By Swapan Dasgupta
Dr Manmohan Singh has achieved the distinction of being the longest serving Prime Minister of India after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. For a man who was catapulted to the Finance Minister's post by sheer good fortune in 1991, rising to the top political job and holding it uninterruptedly for six years is no mean achievement. While his effectiveness as a PM has been questioned and he has had to face taunts of being India's "weakest PM", no one has doubted his integrity. In an India where politics has come to be associated with disrepute and sleaze, Singh's personal uprightness has been a redeeming feature for India. The country must truly be grateful that the only thing shady about 7 Race Course Road comes from the greenery.
The same standards of rectitude cannot, unfortunately, be applied to the UPA Government. Manmohan Singh has presided over a rotten government which would have been running for cover if India possessed a purposeful opposition.
The past two months has witnessed the spectacle of sleaze being complemented by ineptitude and growing political incoherence. The country is witnessing the sordid spectacle of a scandal-ridden Commonwealth Games holding the country's reputation to ransom and the Government stubbornly refusing to be accountable for the criminal mismanagement of public resources. Sports Minister Manohar Singh Gill assurance to make the CWG a "Punjabi wedding" and then advising MPs to file Right to Information petitions to know the details of expenditure on sports facilities must count among the more amusing facets of the UPA's disingenuous ways.
Last week's parliamentary furore over the 26-year-old Bhopal tragedy too could have been treated as a desi version of a Monty Python farce had the issue not been so incredibly tragic. We had the spectacle of the veteran Arjun Singh being wheeled into the Rajya Sabha for a one-point agenda: to rewrite history. And we then had the equally grim spectacle of Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram proffering the hypothesis that Arjun Singh's revisionism couldn't be countered because there were no records to indicate otherwise.
The end result was comic and an eye-opener for all those who imagined that India's political evolution had kept pace with its emergence as a new economic powerhouse. What India was told about the circumstances of the arrest and the subsequent release of Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson was an eye-opener. It seems that Arjun Singh unilaterally ordered Anderson's arrest in Bhopal, and then informed an inscrutable Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who heard the news in silence. Subsequently, Anderson was released and flew from Bhopal to Delhi on a State Government that had apparently been requisitioned without the Chief Minister's knowledge—a fact apparently contradicted by the logbook. The then Foreign Secretary M.K. Rasgotra had earlier said that the US had negotiated a "safe passage" for Anderson, but the present Home Minister is in no position to confirm or deny it. Arjun Singh has said that he came under pressure from the Union Home Ministry, then headed by P.V. Narasimha Rao, to release Anderson. But as a good Thakur he did not wilt. Anderson left in the state government aircraft but without the Chief Minister's knowledge.
This version of history endorsed by the Congress Party is charming in its stubborn refusal to be influenced by empirical detail and common sense. Anderson, it would seem, was arrested on the express orders of the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister but was released without him or the Prime Minister knowing, perhaps at the intervention of the Union Home Minister who may have also been responsible for the decision to let him leave the country. In short, to blame Rajiv Gandhi for any collusive involvement is a travesty; only Rao has a case to answer.
Last week's curious revelation which can't be confirmed or denied because the paper trail has disappeared has served to reaffirm a principle on which all Congress governments have rested: the King (or Queen) can do no wrong. The absolute sanctity of a monarch's decision may be a quaint principle of Britain's unwritten Constitution where the Head of State is above politics. In India, however, this principle has acquired a new meaning.
Thus, while all Prime Ministers of the proverbial Regency period—and these include Rao and the present incumbent—are answerable for all their actions, the monarchical Prime Ministers are above all scrutiny. Rao can be blamed for the events leading up to the demolition of the Babri shrine in Ayodhya but it just won't do to extend the responsibility to the man who overturned the Shah Bano verdict and ensured to opening of the locks of the disputed place of worship. Manmohan can be blamed for policies that contributed to the steep rate of inflation but it is the height of impertinence to suggest that the Congress President's programme of profligate spending had anything to do with the mess in public finances. Sonia Gandhi, as we have seen, is never wrong; at best she is occasionally 'misled'.
Today, Manmohan Singh is basking in the thrill of political longevity and enjoying the public rewards of personal integrity. He would do well to live for the present. The Congress' own history won't be so kind to his record. Like Rao, he is destined to be the fall guy because the Queen and her family can do no wrong.