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Home > India > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy

Our minister for youth affairs is 71!

April 09, 2008

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How do you define 'youth'? The median age of our nation is 24.8, and those below fifteen are 31.8 per cent of the population. China, our nearest neighbour, has a median age of 33.2 and only 20.4 per cent of its people are under fifteen. Whichever way you look at it India is a very young nation, something known to Dr Manmohan Singh, who made his living by dabbling in statistics.

So whom does our scholarly prime minister appoint as minister for youth affairs and sports? A man who faces 72 candles on the birthday cake two months from today! Can you think of anything sillier?

Actually, 'silly' is not the word for this particular appointment; I think 'dangerous' might be the better choice of word. Because the man in question is none other than that former Chief Election Commissioner Dr M S Gill, and in appointing him the prime minister has crossed a line.

It is impossible in a parliamentary system to sever the links between the executive and the legislative wings of the state. Knowing this, the makers of the Constitution set up checks, so that parliamentary democracy would not turn into executive tyranny.

Chief among these, of course, is the higher judiciary (not just the Supreme Court but the high courts too), which were given a large measure of immunity from the whims of the executive. But that was not all, certain other institutions were created to exercise a supervisory role over the government. These include the Election Commission and the office of the Comptroller & Auditor General.

We take it for granted that legislators and ministers are inherently biased, that is part and parcel of electoral democracy. But we also take it for granted that their Lordships and the election commissioners are painfully scrupulous. We may grumble at their decisions but we also accept that they were made in absolute good faith.

That faith has been shaken in the past decade. In 1997, former Chief Election Commissioner T N Seshan stood for the presidency with the backing of the Shiv Sena. In 1999, he crossed the floor, happily taking a Congress ticket to stand from the Gandhinagar Lok Sabha seat against L K Advani.

I suppose taking Bal Thackeray's blessings in 1997 and then accepting Sonia Gandhi as the supremo in 1999 proves that T N Seshan is completely without prejudice about ideology! But was this really expected of the man who spoke so much on the Model Code of Conduct?

T N Seshan crossed a line; his successor has gone so far that the line is totally invisible. M S Gill happily accepted a Congress ticket to stand from Punjab for the Rajya Sabha. Now he has gone farther down that path, cheerfully accepting a post as minister. Life begins at forty but ministerial life starts at 71, right minister?

What exactly has M S Gill gained? The right to a ministerial bungalow? A few cars with flashing red lights? A score of assistants? But will any of it carry a fraction of the respect he commanded from 1996 to 2001?

We trusted M S Gill to be above politics and he turned out to be just another Congressman. Can you ever again look at Nirvachan Sadan without wondering how many budding Congress, BJP, or CPI-M ministers are sitting inside?

But why should we blame M S Gill alone? Constitutionally, it is the prime minister who chooses his ministerial colleagues. And so, reluctantly, we must cast a spotlight on the political morality of that other 'MS', Manmohan Singh.

What exactly, Mr Prime Minister, was the crisis that led you to overturn decades of political tradition to appoint a former Chief Election Commissioner as your minister? One might have understood if there was something of utter urgency that required specific administrative talents that only M S Gill possesses?

But Shri Gill has not been made the Union home minister or the external affairs minister, has he? He has been granted the portfolio of sports and youth affairs, and that too not even as a full-blown Cabinet minister but as a mere minister of state!

It suddenly strikes me that our prime minister might not even understand the implications of his actions. Don't forget that Dr Manmohan Singh's instincts are those of a bureaucrat, that he is a prime minister without a mandate.

Dr Manmohan Singh is a Punjabi, but he was sent to the Upper House from Assam, swearing without a blush that he is a resident of 'House No 3989, Nandan Nagar, Ward No 51, Sarumataria, Dispur, Guwahati'.

We claim to follow the British system of parliamentary democracy. But it has been more than a hundred years since there was a British prime minister from the House of Lords; every single one of them since Lord Salisbury demitted office has been from the House of Commons, which is to say that he or she was directly elected.

Has Dr Manmohan Singh ever stood before the people to ask for votes? He did so just once, in 1999, and went down in flames. Having endured the humiliation of defeat, Dr Manmohan Singh has barely ventured out of the air-conditioned comforts of the Rajya Sabha and South Block.

Dr Manmohan Singh's scholarly and administrative talents may be immense. His personal incorruptibility is absolutely beyond question. But there is a democratic deficit at the heart of his prime ministership.

In about a month-and-a-half as I write, it will be four years since Dr Manmohan Singh went to Race Course Road -- which is to say that it will be four years since India had a popularly-elected chief executive. That would never be tolerated in the United States, or Britain, or France, or any other democracy.

The essence of democracy is allowing the people to choose their own rulers. The mechanism is free and fair polling. There is a pattern in his behaviour, whether refusing to stand for the Lok Sabha or appointing M S Gill as a minister -- and it reveals a disturbing disdain for democratic procedure.

In 1804, faced with universal criticism after the execution of the Duc d'Enghien, Napoleon grumbled that he had just followed the letter of the law. To which Talleyrand responded, 'It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.'

A prime minister sitting in the Rajya Sabha and a former chief election commissioner joining party politics are not crimes, Dr Manmohan Singh, but they are certainly blunders.

T V R Shenoy