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September 27, 1999

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E-Mail this column to a friend Varsha Bhosle

To the power of one

In retrospect, I'm against the Law Commission's suggestion that a legislature should have a full five-year term. The people must reserve the right to change a government at any time if it has failed to deliver: That is the foundation of Democracy. That the *people* have had zero to do with the premature pulling down of various governments, is another matter altogether. Moreover, campaign time is when the hidden skeletons of parties are wrested out for display by rivals -- and it's when people take note of them. That nobody does anything about dismantling the skeletons once a government's been elected, is another matter altogether.

The "matter," of course, is the system. And I don't have any solutions for it. For its constancy hinges on how aware the people are of their rights, and if they are willing -- and not just able -- to battle for them. Folks say, that's because of the paucity in education. I think, not; education is no barrier to imbecility and sloth. The educated don't even exercise their right to vote as much as the unlettered masses. Destitute villagers at least have bona fide reasons for such reluctance, but the urban well-to-do -- some of whom may even be educated -- have none. What they do have is the wherewithal to spin rationales for staying home. Too, they are the first to condemn a government which they did not bother to vote for or against.

So we come to that indefinable thing called "character." Simply put, Indians, as a nation, lack one. Maybe because of the Gandhian interpretation of ahimsa forced down our gullet, maybe because of centuries of servitude -- we just aren't keen on fighting for our rights, and we have no inkling of self-esteem. It's this lack that causes sinister candidates to be elected. It's this dearth which makes the majority community ashamed of advancing its religion. It's this need that's at the base of making an Italian of doubtful integrity acceptable as prime minister.

A personification of this lack is Dr Karan Singh. Educated, wealthy, royal, cultured -- and with no shred of dignity. The man who freely said, "If Europe can have a Christian Democratic Party, why cannot we have a Hindu Democratic Party?", just as easily claims to have been misquoted three months later. The man who was part of the Virat Hindu Sammelan, now calls the BJP a "Hindu fundamentalist party." The man who said, "This time also it [Congress] wanted to enter the corridors of power but failed because it wanted to go all alone," now says, "The Congress had every right to topple an unstable minority government." So, no; illiteracy isn't the root of Indian evil. What with all these Singhs and Scindias around, we needn't wonder why Hindustan was enslaved for centuries.

But I meandered: Karan Singh is not consequential enough to be flavour of the week. What gets my goat is the mental lassitude of the people. Specifically, in the case of the Indira Gandhi National Centre of Art trust fraud. Contrary to popular belief -- and I know this is so because many have said as much to me -- the BJP did not unearth the racket for electioneering purposes. It is entirely Murli Manohar Joshi's baby, and it was taken up by him in mid-1998 -- two months after he was anointed minister for human resources and development.

At the time, the grapevine said that Dr Joshi had sent a secret missive to Attorney General Soli Sorabjee to look into the Shroud's life trusteeship of what is the wealthiest cultural institution in the country. Mr Sorabjee opined that amendments made to IGNCA's original deed -- carried out by former HRD minister and faithful darbaari Madhav Scindia on May 18, 1995 -- are legally untenable. The new deed was approved within a fortnight, and amendment and approval were clandestine: In February 1996, IGNCA simply presented a bewildered government with the fait accompli.

Under the GoI Transaction of Business Rules, 1961, since the original deed was approved by the Cabinet, any alteration also required Cabinet approval. Any motion to deprive the government of the power to appoint and give prior approval to amendments, amounted to removing essential features of the trust -- the checks and balances. These cannot be revoked by amendments. Therefore, the amendments are held to be invalid.

To encapsulate -- and to drill into thick heads: As per the original trust deed gazetted on March 19, 1987, the IGNCA's trustees were to have 10-year terms. One-third of the trustees were to have retired when their terms ended in 1997. This was averted by the amendments. One provided for Sonia, Narasimha Rao, R Venkataraman, Pupul Jayakar, H Y Sharada Prasad, and Kapila Vatsyayan to become trustees for life. The extraordinary powers of these trustees included the ability to amend the original deed without permission of the government, and to eliminate the President of India's authority to order a review of IGNCA's affairs.

Another modification provided that any three of the life trustees could appoint more 'ex-officio' and 'co-opted trustees.' The HRD minister was reduced from ex-officio chairman to ex-officio member, and, Manmohan Singh, P N Haksar, Ram Niwas Mirdha and S Varadarajan became co-opted trustees. Next, the provision that empowered the President of India to set up a Review Committee, whose recommendations were to be binding on the trust, was simply dropped. Next, Sonia was made lifetime president of the board. More interestingly, the former director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, M C Joshi -- the dweeb who suppressed the report of excavations in Ayodhya -- was made member-secretary.

The government -- and only the government -- had provided IGNCA with a corpus fund of Rs 50 crore and an additional Rs 84 crore for a new building. The *interest* from the corpus alone is more than the annual budgets of the three national akademis. Apart from the fund, and a commitment from the HRD ministry for a further Rs 150 crore, the trust's most valuable asset is 23 acres of prime land in Delhi, valued at over Rs 5,000 crore. But, far more momentous is its heritage property -- priceless antiques, rare manuscripts, and folk art forms preserved on microfilm. Leave alone monitor, government officials have no clue about the condition and ownership status of these assets.

A detour to which you must give serious thought: In May 1997, I'd written: "It seems that the hounds are sniffing at Sonia Gandhi's 17 visits to Bangkok in the last twelve months -- the most recent one being around the time of Mr Deve Gowda's confidence-motion in the Lok Sabha. It is unlikely that Madam Gandhi was on a goodwill visit to improve Indo-Thai relations. A little bird tells me that the trips have something to do with antiques."

By mid-August 1998, Dr Joshi had unsheathed his sword: He informed Parliament that the government must have a role in appointing IGNCA's trustees. By October, the HRD ministry had asked the Comptroller and Auditor General to scrutinise its accounts (since inception, the trust had its accounts audited by a private CA, but maintains that the CAG had conducted an audit up to March 1997). The ministry wanted a justification for the Rs 38 crore of the building fund which was yet to be spent.

When the story hit the papers, one bureaucrat fumed, "When we gave IGNCA a corpus of Rs 100 crore, we never intended that it would be given to an oligarchy." The defence from IGNCA was mind-boggling, to say the least: "Why is the government so perturbed? None of these trustees can live forever, can they?... We may be guilty of over-staffing, but we are not guilty of defalcation. Sure, we have a lot of typists who can't even type, but that is not corruption." Public money...

As for the "lifetime" amendment, IGNCA administrators said they did it only to "ensure continuity." Excuses ranged from "policy changes would disrupt long-drawn research projects," to "trustees either had a scholarly background or took a keen interest in running the trust." Unfortunately, the grapevine tattled that Pupul Jayakar -- the late culture-maharani whose integrity hasn't been doubted, at least, not yet -- had resigned from the board because she was shocked by the Shah Bano-case-like swift amendment.

However, secularists centred on the fundies' aversion to the Nehru dynasty, and there was an angry outcry: Artistic freedom is being threatened! The BJP is trying to push through its cultural agenda! The fact that the amendments enabled the bahu to dominate the Centre and control the country's cultural purse-strings, was lost in the "secular" uproar. That three of the lifetime trustees are Congresswallahs, made no difference to the chatterati...

The strange thing is that IGNCA had been bad news: A strike had crippled the centre for quite some time, and there were reports of sexual harassment of its women employees, one of whom tried to commit suicide on the premises (the National Commission for Women espoused one such case). Then, it came under a cloud for patronising questionable scholars of foreign lineage. Stranger still, the IGNCA employees union, led by CPI-M MP Suresh Kurup, had demanded that the government take over the trust since it's public property and shouldn't be monopolised as somebody's personal property. The pinkos were wise to it! But, that made no difference to the "educated" chatterati, either.

Nor did the record of the Congress' commitment to retaining control over influential institutions: N D Tiwari was chairman of The Nehru Memorial Library and Museum; today, Scholar Sonia heads it. S R Bommai, as HRD minister, ensured that the chairmen of the Indian Council for Historical Research and the Indian Council for Social Science Research were his men from Karnataka. And what to say about the ICHR's all-Nehruvian 18 members? The Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal had Arjun Singh and bureaucrat Ashok Vajpeyi as life trustees (the BJP amended the act and booted them out). And the doubly blessed Rajiv Gandhi Foundation still refuses to have its accounts audited...

But that's not the point at all. Remember my wondering, "Why was the government brought down at that point of time? What was the urgency? Whatever the intrigue, it's been set in motion since before January"? Perhaps this is the answer: On November 3, the HRD ministry wrote to the IGNCA about its intentions. The letter went unanswered. That is, on paper. When did "Hindu atrocities" on Christians begin...? The cabal to dislodge the government was set in motion. It explain the haste, the desperate lies outside Rashtrapati Bhavan, and the insistence on single-party rule. To retain the power of one.

In June, the government filed an affidavit in the Delhi hich Court for a takeover of the trust. And the urban development ministry sent an eviction notice to IGNCA employees who occupy 15 flats in Delhi's Asiad Games Village -- flats meant for scholars from all over India, but occupied by staff. It also demanded the rent -- unpaid for the past five years...

The nuke, the cleansing of ICHR of pinkos, the shutting down of 8 public sector undertakings, the repeal of the urban land ceiling law, the dismantling of the administered pricing regime in petroleum... You see the manthan in just 13 months? In the face of a Congress-inclined bureaucracy...? But IGNCA was a personal attack: It hit at the power of one. Vajpayee had to go.

We, the people, have the right to question why the Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda and Gujral governments turned a blind eye to the amendment. We have a right to dispute the Shroud's contribution to art and culture. We have the right to seize control. We have to take a stand. For, we haven't been put here for abnegating ourselves to the power of one.

Fixed tenure politics

Varsha Bhosle

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