption per se is not the reason democracy's foundations are shaking. The real reason is the establishment's reluctance to take actions that would check corruption. Because of the reluctance the sweep of corruption spreads in ways that no country can afford to tolerate. India at the official level appears to tolerate it. That's the rub.

The problem is further complicated by the BJP's campaign to hold the Prime Minister responsible for all the manifestations of corruption. Even as political tactics this is bad because charges of corruption cannot easily stick to Manmohan Singh, an odd man out in a den of thieves. The presence of Manmohan Singh at the helm is an incidental reality which the wily men in the Congress are taking advantage of; it makes it easier for them to pretend that the Congress Government cannot possibly be an abettor of corruption when such a sattvic person is heading it.

That is deception. Take the case of that miserable P.J.Thomas. The panel that approved his appointment as Central Vigilance Commissioner consisted of Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram besides Sushma Swaraj. All attacks by the BJP following the Supreme Court's summary rejection of Thomas's appointment have been directed at the Prime Minister. What about the Home Minister's role?

Actually, it was Chidambaram who pushed Thomas's appointment through. He dismissed Sushma Swaraj's objections as “thoughtless allegations”. The allegation she made – that Thomas was an accused in a corruption case – was far from thoughtless. But Chidambaram fobbed it off with the false assertion that Thomas had been acquitted in that case. Why is Manmohan Singh made the principal target when his failure, at worst, was that he allowed his Home Minister to mislead him?

That of course does not excuse the Prime Minister. He has allowed too many lapses under his watch. Perhaps he is helpless. Perhaps his real – and unsolvable – problem is that he has to function as Number Two in the power structure. Which raises another vital question: Why is it that no one ever asks whether Number One has any role in the cases that eat into the vitals of our democratic system?

We all know that nothing happens in the Congress party or the Government without Sonia Gandhi's tacit approval. She is recognised as bigger than the Prime Minister. She is also known to have an inner coterie that wields power without responsibility. The result is that whenever something happens without a rational political explanation, the popular belief is that the unseen force of 10 Janpath is at work.

This was the general impression throughout the astonishing Quattrochi saga right up to when the CBI succeeded in closing the case. This is the impression when Suresh Kalmadi is gently treated, when the Hassan Ali case is soft-pedalled forcing the courts to chastise the Enforcement Directorate. B. Raman, former head of the counter-terrorism division of RAW and one of the sharpest strategic analysts in India today, wrote quite pointedly: “[Sonia Gandhi] has been conducting herself as a neutral disinterested bystander... If one has to find out the real truth behind the recent controversies, it is important to go into her role as it is to go into the role of others. The assumption that Sonia Gandhi can do no wrong has to be challenged by the public”.

Amen. A thousand times Amen.