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Time for another government


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THERE are enough saints to fill a thick register, but few who etch an impression on the collective memory.

St Augustine, who lived between 354 and 430 A.D., has left such an indelible mark that no anthology of quotations is complete without him. One prayer, recorded for posterity in Book 3 of Confessions, bears the burden of any immortal aphorism: it is almost always misquoted, although never misrepresented. Augustine prays to the Lord: “Give me chastity and continency — but not yet!”

This could serve as the motto of any government in Delhi. Every minister wants to be chaste and honest, but only after he is out of office. When in power, ministers install a taxi metre outside their cabins, clocking up a running account of payments that go into their private pockets. UPA2 has become the dark and fetid nemesis of UPA1.

Scams are born fast. The initial deal is done quickly enough. It does not take long to communicate intention on both sides; brokers are efficient. If any time is lost, it is only in the haggle. The sums involved, after all, are staggering. But since both sides know that they are going to do the deal in any case, negotiations end within a reasonable time frame. What takes time is the unravelling of the scam.

The business project has to shift from paper to ground and then begin to deliver. Someone has to complain. The relevant police or anti-corruption agency has to be persuaded to take the complaint seriously.

It then takes years for a body like the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) to put together a meticulous report that can withstand the scrutiny of those who are going to be exposed: bribegivers and bribe-takers invest a lot in legal advice and PR management to save their thin skins. And even after exposure, the revelations may not quite catch fire instantly.

The massive scam in coal blocks has been known for a while; the involvement of the minister’s relatives in this loot, and the corruption of his predecessor, is also hardly a secret. But the real fuse was set off when Team Anna brought Prime Minister Manmohan Singh into the line of fire.

There has been much hand-wringing by the establishment, all around the lines that the PM’s personal integrity is unimpeachable. Perhaps it is, although it says something that the qualifying term has shifted from certainty to ‘perhaps’. But the PM cannot escape one fact. He has been the senior minister in charge of coal ever since Shibu Soren resigned. If this massive looting took place under his watch, then he has to be accountable. If he signed away the nation’s resources, then he has to answer, even if others took the loot. The only response he might have, and it may even be an honest one, is that he did not read the files, but that is inadequate.

It is ironic that a prime minister who has often claimed, publicly, that his life is an open book should preside over a government that is nothing but an unending series of closed books. No government since 1947 has had such a continuous record of corruption, a venal sin now compounded by collapse of governance. In 2009, Dr Singh had a track record he could campaign on. By 2012, this record has been so vitiated that the Congress cannot go to the people and ask for their vote. They will not give it, either.

Mrs Sonia Gandhi recognises this. Her body language at even core group meetings indicates her total frustration. She knows that the time has come to change the government, because if she does not change it, the people will, and when they do so even tatters might not be visible.

The political calendar provides an opportunity. A president is due to be elected. Congress silence about its candidate has led to speculation about all sorts of hidden horses, some dark, others speckled, and even a couple which are visibly lame but still insistent that they are in the race. Mrs Gandhi can do her party a world of good by promoting Dr Singh to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and then installing a radically different government. She has a natural successor in Pranab Mukherjee.

While the chattering classes insist that there is a gulf of suspicion between the two, surely they have now worked together long enough to put sentiment aside.

Politics is a hard place. It needs cool decisions. Mrs Gandhi does not have options, as Dr Singh’s replacement must be acceptable to allies and, more important, the people of the country. She may want to see her son Rahul Gandhi as prime minister, but that idea will not walk in the immediate future. Rahul Gandhi could have won his spurs in UP. He did not.

This transition to Mr Mukherjee can happen in mid-June. It may not, to repeat another memorable quote, this time from the WWII leader Winston Churchill, mark the beginning of the end, but it could end the disastrous beginning of UPA2.

The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London, and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (15) Closed

Siva D Jun 03, 2012 03:08pm
Dr. Singh has politically far outlived his sell by date. As a person, he may have high personal fiscal integrity. That does not absolve him of all the sins of commission done under his leadership. In fact it is no virtue if you arehonest but allow those around you to loot and pillage. It is called incompetence at best. In fact, he is worse than other run off the mill politicians because his personal shield of integrity has been Very effective in deflecting the limelight from the looters. The unfortunate thing is that there is no obvious alternative in the opposition either. Some may be financially uncorrupt like a few leaders of the main opposition party, but they have greater ethical problems like indulging in communalism or protecting those who do. Overall, a pretty dismal picture.
Tariq K Sami Jun 03, 2012 05:09pm
Agree with Pathanoo Perhaps making the PM tenure to 4 yrs will in some way shorten the corruption. And or : make a fast acting accountability bureau with good staff and resources and fire power. When you say the Caliphate you must always take the good with the bad. The first 4 pious Caliph served a total of less than 22 years while the history goes on for 13 centuries after that. Omar bin Khattab always comes to mind : To end with his short inaugural speech, "the strongest amongst you is the weakest in eyes, the weakest amongst you is the strongest in my eyes until I have restored to him his right." Neither the President of USA nor the Prime Minister of India or the Queen of England nor the King of Saudi Arabia can make this sort of speech in today's world.
sriram Jun 03, 2012 04:56pm
The country knows very well that the PM was knowing what was happening whether it was 3G or Coalgate, but simply looked the other way. A big let down for the people who stood by him and paved way for his election as PM for the second time in 2009. Even if Mr. Pranab Mukherjee takes his place, unless the persons involved in this loot at brought to book, which is highly unlikely, nothing much will change for Congress.
HWG Jun 03, 2012 12:43pm
Bringing Pranab Mukherjee will not make any difference than a mild surprise. It will only prove that Manmohan Singh left power in ignominy.What is required is to take bold decision against corruption and price rise. Manmonha has turn out to be a disappointment in UPA II with so many scandals coming out.
pathanoo` Jun 03, 2012 12:21pm
An Islamic Caliphate perhaps? Faaiz?
pathanoo` Jun 03, 2012 12:23pm
Reversing the universal sufferage? Do you understand the concept,dear Farhan? Looking for the Caliphate? You too?
hariharmani Jun 03, 2012 01:13pm
Nothing will suit us,as we are severely flawed people,society and civilization.Beyond repair.MJA as always is thoughtful,but he is in wrong place.
Cyrus Howell Jun 03, 2012 04:37am
."He who conceals a useful truth is equally guilty with the propagator of an injurious falsehood." -- Saint Augustine, Christian philosopher
shahidk Jun 03, 2012 05:20am
No offense , lets please look at our own state of affairs , instead of wasting time and intellect in analyzing the neighboring political diabolism, in spite of all the problems they may have , they are still much better placed in very area of Geo political or socio economic comparisons.
M.FAAIZ Gilgity Jun 03, 2012 06:35am
Political system is proving to be a big failure for all developing countries including pakistan.
manghirmalani Jun 03, 2012 08:18am
MJ why do you lie "He who conceals a useful truth is equally guilty with the propagator of an injurious falsehood."
S. Zafar Iqbal Jun 03, 2012 09:14am
Incidentally, Mr. M.J. Akbar IS writing about HIS country. He is a renowned Indian journalist, an editor of Sunday Guardian, published in New Delhi, and a regular contributor to Dawn. Though we can always learn from others, but, in a way, you are right, it really does not interest us, as it has no relevance to our situation. But some people might want to know what is going on in the neighborhood. This is obviously meant for them. And it is a good , meaningful analysis of the their politics.
Farhan Jun 03, 2012 09:31am
Democracy does not suit us. We need a different form of governance. Off course dictatorship is not an alternative but something else has to be seen,. May be reversing the universal suffrage should be first step. Iqbal pointed out 80 years before that in Western democratic system, we just count people but not weigh them. We need to devise a system which suits our environment
pradip Jun 03, 2012 09:51pm
LOL! Big time brother! Thanks for that.
Mustafa Jun 04, 2012 12:00am
I am in no mood to hear bleak story about India when Pakistan is sunk in an all time bleak period. Let us concentrate on Pakistan.