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Is 'Saheb' watching his ministers?

September 01, 2014 15:04 IST

Big brother watching

'The purported jitters of the ministers under Modi, the intriguing part is that the stories churned out by the rumour mill have not so far been denied. For aught I know, they may not be true. Or, if true, all that Modi intended was to subject his ministers to a process of grooming to ensure that all of them adhere to a uniform code of propriety, discernment and credibility,' says the distinguished civil servant B S Raghavan.

I won't be surprised if ministers in the Modi Cabinet are in jitters. Stories are doing the rounds about how Modi gave two of his ministers the shock of their lives.

I can't vouch for the exact way it all happened. But putting two and two together and making it twenty two, as much of the print, electronic and social media have done, it went somewhat like this: One minister was having a fun time with a mighty business magnate when he received a call from Modi to cut the cackle and get back to work.

The other was jubilantly going on a foreign jaunt and was driving to the airport in colourful jeans, when he too got a jolt in the form of a call from Modi who asked him to get respectably dressed and quit playing the clown.

Since then, it might well be that ministers are tip-toeing, instead of 'tripping it on the light fantastic toe', and constantly stealing a glance over their shoulders to see if they are followed by omniscient Modi.

Well, putting banter aside, it should be recognised, and it is a matter of established record, that paranoia of people at the top in governments in India and abroad is serious business.

It is lonely up there making the occupant extremely insecure haunted by fears of the ground being cut from under his feet. Most presidents and prime ministers suffer from this and adopt a variety of ways of keeping tabs on the doings of their aides by whatever name called.

President Richard Nixon was notorious for this and it made him go to the extent of breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic Party. He also put critics of his whether in the media or politics under some sort of surveillance.

In Britain, Margaret Thatcher was reportedly prone to breathe down the backs of civil servants and ministers to keep them in line.

In India, with marked disregard of scruples and values that ought to govern conduct in public life, the CM or PM is obsessed with the thought that s/he cannot afford to let her/his guard down on any account. But few before Indira Gandhi carried their insecurity to levels she did.

The Shah Commission set up to inquire into the excesses of the Emergency of 1975-1977 contains a carefully documented account of the surveillance under which senior ministers like Jagjivan Ram were kept by the Intelligence Bureau on cue from her from even before the Emergency.

In fact, that was the period when not only prominent leaders of the Opposition but loyalists of the Congress and even a person like P N Haksar, the principal secretary to the PM, became the targets of dossiers by the IB and CBI, often tailor-made to suit the vendettas carried out by the likes of Sanjay Gandhi and R K Dhawan.

Generally, the chief of the intelligence agency is closest to the top political boss, meeting him daily to brief him on not only matters of national security, but who was up to what in varies outfits, political parties (including his own) and the dovecotes of the government.

The political boss can never know enough of what is afoot in his own or other parties, who are getting together with whom too frequently, what transpires between them and so on. For this the snoopers do not depend on bugs alone, such as were allegedly found in then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee's office chamber, or in Nitin Gadkari's home.

The purpose can be equally served by a smart cook, bearer, servant, driver, gardener, attendant or assistant who may all in fact be the plants of the snooping agencies reporting to them regularly on the goings-on.

When I was in charge of political and security policy planning in the home ministry during 1961-1969, from my dealings with senior operatives of intelligence agencies and my handling of the issues arising from their reports, I knew that top bosses avidly briefed themselves with the personal foibles and frailties of political colleagues and opponents since that gave them the leverage to manipulate them to their advantage.

Indeed, those who did this to the maximum became their hot favourites.

In this matter, Indira Gandhi went one step further and used various officials and ministers to prise out information on each other, regardless of rank or position. Thus, when I was chief secretary, Tripura, a good part of my meetings with her was devoted to my assessment of the governor, the CM and the erstwhile maharani who was dabbling in politics. The juicier the information, the better she liked it!

My having the police and the intelligence setup under me as chief secretary did not save me from my CM finding out from his own point man in the state intelligence set-up where I was, what I was doing, and whom I was meeting; for on many occasions, when I was with someone, even if he be a minister whose loyalty to him in his eyes was suspect, he used to come on the line to ask me even while the meeting was going on what it was about, just to show how well he kept my activities under scrutiny.

The only exceptions to these tendencies were Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Nehru was a libertarian and both in that capacity and as the victim of the colonial oppression himself, he viewed the IB with disdain and distrust.

He kept it under a tight leash and didn't allow it to do anything more than collecting solid, relevant intelligence bearing directly and genuinely on national security. He was against the fetish of secrecy and very often personally downgraded the classification of intelligence reports.

He never stooped to using intelligence and investigative agencies to bring critics and opponents to heel or with ulterior political motives. Lal Bahadur Shastri was by nature friendly and trusting, and any sort of covert machination was anathema to him.

Coming back to the purported jitters of the ministers under Modi, the intriguing part is that the stories churned out by the rumour mill have not so far been denied. For aught I know, they may not be true. Or, if true, all that Modi intended was to subject his ministers to a process of grooming to ensure that all of them adhere to a uniform code of propriety, discernment and credibility and rise to the same level of sophistication and winsomeness as is seen in politicians and ministers of advanced industrial countries. So, ministers, relax!

B S Raghavan