Two months before the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, arrives in Washington to meet the president of the United States of America, George W. Bush, his trip, which had raised high expectations when it was put on the table at the beginning of this year, is in serious danger of conforming to the adage, 'The mountain laboured and gave birth to a mouse.'
When a foreign leader is expected on an official visit at the White House ' with the US president scheduled to return that visit soon thereafter ' America is in the habit of watching that visitor's country with an eagle eye. India has been under such scrutiny in Washington for months now, but the signals that are coming out of New Delhi in recent days are far from comforting. Last week has been particularly distressing, what with Laloo Prasad Yadav's attack on the Election Commission and the United Progressive Alliance government's decision to probe two former ministers who are highly regarded in America.
India's EC has a reputation for independence among Americans, which towers far above the credibility of their own institutions engaged in the task of filling elected posts in the US ' ever more so after the election fiasco in Florida in 2000, which made the first-term presidential election of Bush the butt of ridicule all over the world. K.J. Rao, consultant to the EC and a key target of the UPA government's railway minister in his latest fight to discredit the commission, is a familiar name among politically enlightened Americans who have admired the way India conducts its elections. Rao was special adviser to the commission and one of two officials sent by the poll panel to Chhapra to investigate charges that the Rashtriya Janata Dal chief had rigged his April 26, 2004, election to the Lok Sabha.
Last year, in the run up to the election of Bush for his second four-year term, there was widespread apprehension across America that the Florida fiasco would be repeated in a closely fought US presidential poll. Global Exchange, a California-based international human rights organization, which has a 17-year record of international partnerships for peace and democracy, launched Fair Election, a project to get international civil society to monitor the 2004 elections. Rao was one of those chosen for the task of monitoring the US poll exercise. Besides, Americans also know him as one of those who enabled post-taliban Afghanistan to take the first tentative steps towards representative government.
When the RJD chief waved L.V. Saptharishi's controversial letter to his minister at a press conference last week, alleging that 'the irregularities, improprieties and unlawful actions of Rao have not so far been questioned in any court of law and he has done these things with impunity', what was at stake in America was, in fact, not the credibility of the EC, but that of the UPA government. To his credit, the prime minister did not go for political expediency and take the side of his RJD ally, but the presence of a tainted minister in the Central government attempting to destroy one of the pillars of Indian democracy is not a sight that advances confidence in India in capitals like Washington. It has not helped matters that the railway minister is also trying to manipulate the judiciary, another independent Indian institution that has won high praise in India, an arm of the state with which the US supreme court is now in the process of forging ties. The antics which have helped the Bihar leader remain in the limelight ' and diminish India abroad ' had barely receded into the background when it was announced on the last day of the parliamentary session that two former ministers in the NDA cabinet, George Fernandes and Arun Shourie, would be targeted in probes by the Manmohan Singh government.
In a democracy, it is not enough that things must be done properly and fairly: they must also have the appearance of having been done properly and fairly. Common sense expected that after the government-forming fiascos in Goa and Jharkhand earlier this year, the UPA would have realized the imperative of applying this thumb rule of democracy to its actions ' at least to the ones where impressions matter as much as substance. Last week's decision to probe some of the ministerial decisions of Shourie and Fernandes suggests that the UPA government has learned few lessons although it burned its fingers badly in both Panaji and Ranchi. A less charitable explanation is that the same Congress backroom boys ' and girls ' who thrust Goa and Jharkhand on the prime minister are still pulling powerful strings behind the political curtain on the UPA stage.
Most of those who have had occasion to deal with Shourie professionally over the years, including this writer, will readily attest that he can be difficult to impossible, to put it mildly. But many of those men and women will also swear that in the murky world of Indian politics, Shourie shines like a precious jewel. Be it in an editorial office or in a ministerial chamber, you can give Shourie a task and rest assured that it would be done. That is Shourie's problem. Any obstacle in his way is not a difficulty, but a challenge. Few people in New Delhi know this better than Sonia Gandhi, who saw her husband's biggest mandate in India's electoral history crumble into defeat in mere five years. Shourie's role in bringing about that defeat was larger than life.
Because Shourie has been recognized with a string of honours such as the Magsaysay award, because he is one of the 'World Press Freedom Heroes', he is better known the world over than many of his peers in India's public life. Precisely because Shourie did not sell off India's family silver unlike most reformers from Budapest to Bucharest, because he did not create Boris Yeltsin-style oligarchs in India through privatization, the way he went about the task of disinvestment is actually seen outside India as a model for economic reform.
Any enquiry ordered by the present government will not raise questions about Shourie and his ways. It will only raise questions about the motives of the UPA government in ordering such a probe and create doubts about New Delhi's commitment to disinvestment, which is integral to India's economic reform. It will bring back putrid memories of how V.P. Singh's government, in an act similarly smacking of political vendetta 15 years ago, grounded A-320s, one of the finest aircraft of its time, and probed the Rajiv Gandhi government's decision to purchase those planes for Indian Airlines.
In capitals like Washington, those who deal with India know enough about the due processes in New Delhi, which required the report of the comptroller and auditor general of India on the Centaur sale during Shourie's ministership to be sent to the public accounts committee instead of being fodder for the kind of shoddy enquiry ordered by the finance minister. Leaders like Manmohan Singh have emphasized, in interactions with their counterparts abroad, that what sets India apart from China is its rule of law. Probes like the ones announced in parliament last week have the effect of giving short shrift to due processes and the rule of law. If such acts, which smack of political vendetta, become the norm in New Delhi, what stops General Pervez Musharraf from reminding his friends in Washington that what he is doing to Benazir Bhutto ' or what Nawaz Sharif earlier did to Benazir ' is no different from what happens in New Delhi, that at the end of the day, India is no different from Pakistan.
When the prime minister travels to Washington in about eight weeks, he will once again talk of the huge infrastructure investment that he is looking to Americans to make so that India can prepare itself to be a robust, competitive economic power. But what he says in Washington, come July, will have far less credibility than what he told American CEOs last September in New York, unless he can restrain his petty-minded party colleagues and the left parties from holding disinvestment hostage to settling political or ideological scores against ministers in the Vajpayee government.