By Swapan Dasgupta
The unwritten British Constitution operates on the quaintly-expressed principle that 'the Queen can do no wrong'. In the Congress' monarchical system, it is understood that Sonia Gandhi can do no wrong; she is just 'misled'.
It does no good to the self-esteem of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that his spin-doctors have to fall back on the same plea that in pushing through P.J. Thomas' appointment as Central Vigilance Commissioner, he erred because he too was 'misled'.
Being 'misled' is a human frailty; it is not an obligation. In the case of the CVC appointment, was the PM and Home Minister P.Chidambaram genuinely convinced that the unresolved criminal case against Thomas was a trivial issue, akin to a long-forgotten charge of rash driving, that shouldn't be allowed to blot his otherwise flawless service record? Did they proceed on the belief that the CVC is not very different from just any other post-retirement sinecure for malleable babus? Were they inspired by the way the Government bulldozed the appointment of Naveen Chawla as Chief Election Commissioner in 2009, disregarding the advice of the incumbent N.Gopalaswami to remove him from Nirvachan Sadan altogether? Did a need to whitewash the 2-G scam enter their calculations?
Alternatively, did Singh and Chidambaram say "ours not to reason why" and blindly follow orders?
In a nutshell, were two accomplished politicians casualties of calculated misjudgement or were they 'misled' by the forces of darkness?
To many, concerned by the sharp dip in national morale, a post-mortem of an unhappy episode that has shamed both the PM and the UPA Government and established the principle of judicial review of questionable appointments to Constitutional and statutory posts may seem needless. What matters is that the 'system' has learnt its lessons and thinks twice before colluding in future acts of subterfuge.
The furore over what the PM has called "irregularities" in the 2-G spectrum sale, the S-band contract, the Hasan Ali Khan case and the conduct of the Commonwealth Games has been salutary. They have firmly reminded all players that there is a principle of accountability that extends to politicians, bureaucrats and other holders of public posts. Even the judiciary has not been insulated from the process. The fury of the popular revulsion against corruption may well be having some effect.
Have the lessons from the ongoing process of ethical cleansing been learnt and internalised? Is it time to lower the temperature, allow the investigations to be completed in an atmosphere of calm and let the Government get on with the business of governance? This certainly is what Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj has magnanimously suggested in her tweet—an unhappy medium of communication for India's politicians.
It is possible that the tone of the PM's statement to Parliament on Monday will be contrite and address these questions. If he speaks from the heart and conveys a message of sincerity and determination to make a fresh start, he may yet reassure a nation deeply troubled by the prevailing deficits in governance and ethics. A disoriented Congress is extremely fortunate that despite all the opprobrium heaped on him, Singh enjoys a personal credibility—considerably eroded after his admission of helplessness before coalition pressures and, now, the CVC judgment. With the Government having completed just over one-third of its full term, the electorate hasn't yet moved from exasperation to disgust and anger. There is still a willingness to give the PM a final chance—something that has restrained an Opposition buoyant after a series of political victories.
A feature of political life in India is the constant mismatch between the popular mood and the expectations of the karyakartas (activists) of political parties. The people may be inclined to indulge the Prime Minister for a little while longer, not least because it is fearful of the in-house alternative, but the mood in the Congress is far more restive.
It is interesting that in the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgment on the CVC—coming within a month of the farcical ministerial reshuffle and days of the Government's surrender on the Joint Parliamentary Committee probe of the 2-G scam—a large section of the Congress has been gripped by doubts over the PM's skills of political management. There is a growing perception that the system of dyarchy that served the UPA so well in its first term is coming unstuck. The vicious attacks by National Advisory Council members on the Government are being seen as a proxy war.
Like P.V. Narasimha Rao who was undone by a 'royalist' revolt from within, Singh is being targeted by those who can no longer accept the separation of ownership and day-to-day management.
The danger is that brewing revolt also contains the seeds of a potential 'counter-revolution'. A party that has traditionally prospered on the strength of government-disbursed patronage is inclined to favour brazenness as the natural response to political attacks—a hallmark of Indira Gandhi and the latter Rajiv Gandhi. Such a mindset deems it natural for all government appointments (not excluding judicial appointments) to be governed foremost by considerations of loyalty and accommodation. By this logic, a weak Singh has conceded too much space to the forces of rectitude and has been unable to safeguard partisan self-interest deftly, perhaps because he is 'non-political'.
For too many in the political class, good politics still means venality. They will not rest until the happy days are here again.