CASE OF THE LAWYER WIFE - Can the left overlook corruption to keep the BJP out of power?

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By Ashok Mitra
  • Published 19.09.05

The finance minister is an honourable man. We have therefore to accept, and with grace, his breathtaking statement; before the matter was raised in parliament, he had no idea of his wife, Nalini Chidambaram, being engaged by the income tax department to fight a government case. We should in fact be thankful that the finance minister did not claim that, before the matter created such a ruckus on the floor of the house, he was not even aware of the existence of Nalini Chidambaram.

This is however hardly an occasion for frivolity. Let us for a moment steer clear of the aspect of conjugal relations between the finance minister and his life?s consort. What about the demeanour of the different government agencies involved in the affair though? Are we prepared to believe that the income tax commissioner concerned, the chairman of the Central Board of Direct Taxes, the revenue secretary and, finally, the finance secretary, were none of them cognizant of the fact that the lady happens to be the finance minister?s wife? Did not even one amongst them raise the issue of propriety while naming her as government counsel in a rather sensitive case? Is the ambit of general knowledge of these civil servants so exceedingly narrow, or their sense of right and wrong so exceedingly vacuous? In either case, do they deserve to occupy the responsible positions they are occupying? If the presumption is that at least some or one of them knew of the relationship between the finance minister and the lady, should he not have raised a question in regard to the propriety of the proposed appointment? Should not at least one of them have approached the minister and enquired of him whether it was all right to engage the lady as government counsel? Should not the unsavoury episode lead to the axe falling, if not on the finance minister, at least on one of the officials?

Old notions of accountability have however fallen into disuse. The first finance minister of independent India, Shanmukham Chetty, had to put in his papers because of a very minor dereliction of duty on the part of an official on budget eve. The minister was not directly responsible for the lapse. Even so, the prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had no doubt in his mind, Chetty had to go. Roughly ten years later, T.T. Krishnamachari was forced to resign as finance minister because officials of the publicly owned Life Insurance Corporation of India showed some favours, intentionally or otherwise, to a small-time Calcutta stockbroker: the prime minister asking for the resignation was once again Jawaharlal Nehru. That culture of propriety is now dead. The finance minister is not any longer answerable either for activities within his ministry or for his lack of knowledge about such activities. Nor are civil servants directly or indirectly involved in the commitment of improper acts and activities deemed answerable.

It can be debated whether the set-up that has emerged is one of nepotism or cronyism or belongs to some other category of corruption. Nomenclatures do not matter. What does is the fact of the grammar of accountability being thrown out of the window. We are therefore asked to be thankful for such small mercies as the fact that the finance minister?s wife has been made to return the sumptuous fees she received from the government for conducting the case. The matter is expected to end there.

A puzzle nonetheless persists. The finance minister is known to be the left?s b?te noire. They are engaged in a running battle with him on several issues of substance. Policies and measures he has been trying hard to put into place constitute the principal reason for the decision of the left to boycott indefinitely sessions of the coordination committee set up by the United Progressive Alliance. He is adamant in his decision to disinvest any and all of the public sector units known as the Navaratnas. He has opposed the left proposal to lower import and excise duties on petroleum and petroleum products and, instead, wants to raise their prices; on this issue, he has already scored at least a partial victory over the left. The finance minister, besides, is the blue-eyed boy of the country?s corporate sector; the stock market, he believes, can do no wrong, and whatever international finance capital decides is for the good of India. These sentiments the left abhors to the nth degree. And yet, on the Nalini Chidambaram issue, the left has not jumped on the finance minister and demanded his resignation. The episode, one would have thought, provided the left with a wonderful opportunity to ask for his scalp. The issue is one of corruption, and the left has, rightly, the reputation of never compromising with those guilty, or strongly suspected to be guilty, of corruption. However, for once, the left has behaved differently. If newspaper reports are to be lent credence, as the controversy ensued, the Congress president sent, post-haste, emissaries to the left with the following message. The finance minister is indispensable for the party heading the ruling coalition; if he is hounded out, the resulting crisis in the Congress could actually affect the viability of the UPA government at the Centre; that would lead to the frightful prospect of the return to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The left was appealed to, please, consider the matter in the proper perspective; the left would not certainly like to be responsible for a resurgence of religious fundamentalism in the country the BJP?s return to government was bound to entail.

The plaintive appeal, indications suggest, has evoked an appropriate response. The left has its priorities. It dislikes the finance minister and his policies, just as the finance minister dislikes the left parties and their policies. Even so, the greater cause ? thwarting the ambition of the religious fanatics ? must have precedence over their desire to eject the finance minister from his office. So let him stay.

The left might have made peace with its conscience. Public disquiet will however not instantly be dispelled; uneasy questions will continue to be raised. Does it mean that, since the bigger challenge for the left is to crush the communal bigots and prevent the latter?s creeping back to power, it is prepared to compromise with corruption? The other issue is in a sense even more uncomfortable. If that comes to that, are the evils of rampant capitalism at home and a carte blanche to international finance capital ? things that are dear to the finance minister?s heart ? to be preferred where the alternative is the reign of communal dogmatists? If the finance minister has his way, little will be left, many people think, of the country?s economic sovereignty and, therefore, ultimately of its political sovereignty too. Is the left prepared to risk national sovereignty itself as long as it succeeds in its goal to keep out of power religious fanatics?

What about the other, not altogether impossible, development too? Our prime minister is now committed to go all the way with George W. Bush in the latter?s global war against terror. When the crunch comes, this war is in effect a declaration of zero-tolerance of a substantial member from amongst the Islamic community wherever they might be. The wild ones amongst Hindu fanatics back home will gladly join the side of the prime minister and his Congress in this all-out war against Islam. Which citadel of secularism would the left be defending then?