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THAT COSY FEELING
- Political parties have turned India into a grand crooks’ opera

The cabinet minister relieved of the responsibility for the ministry of petroleum and natural gas in the recent reshuffle and shunted to the ministry of science and technology was bold enough to address a press conference the following morning. He appeared to be as open-minded at that session with the media as far as open-mindedness could proceed — and generous as well. He was, he emphasized, a loyal party person, and would always abide by the wishes of his party and his prime minister, he had therefore no problem with what had just happened with his portfolio; please, no further questions.

The minister affirming his loyalty to his party and his prime minister. What is, however, of additional interest is the zone of uncertainty created by his failure to make his loyalty to the prime minister a little bit more explicit. He knew, at the moment he was briefing the media, of his prime minister’s being under some embarrassment. Political parties in the Opposition and sections of the press were overtly suggesting that the minister’s departure from the ministry of petroleum and natural gas was because of his reluctance to toe the line as laid down by a particular corporate family. The prime minister had refuted the allegation, the party that the prime minister and the minister concerned belong to had done the same thing. The minister himself, however, had remained extraordinarily quiet on the issue at his press conference. He was effusive in proclaiming his fidelity to the prime minister. The latter was being subjected to relentless attack on account of his supposed readiness to satisfy every whim and wish of that corporate family. The minister could come to the rescue of the prime minister, for example by holding another press briefing and endorsing all the way the prime minister’s assertion that neither he nor his government was in bondage to the much discussed corporate house. The minister could have even added that during his tenure at the ministry of petroleum and natural gas, he had absolutely no tiff, big or small, with that corporate giant and that all talk of his unhappiness at being at the receiving end of continuous dictates from it was a figment of the imagination. He could have rounded off the session with the media by declaring that the switch of portfolios in his case was a tepidly routine event, nobody should try to read anything between the lines here, those in the Opposition and the media who were nonetheless flagging the issue were, he suspected, driven by a malicious motive; an evil conspiracy against his prime minister and his party was afoot; he was pledging himself to fight, fight and fight again till this conspiracy met its richly deserved end.

The minister desisted from holding any such press conference and desisted from taking any such thundering pledge. Notwithstanding his intense loyalty to the party and the prime minister, he was, on the face of it, not prepared to compromise with the truth, an act which to him was synonymous with the forfeiture of integrity. He must have debated the matter in his mind and suffered the agony involved in the sort of compromise he forced himself to reach: to keep repeating his loyalty to the prime minister and the party, yet to refuse to go all the way with them and endorse something which was, according to his knowledge, palpably false.

Here, then, is the picture of a moral man, a man who, many will argue, deserved to be acclaimed by society as an honourable man. One or two questions would nonetheless keep rearing their head. The minister’s conscience did not allow him to support the party’s and the prime minister’s protestation that their government was not at the beck and call of the corporate family. Does not his conscience torture him on an equally important issue though? He is not one to barter his integrity or tolerate untruth. And yet, does not keeping the company of a party and a prime minister who indulge in patent untruths pose a moral challenge to him? He continues to be a minister in the government run by such a party and presided over by such a prime minister.

This is the bizarre part of this particular morality tale. Here is a moral man, one who firmly believes he is a man of impeccable integrity. It is still not within his province to feel sure that enough was enough, there was a point beyond which a man of principles must not suffer a milieu clearly lacking in integrity. Is he under no moral pressure at all to sever company with the party and the prime minister, never mind the consequences of such a decision on the polity — perhaps an upheaval of the same gravity and magnitude as was caused by Viswanath Pratap Singh’s decision to quit the company of Rajiv Gandhi in 1987?

It is a safe bet that he asked these questions of himself — and has come up with the answer which satisfies him. It is not just the political party he has affiliation with, almost the entire polity, he must have convinced himself, has suborned itself largely under the relentless compulsions of economic liberalization, to corruption and other immoral activities. Suppose the minister had chosen to resign from the council of ministers and fully spill the beans to the discomfiture of his party and his prime minister. But what good would that do to the country? Was not the principal Opposition no less venal and no less eager to compromise with integrity provided the right quantity of tainted benediction was showered on it and its henchmen and acolytes? The regional and caste-based political formations were of no different mettle either. The Left stood somewhat apart, but it has for now succeeded in reducing itself to an irrelevant category. The rest of the political hegemony did not mind championing the interests of corporate capital — and its foreign counterparts — as long as the price was right.

No point labouring on the theme further. Having debated the issue with himself, the minister reaches his conclusion and is at peace with himself. A patch-up on the moral plane, he decides, is called for. He would not compromise with any lack of integrity in matters which involve him directly, he would however not flinch from tolerating the company of those who fail to play with a straight bat and, either occasionally or persistently, indulge in Satanic ways. Given the totality of the existing circumstances, a person who judges himself as belonging to the category of the honest would continue to reckon himself as honest even if he did not break with those who were dishonest.

You may accept the minister’s rationality as it is and let drop the subject from the agenda. You may take pity on the minister and, while not entirely impressed by the mental calisthenics he has undergone, may nonetheless offer him the benefit of doubt. Or you may hold the minister’s demeanour as plainly ridiculous and categorize him as another one of those swelling the ranks of moral hypocrites.

But is not the torment the minister has faced also the great issue confronting the humblest citizen of this country? He/she is left with zero choice. He/she has by now travelled sufficiently wide-rangingly along the learning curve to know that the country has been rendered a grand crooks’ opera, the crooks are not any longer even minimally ashamed of their misdoings. He/she is a helpless witness to their boastful malfeasance. He/she has no redress though. Even if the present set of rulers is turned out, the new lot might be no better. Once the electoral season arrives, he/she will be in a quandary and unable to decide, no political party is beyond suspicion, almost each one is tainted in some manner or other.

Those holding the reins of office at the moment are no fools, a pervasive mood of plague-on-all-your-houses suits their purpose admirably. Since every political formation is scam-prone, does it not follow that scams are a natural phenomenon, and so we should all feel cosy about it?