Prime Minister Singh takes off gloves
A soft-spoken and courteous politician from Gujarat, Ahmed Patel has taken care to keep a low profile in Delhi, aware that Sonia Gandhi dislikes seeing the names of those linked to her in the newspapers (or worse,television screens). He makes himself accessible to all,even to those who are bitter critics of his boss,and has in the process,become indispensable as a trouble-shooter. At no stage has his loyalty towards Sonia Gandhi faltered,and never has anything other than praise been uttered by him about her. Small wonder that his is her top aide, followed by the quick-thinking former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh,and then by the telegenic,articulate Manish Tiwari. These three form a troika around Sonia Gandhi,and have immense influence within the Manmohan Singh government. Politics needs money in India, lots of it. Because of the ridiculously low legal spending limits on election campaigns in India, more than 95% of the money actually spent is unaccounted,and therefore from “grey” sources who have large amounts of undeclared cash in their possession.The limits on election expenditure in India have resulted in a huge boost to the Black Money economy, because politicians have become reliant on this hidden economy to fund their expenses. Few politicians refuse help from such dubious sources. Among those who did was Manmohan Singh, who refused the help of moneybags in his Lower House (Lok Sabha) campaign in 1996,and lost to a better-funded opponent, despite being Finance Minister of India at the time of the election. Those who pay out vast sums to politicians expect protection in their numerous rackets, and usually get it. Those who are close to the powerful in India do not get harassed by the Income-tax and other authorities, even though these have colonial-era powers of search, seizure and prosecution. Only the unconnected get into trouble, sometimes because they are honest and therefore need to be “taught a lesson” by those they refuse to oblige.
The sad truth is that it is easy in India to get a false case registered against an honest person, and make that person’s life a misery for the next ten years, with the threat of prison ever over his head. Despite the fact that he is personally 100% honest (as is his Cabinet colleague, Defense Minister A K Antony), Prime Minister Singh has thus far been unable to take action against the coterie of operators who have reduced policy to an auction, where the highest bidder takes all Given the atmosphere of slush that surrounds New Delhi - and reaches across the political as well as policy spectrum - it was a surprise when the soft-spoken Prime Minister summoned Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor and asked him to resign. After all, the amount given to her by the Kochi group as “sweat equity” (although most called it “sweet equity”) to the minister’s lady friend Sunanda Pushkar was only $ 15 million, a sum considered peanuts by the political class in India. By Delhi standards,Shashi Tharoor is a saint,there being quite a few others in the Manmohan Singh team who are far,far wealthier than he is,and by means that will not bear scrutiny. However, he is regarded with suspicion by the political Old Guard in the Congress Party,who dislike his western manners and his British accent. “What is the party that won freedom from the British doing with someone who talks,acts and behaves like an Englishman?” was what a senior party member asked this columnist,who pointed out that the British left India 63 years ago,and hence such a sentiment was no longer warranted. More to the point,India’s first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru,was himself cut in the English mould,having been educated in the best UK public schools and retaining British mores and manners to the end of his life.
Tharoor went because he had no political base, and therefore was regarded as expendable by the Old Guard in Indian politics. It was expected that once the dust created by his ouster died down, matters would return to Business as Usual. The moneymaking game would resume in earnest, only this time minus Tharoor and Pushkar. However, such expectations have been dashed by Manmohan Singh, who has over the past week,shown a steely determination to get to the bottom of the Indian Cricket Scam, no matter how many powerful people get affected. He has given direct and personal instructions to the Union Home and Finance minstries to “clean up the mess” by bringing to book the many wrongdoers who have reduced cricket in India to a money (rather than a run) machine. When the Indian Premier League moved to South Africa last year, it was not because of security concerns. India was and is a secure country, although parts of it are endemically afflicted by low-grade insurgency. While much has appeared in the media about the “Maoist threat”,the fact remains that the Indian state is quite capable of tackling these individuals, should that be seen to be necessary. The reason for such confidence is the growth of a stable, English-educated middle class, that now is numbered at close to 300 million, and which has a direct stake in stability. Once this class crosses the 500 million barrier (as it will during the next decade), India’s onward ascent will not be slowed down by the social problems that will continue to afflict this country for generations. Ultimately,it is neither religion nor political ideology that is assuring the unity and stability of India, but economic growth powered by the tens of millions of educated people who are entering into gainful trade and commerce each year. The vast Indian Common Market is the best guarantor of unity, as is the prevalence of the English language across all zones of the country,even in the remotest villages, in some part because of cable television and the ubiquitious internet. Had Manmohan Singh been free of the political shackles that bound his actions from 2004 onwards, there would surely have been a Second Wave of reform. He would have ensured that telecom costs would get slashed, rather than remain high to feed the balance sheets of a few operators. He would have freed higher education in India from the deadening hand of regulators, who have made a fetish of uniformity and who value mediocrity above innovation. He would have allowed the private sector to enter into fields such as Atomic Energy and Defense, from where they have thus far been excluded by foreign interests eager to monopolize the vast Indian market. Admirers of Manmohan Singh have watched with dismay the absence of meaningful reform,the absence of administrative cleanup, during his first five years in office.
According to high officials, the IPL was moved from India to South Africa in 2009 to facilitate gambling and money laundering. It is a fact that gambling is legal in South Africa, whereas it is banned in India (although it exists everywhere). It is a fact that currency restrictions are very lax in South Africa, unlike in India, where (on paper at least) significant curbs exist. Those in the know say that hundreds of millions of dollars were made out of match-fixing and other criminal breavh of the public trust during the South Africa tourneys. Those close to the IPL and to Lalit Modi swear that all such reports are false,and that Modi is “as innocent as a child”. What is clear is that Prime Minister Singh seems determined to find out the truth.
Politically, it is a Win-Win for him. Should he persevere in his drive against corruption in cricket, despite the many VVIP voices urging caution, he will gain once again the respect of the Indian people, who have been suffering the effects of corruption for long. Even should the government fall, it would be returned in a landslide in the subsequent elections, on the slogan of cleaning up the system, a slogan that can be adopted by Heir Apparent to the PM, Rahul Gandhi. Will Manmohan Singh blink, or will he continue to - for the first time since 2004 - flex his muscles? There is much that can be done to clean up the system, should the PM and Rahul Gandhi escape the clutches of the Old Guard, to whom politics has become simply a vehicle for merry-making and money-making.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.