|Rediff India Abroad Home | All the sections|
Is this Manmohan Singh's government?
June 15, 2004
Unflinching faith in the leadership of Sonia Gandhi is the lowest common denominator of the Congress party. It is about as non-negotiable as formal adherence to Marxism-Leninism among members of the CPI-M.
However, from this undifferentiated mass of Gandhi loyalists, there are two categories of people who have been appointed as ministers and functionaries of the Manmohan Singh government. The first, which includes the prime minister, are those who blend the criterion of either competence or social representation with loyalty to 10 Janpath. They can loosely be called the traditional Congressmen. The second category is made up of people whose faith in the party is merely an extension of their primary loyalty to the first family. They can best be described as the retainers.
Over the past week, as the new UPA government settled down to business, the country has witnessed two very distinctive styles of functioning. On the one hand there is the heartening spectacle of Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee upholding the principle of continuity and defending the conduct of the previous NDA government during the 1999 Kargil war. Likewise, in an attempt to boost the sagging morale of the capital market, Finance Minister P Chidambaram has made it a point to stress the new government's commitment to continuity in economic reforms.
At the same time, the retainers have not been idle. Topping the genuflection charts is Law Minister H R Bhardwaj who made it clear that as far as he is concerned, the Congress president, in her capacity of a deemed Cabinet minister heading the UPA and the committee on the implementation of the common minimum programme, has the right to examine all official files.
Following Bhardwaj's press interview and the loud protests from the opposition and eminent jurists, the traditional Congressmen seemed slightly exasperated. Why was it necessary, they asked in hushed whispers, for the law minister to go public on what is, after all, an informal arrangement? Their misgivings, it would seem, prevailed and it was left to the hapless Congress spokesman to suggest that Bhardwaj had been quouted 'out of context,' the graceless euphemism for suggesting he had shot his mouth off. 'We are correct politically and constitutionally in all we do,' asserted Anand Sharma.
Sharma was defending a bad case. Since the Manmohan Singh government was installed, there has been an unseemly rush among the retainers to show that real power rests in 10 Janpath and not in Race Course Road. We had the amazing spectacle of External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh informing the world that President Pervez Musharraf had invited Sonia Gandhi to visit Pakistan. Now, there is nothing wrong in Musharraf wanting to roll out the red carpet for the lady. During the previous regime, he had done the same for umpteen BJP and RSS functionaries, all of whom returned gushing inane platitudes. But for the external affairs minister to publicise the invitation has a different diplomatic connotation and Natwar Singh could not have been unaware of it.
Indeed, following this premeditated signal from South Block, Sonia has received invites from the king of Nepal and a rehabilitated Yasser Arafat. It has prompted the acerbic comment that maybe someday someone will invite the prime minister.
It is not the intention of this column to either undermine or ridicule the good professor who has quite a job trying to make the best of an impossible situation. The poor man was catapulted to the top job, but could not exercise the luxury of choosing his own council of ministers. The man who once berated an erstwhile leader for not being like Caesar's wife and above suspicion has had to tolerate the company of scoundrels, rogues, and goondas. More to the point, he has to defend their inclusion as ministers. A stickler for propriety, he had to look the other way when the heads of the intelligence services went to brief the deity of Janpath. An upholder of standards, he had to meekly acquiesce in the appointment of one of the family's erstwhile bodyguards to a gubernatorial post. And now, he has had to stomach Bhardwaj's sanction of remote control.
It is the beginning of a pattern. Inner voice or no inner voice, as far as the retainers are concerned, this is Sonia's government. The retainers with Oxbridge education have even called it the regency period -- an unfortunate analogy because it suggests Manmohan is playing regent to a half-crazed monarch. They will do everything in their power to remind the prime minister that he is not the real boss of the show. And these destructive sniper attacks will be sanctified by dynastic imperiousness. They are, after all, meant to show the prime minister his real place -- as a supplicant to the family. If he doesn't like it, he will be advised to take a long walk into the sunset.
India, it would seem, is headed for an exercise in constitutional improvisation. The issue is not the right of the Congress party to evolve its own procedures; at stake is the sanctity of institutions of government. As long as Sonia Gandhi does not enjoy any constitutional recognition, she has no right to enjoy an extra-constitutional hegemony conferred upon her by slavish retainers. The government has absolutely no moral authority to subject an entire country to such ridicule.
It is too early in the government's innings for protests to have any effect. However, protest we must. As a start, let me suggest that we shed the elaborate legal fiction of calling the UPA government the Manmohan Singh government. Honesty demands we rename it the Sonia government.