Wednesday, April 15, 2009
A mob of Congress hoodlums set a Sikh on fire in Delhi hours after Mrs Indira Gandhi's assassination on October 31, 1984.
If we lesser mortals were to be found misleading someone intentionally, we would be accused of telling a lie. To be called a liar is as good as being told your integrity quotient is zero. Telling the truth, as we all know, may be difficult but is considered a virtue; telling a lie is sinful, a vice to which the feckless and the irresolute are given. But what about someone who holds high office and misleads the nation in the most casual (some would say sly) manner? Does vice become a virtue when your are the Prime Minister of India? I refer to Mr Manmohan Singh’s comment on Friday in response to a query on the shameful Jagdish Tytler-Sajjan Kumar episode. “I was not informed, not consulted, over the CBI’s clean chit to Jagdish Tytler,” he told members of the Indian Women’s Press Corps whom he hosted for tea.
In this age of lazy journalism it is unlikely anybody will bother to raise a doubt or two about the Prime Minister’s claim. But this needs to be done, if only to expose him for what he is, which is definitely far-removed from what he would like everybody to believe he is. So let’s check out the facts. The CBI, contrary to popular notion, does not report to the Ministry of Home Affairs; it reports to the quaintly named Department of Personnel and Training, otherwise known as ‘DoPT’, which is headed by a Minister of State. The DoPT is part of the portfolio of responsibilities held by the Prime Minister to whom the Minister of State in charge of that department reports. While routine administrative issues are directly dealt with by the Minister of State, he or she keeps the Prime Minister fully informed on sensitive issues, including high profile cases being handled by the CBI. In fact, files related to such cases are routed through the Prime Minister’s Office, which is known to have issued instructions to the CBI on certain occasions — recall the letter written by a senior PMO official, known for his proximity to 10 Janpath, directing the agency to deal with one of the accused in the Ayodhya case in a particular manner. In brief, it is an intimate relationship, never mind the Supreme Court’s directive that the CBI should function as an autonomous agency. It is highly unlikely, and that is putting it mildly, that the CBI would have sought closure of the cases against Tytler without discussing it with the DoPT, which in effect means the PMO. In other words, Mr Singh would have been aware of the CBI’s move.
Even if he were blissfully ignorant of it, surely Mr Singh reads newspapers and watches 24x7 news channels, at least those which don’t tire of extolling his ‘abilities’, such as they are. The CBI submitted its closure report to the trial court on April 2. The story was prominently published by every newspaper and found more than passing mention on prime time news. On April 7, when Jarnail Singh, a reporter with the Dainik Jagran, apparently upset over Mr P Chidambaram’s rude response to his questions on the Government giving Tytler and Kumar a clean chit despite the evidence — by way of affidavits, submissions and eyewitness accounts — of their role in the horrendous bloodletting of 1984 when 4,733 Sikhs were massacred after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination, hurled one of his shoes at the Home Minister. It is only then that the Congress got into the act. Between April 2 and April 7, for full five days the Prime Minister did nothing, although he obviously knew about it, if not through the DoPT then from media reports.
For Mr Singh to now say “I was not informed, not consulted” is more than astounding. But there’s a pattern to his denying any knowledge about the actions of the CBI and pretending great surprise every time the Government has been caught on the wrong foot. When the CBI manipulated the de-freezing of two London bank accounts where Ottavio Quattrocchi is believed to have parked his share of the Bofors payola, thus helping the Italian wheeler-dealer who is a fugitive from Indian law to grab the money and run, similar lack of knowledge was proclaimed. Indeed, the Prime Minister has rarely been upfront; on the contrary, effortlessly and with great ease, he has excelled in slyly misleading the nation time and again, as he did most stunningly on the India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement.
In his memoirs, A Prattler’s Tale, economist Ashok Mitra is ruthlessly honest in his description of Mr Singh: “His timidity is the product of his civil servant’s mind, which many mistake as humility.” He also recounts an incident from his days as a member of the Rajya Sabha when Mr Singh was the Union Finance Minister. At a meeting of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee attached to the Ministry of Finance, Mr Mitra wanted the Government to supply copies of an RBI report listing the identities of individuals and corporates who owed more than a crore of rupees in unpaid bank loans adding up to more than Rs 50,000 crore. “The Finance Minister (Mr Singh) had a quick consultation with the Finance Secretary, who was sitting next to him, and agreed to place copies of the report before the members (of the committee)... Then the fun started. Days went by, then weeks, followed by a full month, but we did not receive copies of the report. I wrote to the Finance Minister but there was no reply from him. I sent him another letter... the silence was unbroken. At the next meeting of the committee, I hit the roof. Manmohan, however, was unfazed. He feigned surprise, ‘What, did I really make such a promise? I do not remember. Perhaps there was a misunderstanding’.” Mr Mitra has other stories to tell about our economist Prime Minister, but since he hasn’t committed them to paper, I shan’t either.
But Mr Singh’s proclivity to mislead others is not the only trait that raises discomfiting questions about India’s ‘accidental Prime Minister’. Nor should we needlessly cavil about his fake humility. What is relevant is his, to quote Mr Mitra, “lamb-like devotion” to the Nehru-Gandhi family, his “worshipful frame of mind”. It is this which prompts him to behave in the most craven manner, heaping treacly praise on the person who wields the authority of the office he holds, and which sets him apart from his senior colleagues like Mr Pranab Mukherjee. “Obviously the decision (to field Tytler and Kumar as candidates for the Lok Sabha election from Delhi constituencies) was reversed. It shows the Congress party’s sensitivity towards the Sikh community and for this you should compliment the Congress party,” he told members of the Indian Women’s Press Corps during his Friday’s interaction. Everybody knows that the decision was reversed by the Congress president. So the praise he solicits is not for the party but its president. As for ‘sensitivity towards the Sikh community’, had Mr Singh’s assertion been true, he would not have allowed the CBI to do something so reprehensible. But that would have required courage and integrity.
Column: Coffee Break | The Pioneer | Sunday, April 12, 2009