By Swapan Dasgupta
Even in this age of cynicism and despondency, there is some sanctity attached to the personal statement of a Prime Minister to Parliament. Did Manmohan Singh consider the horrifying implications of what he told MPs last Friday afternoon while entering his 'not guilty' plea to the charges of bribing Opposition MPs during the Trust vote of July 2008?
It is not that anyone has seriously accused the PM of inviting potential turncoats to Race Course Road to settle the proverbial terms of trade. Mercifully, such things still don't happen in the presence of the PM—although for how much longer is a moot point. However, most people will take his assertion that he was "unaware" of the political auctions being conducted that fateful fortnight after the Left withdrew support as being only technically correct. The PM was 'unaware' insofar as an average citizen is unaware that there are rampant cash transactions in the real estate business. We are aware that builders routinely demand under-the-table payments (and even the PM said so at the India Today Conclave) but we may be personally 'unaware' of specific transactions.
In July 2008, every remotely well-informed person in the political class was aware that the dalals had opened shop and were offering mouth-watering sums for every extra vote for the Government. At that time, A.B. Bardhan put the incentive payment at Rs 20 crore per MP—a sum that seems an exaggeration, if the version of the US diplomat realeased by WikiLeak is to be believed. It is also said that Opposition MPs were not approached indiscriminately: the targeting of potential defectors was preceded by a careful profiling exercise that bore a spooky signature.
As the principal political officer of the Government of India with the greatest access to information, the PM was probably aware that such an operation was being undertaken—every newspaper reader and TV watcher knew that. He was possibly "unaware" of the operational aspects of what the dirty tricks departments were up to. After all, even President Richard Nixon didn't have prior knowledge of the burglary in the Democratic Party office in the Watergate building in 1972.
Equally, it would be fair to say that the PM never "authorised anyone" to procure votes, just as another WikiLeak document states P.Chidambaram never authorised his son to Karti to dole out money to the voters of Sivaganga. People rarely authorise—was A.Raja 'authorised' to play havoc with 2-G allotments? These things presumably happen because, well, they happen.
It would be interesting to know if the daily intelligence briefing given to the PM by the heads of the two intelligence agencies and the National Security Adviser conveyed any information about the underground trade in MPs. If they did, it would call into question PM's initial remark to the India Today Conclave that he was "unaware". If the agencies made him broadly aware that the fears of horse-trading were real, did he do anything to save parliamentary democracy from disrepute? Or, did he wilfully choose to be the most habitually unaware PM in history? Since the price of knowledge involved the possible loss of power, did the PM choose the path of ignorance?
It is intriguing that in the course of 200 minutes, the PM shifted tack from being personally "unaware" to telling Parliament that the "Government rejects the allegations of bribery as mentioned in WikiLeak; nobody from the Congress or Government was engaged in any unlawful act."
The implications of this blanket rejection are profound. Unlike the morning when he hid behind being "unaware", this time the PM suggested that he was aware that "nobody" from either the Congress or the Government participated in any lawful act. The statement in Parliament suggested he was speaking from a position of knowledge. In asserting this, the PM was in effect standing surety for the army of disreputable characters—many of whom may well be primary members of the Congress—who were unleashed on Lutyens' Delhi to lure MPs.
The WikiLeak documents may well be nominally "unverified and unverifiable"—although Ambassador Mulford seems to believe that US diplomatic cables are not bereft of credibility—but they seem to suggest a significant role of the likes of Captain Satish Sharma and Nachiketa Kapoor in a cash and carry operation. Is the Prime Minister standing surety for such people? Does he realise that he has rendered himself a hostage to all those shadowy creatures who may have bribed MPs or at least tried to bribe them? Is the fate of the PM likely to be in the hands of individuals who may routinely threaten to turn approver or whistle-blower? Has the PM made his Government vulnerable to blackmail?
That bribes were paid by one Sanjiv Saxena, an aide of former Samajwadi MP Amar Singh, was noted by the Parliamentary Committee headed by Kishore Chandra Deo. Is the PM suggesting that Operation Bribery was independent initiative of a section of the Samajwadi Party? Has he calculated that in the event of the controversy persisting, he can make someone who was not in the Congress the fall guy?
In choosing to shift from ignorance to outright denial, the PM has gambled his reputation on the abrupt end of this controversy. But what happens if the fuss refuses to die and something more damaging emerges from a thorough criminal inquiry? Where will that leave Manmohan Singh?