LAMENT FOR A COG - Does the prime minister matter?

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By CUTTING CORNERS: ASHOK MITRA
  • Published 14.01.11
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Thanks to the plenary session of the Congress, things have got cleaned up; everyone knows, or should know, his or her place. The individual who is the prime minister, for example, should know that he serves a very specific purpose, he — a nobody — is needed to fill nominally the slot the Great Renouncer decided to vacate, even before occupying it, in order that she could be hailed as the Great Renouncer and accorded the same quality of reverence as was once bestowed upon that other cognizable renouncer in the nation’s history — what was his name, ah, yes, Mahatma Gandhi.

Renunciation is, however, no liberation from responsibility. Mahatma Gandhi spurned all formal positions in the Congress, but he could not escape the fate of being all powerful in the party. None could remain party president if Gandhi disapproved of him; members of the party’s highest decision-making body, the working committee, had to be named by him, resolutions adopted by the party had to be given the final touch by him, each single decision the party took needed the imprimatur of his blessings. This was the state of affairs until the Mountbattens, husband and wife, arrived on the scene.

Renouncers are fated to enjoy such omnipotence. The new renouncer, too, is. She continues as the supreme entity in the party. She decides who will hold which position in the party hierarchy down to the taluka level. She names chief ministers and other ministers in states where the party is able to form governments: she again decides which chief minister has to be removed and when. And, of course, she is chairperson and prime mover of the coalition which forms the administration at the Centre. She has renounced the position of prime minister, but is very much more powerful than the prime minister. If the government scores a major success, all plaudits belong to her. Similarly, if a crisis visits the government, it has to be resolved by her. The burden of renunciation is simply awesome.

Where does all this, though, leave the formally named prime minister? Please consider the circumstances. A private gentleman in retirement can concentrate on tending his garden and not bother to make his wishes for the new year known to the public. One designated formally or the head of the country’s government is in no position to choose that option. He therefore sticks to grammar and pronounces two resolutions for the new year: (a) to fight to the hilt corruption in government, and (b) to bring down prices.

The moment the prime minister utters these wishes, he knows it is not within his domain to ensure their fulfilment. Even in the past he had made the appropriate noises against corruption; that has not stopped events from taking their own course. He had promised some six months ago that food prices would come down to the level of five to six per cent by end-December; prices, in fact, have now climbed back to around 15 per cent.

Does not the prime minister realize that he does not really count? Even within the party he formally belongs to, he does not count. Most other prominent leaders in the party have their own groups or factions. When an occasion arises, they can throw their weight about within both the party and the government. The prime minister does not enjoy that luxury since he has no political base of his own. Other leaders, including ministers, are courteous to him because he has been nominated for the part by the Great Renouncer. Crucial decisions within the party as well as within the government, they know, are to be taken by her. It is an awkward, anomalous arrangement; the buck, supposed to stop with the prime minister, does not stop with him: it stops elsewhere.

That such is the nitty-gritty of reality is borne out by the correspondence, now available to the public, between the prime minister and the gentleman who was his minister of communications during the period the curious events of the 2G spectrum scandal assumed shape. On November 2, 2007 the prime minister writes to his minister on the issue of the spectrum allocations, enclosing a note emphasizing points that should be gone into and urging the need for fairness and transparency in the allocations and expressing the hope of being kept informed before any further action is taken. The minister, nonetheless, took the prime minister for granted. On December 26 of the same year, he informs the prime minister about certain decisions already taken in the light of discussions at various levels. The details of these discussions are not mentioned. The prime minister responds to the minister’s letter on January 3, 2008 with a polite, single-sentence acknowledgment. He does not say whether he agrees with the contents of the minister’s letter, nor does he indicate whether the decisions the minister has referred to are or are not at variance with what he, the prime minister, had indicated in his earlier letter. It is by now widely known — courtesy such sundry things as the Radia tapes — that such formal exchanges of letters between the prime minister and one of his cabinet colleagues do not mean a thing; there are other actors behind the scene and other events, too, unfold behind the scene.

The minister of communications could flout the prime minister not so much because he belonged to a party in the coalition which had enough clout of its own. Even within a coalition regime, certain minimum norms are followed; since a political person of sufficient stature usually assumes the post of prime minister, he or she cannot be treated as a negligible quantity. In the situation currently obtaining in this country, this, however, is not the case. The prime minister, a minister knows, is not the final arbiter of official decisions, the centre of power is situated in a different location, and there is hardly any necessity to be extra-deferential to the designated prime minister.

Whether the government henceforth will or will not fight corruption with somewhat greater seriousness is also a decision which will be reached at the level not of the prime minister but of the Great Renouncer. The prime minister may provide his input; whether that input will be considered worth its weight in gold is a different matter though. Similarly, he may post his proposals concerning ways and means to fight inflation, but the minister of agriculture, or the petroleum minister, for instance, may have other slants on the issue of upwardly moving price levels. The interests of class friends too have to be taken into consideration.

Is it not egregiously irrelevant in such a situation to wax eloquent over the prime minister’s integrity? For consider the goings-on during the 2G spectrum episode. Were nothing known of the prime minister’s correspondence with his minister as well as of the Radia tapes, two alternative assumptions are still possible: either that the prime minister was aware of the irregularities that were being plotted but was unable to do anything about it, or that he was totally ignorant of what was happening.

In case the prime minister knew that large scale larceny was taking place within the portals of government, the natural question to ask is, why did he not put his foot down instead of accepting the developments philosophically — in other words, why did he agree to go along with corruption? Is he not, technically, an accessory after the fact? Cross over to the second hypothesis: while the prime minister was a man of first-class integrity, he was not aware of the shady things happening within his premises. If a prime minister does not know what is transpiring within the ambit of his authority, does it not reflect on his efficiency and, therefore, his suitability for occupying the position?

It was, after all, the personal decision of the individual who is prime minister to accept the position in full awareness of the overwhelmingly important conditionality attached, namely, that he must abide the preferences, prejudices and inclinations of the Great Renouncer. If the prime minister is feeling humiliated by the snide comments swirling at this moment around his person, he can only lay the blame at the door of the decision he took in 2004 to be a cog in the dynasty’s wheel. It is for him to ruminate whether tending his private garden would not have been a superior choice.