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All prime minister’s corrupt men

Following the defeat of Indira Gandhi and her chosen heir Sanjay Gandhi in 1977 general elections, there was a huge spurt in anti-Congress literature. With Gandhi having imposed emergency for maintenance of internal security, press censorship for the first time (and probably the only time) was put in place and all voices of criticism effectively snuffed out. Having learned her lessons, Indira Gandhi before demitting office lifted emergency and opened herself to widespread criticism.

Among the several books which came out during this period, the one penned by veteran political correspondent Janardan Thakur –
All Prime Minister’s Men
– stood out. Trained as journalist Thakur knew well that people wanted to go beyond Indira Gandhi and know about her team which ruled the roost during those turbulent years.

Among the bevy ministers, Congress functionaries and other darbar hanger-ons, Thakur carefully culled out six or rather seven characters close to Indira and Sanjay to make a very colourful mosaic – the Haryana strongman Bansi Lal, the flamboyant Brahmin from Madhya Pradesh Vidya Charan Shukla, the unabashed sycophant from Assam Deo Kant Barooah, Indira’s refugee Panjabi office managers Yashpal Kapoor and R K Dhawan, her Bihari yoga teacher Dhirendra Bramhachari and Delhi socialite Rukhsana Sultan. If we fast forward by 35 years, another Congress government is faced with similar challenges and the head of the government too in the middle of a battle to defend his beleaguered team. However, this prime minister’s men do make such a colourful mosaic as Indira’s did. The main reason for it is that Manmohan Singh has been most non-charismatic though very effective politician.

Thus his team too consist of men who like him have neither the political flamboyance nor the clout but have succeeded on the basis of the sheer backing of their mentor. Unlike Indira Gandhi’s team, these men do not either form an all India mosaic. In fact in a meeting of these men, Panjabi could be the lingua franca.

It would be interesting to note that the politicians carefully picked by Manmohan Singh whenever got embroiled in cases of corruption never received a public retribution from the prime minister. While he kept silent in public, he stoutly defended them in party’s core committee meetings.

The defence of his chosen ones has made Manmohan Singh a preferred choice for many Congressmen who feel more comfortable in his company rather than remain in the tutelage of 10 Janpath, which washes hands off them on the first sniff of taint. The tragic exit of family loyalist Kunwar Natwar Singh is a case in point. The veteran diplomat-politician who was instrumental in the formation of Congress (Tiwari), which consisted of family loyalists, was the first to be dropped on the basis of his son’s name appearing in Paul Volcker’s report, which was part of UN investigations in Iraq. Natwar in fact was the only casualty of the report worldwide as in absence of any evidence other countries refused to act against their citizens. Natwar Singh had to go because Manmohan Singh as prime minister visualised a different course for foreign policy which culminated in the signing of the nuclear deal and the market reforms thereafter. With Natwar Singh in the saddle it would have been difficult to give the kind of push which Manmohan himself provided in the conclusion of the nuclear deal.

Flamboyance is something which gets the prime minister’s goat. Nobody could answer this better than reinstated minister of state for Human Resource Development Shashi Tharoor. Author, a former UN official and most importantly the family’s choice, was dropped when his girlfriend (now wife) Sunanda Pushkar’s name appeared in ‘not too neat’ business deal for a cricket franchisee. Her crime was charity compared to what Ashwani Kumar and Bansal are alleged to have done. Manmohan Singh has no qualms in changing the yardsticks when it comes to defending his own men in the government – Iqbal Singh, Anand Sharma, Ashwani Kumar and Pawan Kumar Bansal. He even retained M S Gill as long as he could. The BJP and media while blowing their trumpets over the top demanding prime minister’s resignation forget that defending the indefensible has been the hallmark of Manmohan Singh’s politics.

Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry Iqbal Singh’s name figured prominently as one of the facilitator’s for Kashinath Tapuria and Hasan Ali Khan, who are alleged to have laundered the bribe money paid in the 2G spectrum allotment scam. Several people including Telecom Minister A Raja lost their job but not Iqbal Singh. Similarly Commerce Minister Anand Sharma was in the eye of the storm when information about Wal-Mart spending money on Indian establishment for allowing foreign direct investment in retail surfaced. Sharma survived the controversy thanks to the backing he got from the prime minister. No wonder that the Congress party has decided to brazen out of the present crisis and defend Law Minister Ashwani Kumar and Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal. The prime minister extracts a huge political price for defending his men, who are comparatively political pygmies. While he defended Iqbal Singh, he cared little about the political loss UPA suffered for not defending Raja and DMK MP N Kanimozhi, which led to snapping of ties between the two allies.

The prime minister’s actions cannot be without a method behind it. He works on the short memory of the media and the Opposition, whose agitation against corruption is limited to whenever the parliament is in the session. Nothing can suit the politics of Manmohan Singh better than not having to answer the Parliament and leave accountability to media to his media gladiators.


Sidharth Mishra is with the Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post.
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