My Column in today’s DNA
One of Oscar Wilde’s most famous plays was the Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. A hilarious farce, it tells the journey of people who cover up their follies and foibles with assumed persona and nifty wordplay. The play revolves around John Worthing, a sort of staid and boring man, and his alter ego — the fun-loving Earnest and his wooing of a young lady. When asked about his parentage, Earnest tells the girl’s mother that he lost both of them, as an infant. The mother, Lady Bracknell, then goes on to utter one of the most famous lines in English Drama “To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. “
These were the lines that came to mind on Friday, when the prime minister lost not just one, but two ministers to growing public pressure. Pawan Bansal stepped down after his nephew Vijay Singla was arrested red-handed taking a bribe of Rs90 lakh to fix a railway board appointment. Bansal, at first denied, then blustered, then fattened a goat (we still don’t know if it was sacrificed), and then when all else failed went to the prime minister’s office and resigned. He, of course, denied that he had any business dealings with his nephew. While Bansal’s case was clear cut, nephew caught with hand in the till — the case of the second sacrificial goat, law minister Ashwani Kumar, was much more complex. He made changes to the CBI report on coal allocation and told the courts that he merely acted as copy editor, correcting grammar. The supreme court took a dim view of the verbal jugglery and spanked the government, in public, for changing the “heart of the report”. The government got upbraided further for keeping the CBI caged like a “parrot with many masters”. An untenable position for a law minister to be publicly reprimanded by the highest court in the country. After much dithering he too went. In both cases the Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi and the newly anointed general secretary Rahul Gandhi were supposed to have played a key role in ensuring their exit — or so the media leaks said. No one in the media sought to ask, why the party chief is taking a call on the cabinet that ought to be the sole purview of the prime minister.
UPA II reminds one of the Oscar Wilde play beyond the Lady Bracknell quote. It is the very adoption of the dual persona — that tries to balance an out-dated concept of hereditary leadership with much more modern concepts of constitutional institutions, checks and balances and separation of powers. It is the portrayal of a façade of ‘all is well’ when it is not. Add to this, the sophisticated nifty wordplay that seeks to put out fires — “zero loss”, “grammar changes” for example. And, while both the dual persona and catchy sound bytes are great to watch as entertainment, they erode credibility.
If anything has been the hallmark of the current government, it is the violation of procedures and processes, leading to favours for friends and family — also known as cronies. In earlier years of this government, the spokespeople could get away by saying “coalition dharma”, but with the coalition itself in tatters there is no one left to blame. While individual ministers have taken decisions that have bent the rules, the trail seems to stop with them. In an ideal world the prime minister is first amongst equals and has the authority to get his team, the cabinet, to deliver; he takes credit when it does, and is accountable and responsible when it does not. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case with this government. And, that is for one very good reason — authority and responsibility have been split. Authority seems to rest with Ms Gandhi and accountability with Singh. The prime minister’s office ought to be the epicentre of decision-making in India. But, the current regime has seen a tremendous whittling down of the institution of the prime minister and his office. The strategy of a dual power centre might have done the party good, but in turn it has damaged the process of decision making, and the office of the prime minister. And, now the tussle between the government of India and the largest political party that controls it for power, has spilled out into the open.
In a world where 24-hour instant media dominates, having a reticent, media-shy PM does not help. While one does not expect the prime minister of India to be conducting affairs of the State under the arc lights of television studios, periodic interaction with the voter would have gone some way in restoring some of the credibility of the office of the prime minister. The key points to remember are that parliament represents India and makes laws for India; the cabinet or the executive executes or implements the law for all India. While members may belong to different political parties, they work for India. The prime minister of India is not a party post; it is the post of the actual (as opposed to nominal) head of government. And that authority of the office, of decision making, is what needs to be restored. The principle of unity of command — where one person only reports to one boss — has to be restored. While in a complex organisation such as government, there may be many who choose to influence, but decision-making has to be left at one point to the cabinet led by the prime minister. This diarchy — of having two heads of government — is costing the country dear by decimating the command structure of the executive. It needs to end for the good of the country.