M D Nalapat
The Ides of March proved fatal to Gaius Julius Ceasar more than two thousand years ago, when he was felled by a large group of conspirators in the Theatre of Pompey in Rome. Several of those that stabbed him were his closest friends, people who may have been expected to defend rather than to murder him. These days, within Delhi and Mumbai, a similar group of conspirators has been active over the past eleven months, seeking to take away not his life but his job from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. And as in the case of Ceasar, many of those scripting his downfall are from his own party, and claim to be his ardent backers, often going before television cameras to “damn him with faint praise”.
Deja vu! A quarter-century ago, many of the same group that are nowadays active against Manmohan Singh were expending considerable effort on unseating his mentor, then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao. The Congress Party’s second non-Nehru Prime Minister (after the short-lived 1964-66 tenure of Lal Bahadur Shastri had incurred the anger of loyalists of the family that owned the party, by his refusal to step down after two years in office and hand over charge to a faithful retainer, Kunwar (Prince) Arjun Singh, who had been Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh when the Bhopal disaster took place, and who made arrangements for the safe escape of Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson from Bhopal. Despite the fact that it was on his watch that the world’s biggest industrial disaster took place, his 100% loyalty to the Nehru family ensured that Arjun Singh was given his fill of important jobs, ranging from chief ministership to Union Cabinet status and also Governor of important states.
Singh’s devotion to the Nehru family - a bond that is as deep as that shown by distinguished acolytes of the family such as Nobel Prizeman Amartya Sen and writer-academic Sunil Khilnani - is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru had cashiered Arjun Singh’s father for improper behavior in the 1950s Narasimha Rao was humiliated by first involving him in several court cases, through the testimony of dubious characters who were given much play by a media captive to the conspirators against him. False entries were placed in financial records to implicate him, and allegations were made that he accepted large sums of money as bribes. One particular businessman even packed currency notes into a suitcase to “prove” that he gave a similar gift to Rao, who (according to the businessman) was so unconcerned about detection that he even accepted the cash in the Prime Minister’s official residence! When all that failed to ensure his resignation, a split was engineered in the Congress Party that ensured a significant increase in seats for the BJP in the 1996 elections. Those who split the party in 1995 claimed that they were protesting against Rao’s “soft approach to the BJP”, but in fact ensured that the conditions got created for that party to form a short-lived government in 1996 that gave it the credibility needed to form a second and then a third government during 1998-2004.
When Narasimha Rao took over as PM, both Punjab as well as Kashmir were boiling. Large sums of cash were coming into Punjab from the UK, the US and Canada (besides Pakistan) to fuel the Khalistan movement, but neither London nor Ottawa nor Washington took any action against citizens who were funding terror groups in India. Rao gave his support to a decisive chief minister, Beant Singh, and both he as well as the new CM gave backing to the chief of police, K P S Gill, in his successful campaign to break the back of the Khalistan movement in the 1990s. In the case of Kashmir, Rao’s task was complicated by the support given by the Clinton administration to the Jihadis active in that state. Throughout Rao’s tenure as PM, the pressure on him by Clinton to make concessions to the “freedom fighters” in Kashmir was relentless, but the wily politician deflected this by a policy of agreeing to talk but refusing to make the substantive concessions demanded of him by the White House, concessions that would have led to civil war in India. It was during Rao’s time that then Governor of Kashmir General K V Krishna Rao implemented a policy of reconciliation with Kashmiri elements in the jihad that led to many of them switching sides and fighting together with the security forces against the Afghans, Arabs, Germans, Brits and others who were sent to fight in Kashmir. By the end of the 1990s, again thanks to the policies pursued by Narasimha Rao, the situation in Kashmir had begun to stabilize, in that domestic support for the armed struggle fell to unsustainable levels. With 9/11, US backing for the insurgency ended, with only Pakistan and Saud Arabia left to carry on with the task of helping the jihadis. These days, the Saudi component is far lower, thanks to the excellent relations between Delhi and Riyadh that has been the gift of King Abdullah.
After he lost the 1996 elections (due to the split engineered by Congress leaders who were thereafter placed in high positions by incoming Congress President Sonia Gandhi), Rao was subjected to a battery of lawsuits that kept him fearful of going to jail till he final months of his life. The same individuals are these days readying a blizzard of lawsuits against Manmohan Singh and his top bureaucrats, that are expected to be filed as soon as the PM quits. The expectation in the “Brutus Camp” is that this will take place by March, once an orchestrated attack gets mounted on the PM from all sides.
Will Manmohan Singh fall? Forewarned is forearmed, and he probably has a good idea of the miserable fate in store for him, were he to oblige his secret and open traducers and resign. The rest of his life will be spent in court, defending himself against charges brought against him by those that are these days feeling the lash of his campaign against corruption. During the past four months, Manmohan Singh has done more to fight graft than all his predecessors combined, and it is ironic that he is being labelled as the fountainhead of corruption instead of its scourge. Despite the fact that government agencies are riddled with corrupt elements close to the six politicians and two business houses that are orchestrating the campaign against him, the PM has been goading the Central Bureau of Investigation into taking action against the guilty. In the meantime, to create a diversion from the very real 2G scam (and to give relief to the other big scam that has been exposes, that involving the 2010 Commonwealth Games), there has surfaced an “S-scam” involving the Department of Space. While it is clear that the scientists in the Department of Space behaved with the recklessness of teenagers in seeking to gift some of their cronies with satellite space, thus far no one has made any allegation of bribery or wilful misuse of power. Any set of authorities makes both good decisions as well as bad decisions, but unless there be evidence of mala fide, it would be wrong to club such errors together with deliberate misuse of authority, such as took place in the 2G scam, when a few companies were given benefits through violation of procedures and the twisting of rules. The sole purpose behind the clamour about the so-called “S-scam” seems to be to derail Manmohan Singh, as he is also the Minister for Space. However, the PM seems to be willing and able to foght back.
He has made it clear that he intends to stay his full term in office, and during this time, bring to book those exposed of corruption. Certainly a lot has taken place during these few months, with even powerful businessmen and politicians being sent to jail. The PM has been helped by a fearless Chief Justice of India, who to seems determined to fight the corrupt, and who has made the Supreme Court a beacon illuminating the path towards a cleansing of the system. The other side - those thriving in a system where influence and bribes deliver governmental favours - is working hard to ensure the exit of Manmohan Singh. They may yet succeed. After all, they have the money needed to bribe officials and political leaders into doing their bidding. But if they fail, and the unlikely combination of India’s Chief Justice and Prime Minister succeeds in sending at least a few VVIPs to prison for loot, the country will have experienced its Second Wave of Reforms.