Monday, September 26, 2011

Look Beyond Chidambaram-Pranab Drama; The Real Drama is in Secrecy Games

There was panic in the Congress camp last week. Terror-stricken leaders were scampering about like chicken that had its feathers plucked. The apparent reason was that one of their central pillars, P. Chidambaram, was directly and officially named in the 2-G spectrum scandal that landed former minister A. Raja in jail.

Now Chidambaram is not exactly a popular mascot in Congress circles. An ambitious operator primarily concerned with his own power and prospects, he has more adversaries than admirers. So why did the party frantically rally around him when a Pranab Mukherjee note to the Prime Minister blamed him for inaction? The talk is that Congress leaders were scared that, if Chidambaram was caught, could Manmohan Singh be far behind.

Not that Manmohan Singh is all that beloved a leader either. It is known that he carries little weight in the Government. Coalition partners mock him. Congress ministers themselves often ignore him. So the likelihood of the Prime Minister getting tarred by the spectrum scam cannot be the real reason for the panic among Congress bigwigs.

Then what? Logically, and if we take Congress culture into account, the answer is embedded in another question: If Manmohan Singh is caught in an untenable situation, can Sonia Gandhi be far behind? Now there you have the stuff that shakes empires. The remotest likelihood of damage to the edifice of holiness built around Sonia Gandhi would make Congressmen scamper about like chicken with its head cut off.

Logic does put the Congress President in an uncomfortable position. Consider some recent developments. It now stands proved that three successive Sports Ministers had opposed the appointment of Suresh Kalmadi as the Commonwealth Games boss. The Prime Minister overruled all of them and personally cleared Kalmadi's appointment. Rather uncharacteristic of a play-safe Prime Minister. So what happened? It appears that Manmohan Singh overruled the entire governmental system in order to bow to a recommendation put up by a joint secretary in the Prime Minister's Office named Pulok Chatterji. And who, pray, is Pulok Chatterji? The IAS officer most closely identified as Sonia Gandhi's facilitator. Which means that the Kalmadi buck actually stopped at Sonia Gandhi's desk.

Here's another conundrum of our times. Suresh Kalmadi is in jail for taking money. Amar Singh is in jail for giving money. The conundrum is why would Amar Singh who was never a member of the Congress give money to buy votes in Parliament so that the Congress government could survive? Was he a fool to spend his money to let someone else benefit? That lends weight to Ram Jethmalani's open statement in the Supreme Court that the money displayed in Parliament was paid not by Amar Singh but by Ahmad Patel. And who, pray, is Ahmed Patel? Sonia Gandhi's political secretary. Where does the buck stop this time?

Speculation and all kinds of gossip flourish around Sonia Gandhi thanks to her own addiction to secrecy. The contrived drama about her surgery in America could not have happened in any other democracy. She controls the destiny of every India but no Indian has the right to know whether she is in a condition to do so. Citizens are only entitled to dry titbits dished out by Congress spokesmen trained not to speak a word beyond what they are told.

They have not even told us what her ailment is. How then do we believe what they say? How do we know that she is really back in India? How do we know that she is cured when curing is rare in cancer cases? Photographs are strictly no-no, so how can we not believe that she has lost hair through chemotherapy? By hiding facts, they feed rumours. This is not privacy. This is secrecy. Evidently Congressmen think that there are things about their ruling dynasty that must remain shrouded in secrecy. That is why they panic at the merest sign of a crack in the wall of secrecy. Unfortunately history shows us that walls crumble some day, somehow.

Monday, September 19, 2011

We have Several Million 'Clean' Leaders; Our Unclean System Keeps Them Out

Here's a brand new idea aired by our brand new messiah. All clean and non-corrupt politicians must leave their political parties and come together to form a new independent party, says Anna Hazare. It sounds like an old idea. Actually the old idea is that there's need for a new political party. That the good guys in existing parties should quit and form this independent party is a new take.

This sounds more practical than the idea of a bunch of amateurs forming a party. That was tried several times in recent years. Mumbai's Professionals Party, formed in 2007, could not win a seat in 2009 although the public mood was against the political class following the terrorist attack a year earlier. Lok Paritran, floated by highly qualified Indian Institute of Technology luminaries fielded candidates from all 28 constituencies in urban Bangalore in 2006, on the assumption that the enlightened voters of India's premier IT city were ready to make a statement in favour of good governance. All 28 lost. Success went to those who had unaccounted money to spend and the backing of important segments of society such as the real estate mafia and the mining robber barons.

Clearly elections in our country cannot be won merely on the basis of qualifications. “Know-how” is the decisive factor. That is why those who have been at the game and know the ropes can, if only they come out of their existing parties, provide the infrastructural strength a new party needs to win elections.

But despite its apparent practicality, the Hazare idea is condemned to instant death. First, “clean and non-corrupt” politicians will not be privy to the “know-how” aforementioned and therefore will be as ineffective as the candidates of the Professionals Party and Lok Paritran. Secondly, existing parties have so few “clean and non-corrupt” leaders that even if all of them came out of their parent organisations, there won't be enough people to form a cabinet.

Take a quick look. Of the 78 members of the Manmohan Singh cabinet, how many would you readily include in a clean-and-non-corrupt list. Count on your finger tips – A.K. Antony, Jairam Ramesh, Salman Khurshid, Ajay Maken and may be a couple of youngsters like Sachin Pilot. That's it. From the old Vajpayee cabinet, the picking is even less. Perhaps, Yashwant Sinha, Suresh Prabhu, Arun Jaitley. That combined total is less than ten when you need 70 to 80 patriots to form a cabinet.
(Of course, we have to completely rule out the alphabet soup of our parties – the BSP, AGP, JTC, INLD, JKNPP, JD(U), JD(S), JMM, LJSP, MAJ, RJD and some 40 others).

It is wonderful to think of a cabinet of decent citizens – of whom we have many millions. Even Manmohan Singh would be a worthy member if he is de-linked from remote controls. Imagine him surrounded by Aruna Roy and Santosh Hegde, by Binayak Sen, Prashant Bhushan, Jean Dreze, Sunita Narain, by Narayan Murthy, H.D.Parekh, Chanda Kochhar, Justice J.N.Verma, Amartya Sen, even Vikram Pandit, Indra Nooyi and Sam Pitroda.All of them will be willing to serve their country, but none of them will get elected. So, obviously, the problem is with the system of elections.

Siddaramaiah, Congress Legislative Party leader in Karnataka, has said that the next election will be his last because fighting an election has become too costly for him to afford. This is a leader who, if he is projected as the Congress's chief ministerial candidate and given a supporting cast of a dozen young leaders, can lead the Congress to victory in the next round because he commands credibility and public opinion is disgusted with the Yeddyurappa party. But the Congress will not do that because it is stuck in the old ways of manipulation and intrigue – a game at which the Karnataka BJP is far superior. So much for non-corrupt politicians and a new independent party. Dreaming is our only right.

Monday, September 12, 2011

What about breaching people's privilege? Dirty tricks experts blunder again.

Can the Government of India's dirty tricks department never get it right? It had committed serial blunders while handling the Anna Hazare phenomenon. The Government had been embarrassed all along the way. Finally after Parliament accepted Hazare's main demands, there was a feeling that wisdom would prevail.

But the plotters are at it again. As crudely as ever, they have initiated proceedings against the leading members of the Hazare team on one charge or another. Bhushan, Kejriwal and Bedi have been slapped with breach of parliamentary privilege. Kejriwal, a former Income Tax official, has been served with a notice on disputed arrears as well.

Even if the charges were all proper and bonafide, commonsense should have told the Government's intriguers that targetting all three at once was a mug's game. In this case, the charges themselves are quite obviously trumped up and will strike citizens as such. Instead of discrediting the activists, the dumb move will further discredit the Government.

If Kejriwal broke his service rules, why is action taken only now? If he “amassed crores” through his non-government organisation, why is legal action not taken against him, instead of leaving it to Congress's official loose cannon Digvijay Singh to make yet another allegation out of it. (This is the man who said Suresh Kalmadi was innocent). Clearly the dirtytrickwallahs are engaged in a harassment campaign, an exercise in vindictiveness, at a time when the Government should be trying to create trust, not confrontation. Hazare is right when he says that sending “wrong signals” now can well lead to unrest in the country.

The breach of privilege charge in particular is preposterous and counter-productive. MPs are criticised as a class not just by social activists but by people at large. Politicians are also attacked as a class. It is no use saying that all MPs and all politicians are not bad. Of course they are not. But the fact remains that the collective reputation of politicians and MPs today is at its lowest point since independence. They are seen by the people as a class and detested as a class.

Parliament must earn fame before it can be defamed. The recent Murdoch case of illegal phone hacking gave us an opportunity to see how the British Parliament earns its stature and respect. Members could speak without fear of being stopped by their opponents. Respect to the Chair was paramount. When the Speaker stood up, it was a signal for all members to sit down. Order prevailed at all times.

In our Parliament order is the rarest of rare occurrence. We recently saw Sushma Swaraj, perceived to be a responsible leader, declaring that her party would decide each day whether Parliament should be allowed to function or not. The Speaker's pleas for order are uproariously ignored. The well of the House sees more action than the benches. All this on top of the scandals, be it cash for votes or cash for questions. What privilege are we talking about?

This notion of “elected representatives” is a bit exaggerated these days. We are a country where Manmohan Singh cannot get elected, but Pappu Yadav can – repeatedly. Besides, this is an inopportune time to talk about elected representatives when some prominent ones are in jail. Former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda has been going from Tihar to Parliament House to serve the country. The ever-elected representative of Bellary's toiling masses, a man used to ignoring even court summonses, is suddenly behind bars.

Rather, this is an opportune time to talk about people's privileges. Every time MPs shout one another down, every time the House is adjourned because of unruly behaviour by members, Parliament is committing breach of privilege of citizens. Intolerance of citicism is itself a breach of democracy. What this misplaced brouhaha in the name of Parliament has proved is that the privilege issue is, as Aruna Roy put it, “fundamentally flawed”. Cleanse the system before talking about privilege.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Are sports bodies also corrupt from head to toe? Who's afraid of RTI?

Ram Jethmalani was more astute than Lord Acton. He put things in current perspective when he said: “ Power corrupts, and the fear of losing power corrupts absolutely”. That explains many of the abnormalities of our seemingly normal politicians.

The presumed power of a mere party spokesman went to the head of that unfortunate Congress factotum called Manish Tiwari. In the Congress especially it is a survival necessity to be more loyal than the King. So, the robot in Tiwari went for Anna Hazare's jugular. The Gandhian was corrupt from head to toe, the robot said. The world laughed at him. Even the Congress frowned on him in due course. Whereupon the Robocop apologised to the Anna and later announced he was recusing himself from the Lok Pal Bill parliamentary committee. He then recused himself from the recusal. Unstable fellow. Actually he should recuse himself from public life. Which of course he won't do because the fear of losing power corrupts people from head to toe.

More puzzling is the fear among politicians of losing power in sports bodies. One can understand why Jagdish Tytler wants to cling on to the presidentship of the Judo Federation. The party has given him no post, not even an election ticket, so Judo is all that he can possibly cling on to.

But what about Vidya Stokes, head of the Hockey Federation? She is 84. And what about V.K.Malhotra, head of Archery Association, who is just one year short of 80? And what about V.K.Verma, who has been heading the Badminton Association for 13 years? He is known as an obstructionist to whom his own authority is what matters. Badminton champion Jwala Gutta has had the guts to speak out, so we have an idea of the harm this man does to badminton.

Cricket is the messiest of them all. Sure, it makes more money than any other game, so politicians are attracted to it like ants are to honey. But do the Pawars of politics still want money? More likely, they just want to have the power to command such a money-spinner. It certainly promotes exemplary unity among politicians of different colours. Look at the unamimity of views among Congressman Vilasrao Deshmukh, BJP man Arun Jaitley, NCP man Sharad Pawar and National Conference man Farook Abdullah. If only they were half as dedicated to the affairs of the country!

The National Sports Development Bill had sought to put some order into this topsy-turvey world of sports management. But self-seekers and manipulators closed ranks to keep it out of the Cabinet's approval. Sports Minister Ajay Maken had shown imagination and guts to draw up the bill. It is a pity that his progressive proposals did not get the attention they deserved.

Fortunately Maken is effective in articulating his case. He ridiculed the criticism that the Government was trying to control sports. Quite the contrary. The crux of the proposal is that 25 percent of the seats in the executive boards of sports organisations should go to sportspersons – elected by themselves, not nominated by the Government. This is an eminently sensible reform.

What has made sports politicians most angry is the proposal that organisations like the Board of Control for Cricket should be subject to the Right to Information Act. Most citizens perhaps did not know – until Maken mentioned it – that the BCCI had acquired stadium land in Delhi and Dharmasala on terms unknown to the public. Apparently, the world's richest cricket organisation also gets concessions from the Government on things like taxes.

Don't the people have a right to know about these? The Sports Ministry says that there must be transparency in these matters and sports organisations must be accountable in their functioning to the citizens of India. How can anyone object to this? Those sports bodies who object to RTI are obviously involved in activities they want to hide. They must be held to account like Suresh Kalmadi, belatedly, was.