November 27, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Maneka Gandhi

Minister of State for Statistics and Programme Implementation Maneka Gandhi is more upset than angry at being shunted out of the culture ministry. Was it Congress president and sister-in-law Sonia Gandhi who engineered her exit? Sonia Gandhi was apparently upset with Maneka's investigations into institutions like the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts. Earlier chairperson of the IGNCA, Sonia Gandhi is now one of its seven executive members.

In a conversation with Ramesh Menon, Maneka Gandhi says all she was trying to do was prevent the 'looting of the country'. She does not name Sonia Gandhi, but spills enough details to send tremors through both the government and the opposition. Excerpts:

Why did you recommend a CBI inquiry into the running of the IGNCA?

The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts had been severely indicted by the Comptroller and Auditor General. All its fiscal misappropriations had been ignored. In fact, the main person on the staff who was indicted was promoted and two flats were given to him! I went into enormous detail, took depositions from hundreds of people, had an independent inquiry conducted by my own chief controller of accounts. And then I recommended it. Bofors was only about Rs 64 crore. This is way ahead of that.

You have said crores of rupees were being wasted. Where? And who were responsible?

In this huge culture ministry that includes all the museums and libraries, there is not a single institution that one can say is working.

India should have ideally had many institutions. For instance, we should have had a national repository of manuscripts, a Jain manuscript mission, an encyclopaedia of the Indian arts, a museum on dance, a museum on photography, or a museum on the interaction of India with other civilizations. But none of these exist. Nor have we thought of it as essential. Instead, we had a Rs 12,000 crore museum coming up on foreign aircraft!

The Asiatic Society, which is given Rs 4.6 crore a year to buy books, has had no members, no director, no librarian and no audits for 50 years!

The National Repository of Books, which by law has to receive four copies of every book printed in India, has not received one book in 20 years, but has a staff of 80 people.

The Cultural Council of Rural Training with a huge building and millions of rupees was meant to be an education centre for teachers on culture. Instead, it degenerated into a printing press for political posters. Twenty-eight science museums, on which millions of rupees had been spent, only had swings and slides in them.

What was it that was most appalling?

Wherever I looked, it was frightening. I am a systems person. I don't mind inefficiency because that can be geared up as long as the vision exists -- but this ministry was really unbelievable in its grand and complete misuse of public funds. All it had been doing for the last 20 years was funding and obliging politicians.

The worst example was the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, which had mysteriously been given 23 acres without even a blueprint of what it intended to do with the land! It got six hundred crores, a building which was built for 150 crores, a staff of 3,000 which included less than 10 professors, and sprawling houses for everyone to live in.

When the Congress government was about to fall, the IGNCA executive called an emergency meeting and, without informing the president or the government, made themselves life trustees.

No original work was done. The money has been squandered -- 38 lakh rupees were spent, for instance, on filming documents on Russian military history. Betacam projectors were bought and never used. Money was taken for translations that never took place.

"Original books" turned out to be copies of those already in the market in other countries. But there were cars for each professor. It had a hugely expensive magazine, which only had pictures of staff shaking hands with VIPs.

Its exhibition halls were rented out to friends and relatives free for months when the going rate was 15,000 a day. It had offices all over India that had no work... I could go on...

Why should the government be embarrassed if you were investigating certain deals and happenings that are siphoning off public money?

No idea.

This money belongs to India. We as a government are service providers. So we should provide the best possible service we can. A country like India has enormous wealth. Why should we let our treasures be looted? Why should we let museums have no inventory? Why should things that can be made in India be bought at 10 times the price from France? The government should certainly not be embarrassed because it came to power on the slogan of nationalism.

All the rot that has happened before should be exposed and dealt with. We can then perhaps recover many things, money and set the systems right.

Do you think Sonia Gandhi pressurised the PM to take the culture portfolio from you?

No idea.

All I know is that as time went on, even in this short space of three months, many people who had free access for many years -- to taking what they wanted, including old letters of national leaders, statues, manuscripts, idols, etc -- became increasingly nervous. Many people who had never let their institutions be audited properly got very cross.

Many circles in government and the opposition suspect that Sonia must have had a hand in it...

That is for everyone to speculate.

Why did you recommend the removal of Sonia Gandhi as chairperson of the Nehru Memorial Library and of other Congress politicians, including Manmohan Singh and Rafiq Zakaria, as members of the library?

For the first time in 50 years the library membership was opened to non-politicians. I believe strongly that intellectuals and people who know their books and have a strong, non-vested pride in their country, its literature and social history should be put on boards like this.

We also discovered a lateral and systematic leakage of money between a government trust that was getting over 4 crores yearly and a private trust in the same place that had the same name.

How did you find the culture portfolio?

At the risk of being boring, let me explain to you what I mean by culture. In Hindi, it has been narrowly translated as sanskriti -- art, dance and music. But culture has to have a much broader view: what do you eat, what kind of exports do you do, what face do you wish to present of your country to the world, what do you expect of your broadcasters, even what heroes do you celebrate... more like the French minister of culture.

But in India, over the years, the culture ministry has become increasingly confined to grace and favour. Financial support is important to individuals. But it should have been thought out why huge monies should be given to rich individuals like Harivansh Rai Bachchan for no reason at all. Or dance scholarships to eight-year-olds in a country where all young girls learn dancing at that age. Or for celebrations of completely obscure people who are politically connected.

Dozens of paintings of the same individuals are being bought again and again while paintings officially declared national treasures were allowed to be auctioned without the government acquiring them.

You were removed immediately after Atal Bihari Vajpayee met Sonia Gandhi to discuss the winter session proceedings. Do you think there was some deal struck where she sought your removal?

Who knows? But if my removal resulted in the opposition allowing the government to move bills in Parliament smoothly, then it is a small price to pay. I only hope that the inquiries into all these scams will continue.

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