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Home > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy

Govt must treat Rashtrapati Bhavan with respect

February 06, 2007

I was flying back from Mumbai to Delhi on 30 January, and Ashok Desai, the former attorney general of India, was in the next seat. I cannot quite recall how the conversation veered around that way but we got to talking about the recently announced Padma awards, and I happened to mention that his profession had certainly got its due this year, with Fali Nariman, Justice P N Bhagwati, and Justice Thomas all being nominated.

Mr Desai interrupted me at this point, asking me whether I meant that Justice K T Thomas figured in the list. I assured him I meant exactly that, on which he explained that the Mumbai newspapers had evidently published an incomplete list.

Having cut my teeth in journalism, with the Indian Express in Bombay (as the city was all those decades ago), I thought this was a bit strange. I know that the Mumbai papers pride themselves on getting the news out from Delhi just as quickly as the capital's own journals. So why didn't they mention Justice Thomas along with the other legal luminaries?

It turns out that the fault lay with the Government of India. For some weird reason, the list of national honours was released at the unearthly hour of 12:30 am, and it was botched up even so. Where the list normally offers a hint or two as to the profession of the man or woman being honoured, the citation against Justice Thomas's name simply read 'public service'. There was no mention of his long and distinguished career, culminating in the Supreme Court.

'Public service' is, these days at any rate, a euphemism for 'politics'. If you read that against someone's name, without any other qualification attached, a harassed newsdesk will invariably pass it off as some obscure politician and bury his name. And when it is well past midnight nobody has the time to scan roughly 130 names to see what service each rendered; the presses need to roll after all!

Technically, the list cannot be released without the formal consent of the President. But it is certainly not Professor Abdul Kalam's fault if ministers forget to send the list to Rashtrapati Bhavan until 8:30 pm! First, they were supposed to send it up at least 24 hours earlier.

Second, everyone in Delhi knows that the President has certain duties on January 25 -- namely recording his annual address to the nation and hosting a dinner for the head of State who shall be the chief guest at the parade the next morning. The file obviously had to wait until President Putin left the official banquet.

I have gone into the episode at some length because it exemplifies some of the chief failings of this government -- a certain indifference to institutions leading to slapdash execution. The Cabinet could have taken the position that the Padma awards are unnecessary and that it did not want to honour anyone in particular.

This, if I remember correctly, was the stand taken by Morarji Desai back when he was the prime minister. Alternatively, it could have taken the exercise seriously, perhaps even consulting the President. With all due respect to our Union HRD ministry, I am sure Professor Abdul Kalam is far more closely in touch with the educational and scientific communities.

Or, to put it another way, would the Cabinet have dared treat 10, Janpath with the same lack of respect demonstrated to Rashtrapati Bhavan? This, please remember, is not the first time that the Manmohan Singh ministry has sent off late night missives to the President. It did so, notoriously, when it faxed a recommendation that President's Rule be declared in Bihar when the possibility that Nitish Kumar might conjure a ministry.

(Come to think of it, President Kalam was then in Moscow on a State visit. Perhaps the conjunction of President Putin and President Kalam leads the current Union Cabinet to do silly things!)

The United Progressive Alliance has come up with a mixed performance, to put it politely. The stock market may be booming, but the suicide rate of depressed farmers is sickening and rising prices are pinching even the urban middle class. There has been some good work in enhancing the relationship with the United States, but that has not gone down well in some circles.

I am not going to lay all the blame for this at the doors of the government. There is nothing it could do to affect rising global crude oil prices, and at least some of the criticism in other areas is misplaced. I believe that we have very decent and able men in crucial posts such as the foreign office and the finance ministry.

But it is fair to say that the Manmohan Singh ministry needs all the friendly voices it can get. Insulting people by not taking the Padma awards seriously is not one of those exercises that will make friends. Although it can certainly influence people if not quite as intended!

If nothing else, dare one hope that the Manmohan Singh ministry loses the habit of sending late night missives to the President? That, surely, is not too much to ask!

T V R Shenoy