Last fortnight I had cloistered myself away in the hills for a spot of reflection and writing. I had chosen to deprive myself of blessings like newspapers, the television and internet; telephone connectivity was at best erratic and in any case it was turned off most of the time. During one occasional moment of connectedness I got a call from a television channel, seeking my comments on the Prime Minister's response to Team Anna's charge. I politely excused myself but I was indeed shaken up by the sheer audacity of the charge. What kind of cultivated viciousness have we injected in our polity that a man like Dr. Manmohan Singh is to be labelled “Corrupt”?
My mind instantly recalled a conversation I had had with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the day I joined him as Media Adviser in June 2009. That afternoon he spent an hour with me, sharing his views and thought-processes. At the end of the conversation, just as I was leaving, he beckoned me to sit down again and said: “One more thing, Harish. If you ever hear anything about any member of my family engaging in any kind of hanky-panky, please come and tell it straight to me, however unpleasant or painful it may be.”
Now this man is being called “corrupt” by a bunch of self-appointed Shankaracharyas who have arrogated to themselves the licence to declare someone clean and someone else corrupt. The charge of “corrupt” carries with it a suggestion of active collusion in abuse of governmental discretion in exchange for a monetary consideration.
Last year the argument was: “So what, if you are honest?” This season the demonisation game has been ratcheted up to declare Manmohan Singh to be corrupt. Was it not George Orwell who had warned us against how political language was “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”? Old George would have admired Team Anna's homicidal finesse.
Manmohan Singh is not corrupt, but he is definitely guilty. He can be easily charged — along with his political partner, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi — of pursing a politics of decency and of elevating reconciliation to a matter of state policy.
Significance of 2004
Historically, this was the only wise course open to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) leadership when in 2004 it found itself saddled with the responsibility of governing a country that had been kept on the edge of fear and insecurities during the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime. The country — including both the (Hindu) majority and the minorities — had been jolted out of its civilizational equanimity over what happened — rather what was allowed to happen — in Gujarat in 2002; and, that too despite Atal Bihari Vajpayee's moderating presence. So shaken up was “shining India” that it decided the only way to restore national sanity was to show the NDA the door. Not since 1977 had any incumbent government been as decisively spurned as the BJP-led regime. Never before did a new government have its mandate so unambiguously spelt out: restore sobriety, sanity and decency in public life and among its political leaders. India needed a healing touch and Manmohan Singh — the decent, non-politician — was the man to provide it. In partnership with Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh calmed the nation's frayed nerves. We all basked in the sunshine of Manmohan Singh's decent impulses and inclinations. Decency is an ephemeral virtue; it is neither easily identifiable nor quantifiable; but, its absence can be felt acutely. Just look at Gujarat; or, ask Medha Patkar, perhaps the only one in Team Anna with a three-decade record of pro-poor struggle. An activist who cut her teeth on the struggle for Narmada rehabilitation, Medha ben cannot today pitch her tent in Gujarat. The absence of decency at the top has converted Gujarat into a part of India totally inhospitable to any kind of democratic dissent, leave alone protest. It is no coincidence that Team Anna, rather Mob Anna, has not dared to test the Gujarat waters.
I remember another conversation with Manmohan Singh last year. Like every sensible student of statecraft, I too was baffled and dismayed that four senior ministers should have gone to the airport to receive and talk to Baba Ramdev. I was lectured on the virtue of reconciliation “There is no dishonour in seeking reconciliation,” remarked the Prime Minister.
Manmohan Singh, and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, are guilty of making a virtue of seeking reconciliation to the extent of avoiding confrontation; a luxury, statecraft does not permit a prime minister. Not being a politician or a lawyer or a policeman or a revenue officer or a businessman, Manmohan Singh happily assumes attributes of reasonableness, fair play and decency in everyone else. That is precisely his fault — and his undoing.
Historians will wonder how a man can be so unsparingly unsentimental and bloody-minded in pursuit of national interests vis-à-vis external interests; yet the same man allows his decent instincts to becloud his judgment about fellow-citizens.
Manmohan Singh is guilty of making the grievously erroneous assessment that Mob Anna was just a bunch of well-meaning civil society busybodies; he is guilty of not seeing through their incurable political agenda. And, he is definitely guilty of underestimating Mob Anna's cunning ability to manipulate the media's penchant to promote and project anyone masquerading as a modern-day Savonarola.
Manmohan Singh began his second innings on a wrong note. He is guilty of not being ruthless enough to crack open the Nira Radia tape case, a rogue operation carried by unscrupulous corporate elements. Different segments of corporate Indian drew different inferences. This can of worms was the logical culmination of the corporate war that has now come to be known in popular folklore as the “2Gscam”; in fact, it was the falling out among elegant thieves, who were (and are) resourceful enough to enlist the media and the ambitious “eager-weaver” among civil society activists, to convert their internecine corporate quarrels into a morality play.
In the best traditions of Joseph Goebbels, the civil society crusaders have neatly diverted attention away from the corporate sharks to “corrupt politicians.” Manmohan Singh may be charged with having led the country on a path of development which could only produce a greedy and rapacious capitalism with all its attendant aberrations of inequity and injustices. He is certainly guilty of not going after the corporate charlatans who have used and exploited the very openness of the democratic system to weaken the legitimate state so that their thuggery goes undetected and unpunished. It is indeed how Mob Anna and other pretenders reserve their moral indignation only for the political class and never for the beneficiaries of the political class' corruption.
Manmohan Singh is guilty of not marshalling the intellectual and policy arguments to tell the nation that Vinod Rai's maximalist interpretation of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG)'s mandate has dangerously undermined the constitutional structure of equilibrium. A myopic political class has allowed a wayward CAG to take advantage of its divisions.
Above all, Manmohan Singh is guilty of pursuing the noble quest for reconciliation at the expense of another maxim of statecraft: those who spurn the public authority's hand of reconciliation must be made to learn the cost of confrontation. He is guilty of not learning the lesson from the mid-1970s and early 1990s when mobs were allowed to overwhelm the democratic institutions and their liberal ethos. A king who chooses to ignore the first principle of statecraft that the royal staff must be tapped — and, tapped hard — once in a while should be prepared to be called corrupt.
(Harish Khare is a veteran commentator and political analyst.)