Saturday 13 August 2011

A Political Meltdown in Delhi? (PO)

M D Nalapat
Both the print as well as the electronic media rely on opinion surveys to track the mood of the people, and these are proving to be depressing reading for the Congress Party, specifically for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Although he himself is still considered — correctly, in the view of this columnist - to a personally honest, yet the picture that has emerged from recent revelations of the functioning of his government is that of a man helpless in the face of the limitless greed of the party bosses for treasure. An effective presentation was made of the facts in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) by Leader of the Opposition and BJP leader Arun Jaitley ( who, like the BJP-appointed Lower House Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj is a Punjabi). Jaitley showed that it was Manmohan Singh himself who ensured the selection of the jailed Suresh Kalmadi as Chairman of the Organising Committee (OC) of the 2010 Commonwealth Games at Delhi. Kalmadi is regarded as having favoured a clutch of companies in which leaders of the Congress Party (and a few other groups) were financially interested in. Although two Sports Ministers, Sunil Dutt and Mani Shankar Aiyar, protested, the PM went ahead with making Kalmadi all-in-all of the Games, despite the fact that almost all of the $6 billion spent on the Games came from the taxpayer.

By definition, Congress President Sonia Gandhi can do no wrong. Hence, when it was implied that Manmohan Singh acted under her pressure in giving control of the Commonwealth Games to Kalmadi, there was an uproar within Congress ranks. Any member of the party can be sacrificed - and a few more will assuredly be - to ensure that the dirt does not land at the doors of Dus Number (10 Janpath, Sonia Gandhi’s official residence). Indeed, the awesome power of India’s ruling family was vividly demonstrated in the silence of the media over her hospitalisation in the US for cancer surgery. Not even the foreign media dared to intrude on her privacy and provide details of the family members and others who have been clustering in New York in apartments and hotels to be with her in her hour of need. It would have been an easy matter for the New York Times or other large US news outlets to get full access to the hospital where she is being treated,but fear of the consequences seems to have silenced the entire foreign media from reproducing any except information beyond the skeletal handouts released by Sonia Gandhi’s Congress Party over her condition. The indian media is, of course, too aware of the baleful consequences of attracting the attention of the many agencies functioning under those two faithful loyalists of Sonia Gandhi, Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to dare to rip apart her privacy the way US and UK media do with their own leaders. Hence the curious situation in which there is a complete news blackout (if one disregards the few lines of official press releases) about the health condition of the most powerful personality in India.

Unlike Manmohan Singh and numerous citizens of the US and the UK who come to India to go through medical procedures, the Congress President chose to go to the US for treatment of her ailment. This does not mean that facilities are not available in India. Over the past two decades, the country has emerged as one of the best low-cost locations for state-of-the-art treatment, thereby provoking the ire of champions of European health providers such as the British journal LANCET. This publication has been carrying on a systematic campaign against health facilities in India, with the clear intention of blocking the flow of “health tourists” to that country. However, the clearly interested nature of such propaganda means that few take the fulminations of LANCET seriously, knowing that it is a PR instrument for European and US health practitioners.

Last month, after two years of increasing discomfort and immobility, the younger brother of this columnist underwent a full diagnostic procedure, and was shown to have a tumour within the spinal column. A check of facilities in India was made to locate those that had both excellent equipment and medical personnel (after all, just having good doctors without world-class equipment is like Michael Schumacher having to drive a passenger car in a race rather than a racing car). Finally, the search was narrowed down to two facilities, Delhi’s Spinal and Neuro Centre and Vikram Hospital (in Bangalore). The latter was chosen, as my brother stays in Bangalore, and hence would suffer least dislocation while hospitalised. Two weeks ago, a team of doctors led by Dr Chandramouli and Dr Mohan Rao did an 11-hour operation that took out the neural tumour. By the mercy of the Almighty, early indications are that the problem has been cured. Incidentally, Bangalore is also the home of the world-famous Dr Devi Shetty, who has operated on several patients from Pakistan. Indeed, patients from Pakistan are welcome in hospitals across India, because in just a few minutes, the tensions between the two countries melt away in the face of the strong feelings of human empathy that never fail to come up whenever Indians and Pakistanis come together. While there are excellent treatment facilities in India for the treatment of her ailment, the decision as to where to go to cure a life-threatening ailment is a personal one, and Sonia Gandhi’s decision to go to the US must be respected. Also, all should wish her a speedy recovery.

It is the essential humanity found within the people of India and Pakistan that gives hope for the dawn of an era of brotherhood between the two major powers. This columnist has never been to Pakistan, but has met Pakistanis across the globe, and have always been treated by them with warmth and courtesy. Indeed, in the US during past decades, he was often invited to speak at various gatherings of Pakistani-Americans about the common problems faced by both peoples, and in every one of them he was listened to with attention, although of course the views expressed by the audience did not (at least in the matter of Kashmir) conform to his own. While there are still visa and other problems in getting people to come to either country, perhaps Sri Lanka would be a good venue for informal dialogues between non-official Indians and Pakistanis as they search for ways to work together to extinguish the true enemies of the people: Poverty, Bad Housing, Poor Education and Weak Healthcare. Returning to the political scene in India, it seems clear that the Manmohan Singh government is on a downward slide. The Prime Minister has himself given way to the youthful Rahul Gandhi in the popularity sweepstakes. Should this decline continue, the chances are that the Congress Party will get less than a hundred seats in the next election, or less than half its 2009 tally. Several within the upper rungs of the party are saying - more and more openly - that the only way to stem the rot is to replace Manmohan Singh as PM. Although their first choice is Rahulmost agree that the Heir Apparent of the Congress Party does not show any inclination to assume the responsibilities of governance. Indeed, he has even refused to be a Cabinet Minister, a job that has been on offer since 2009. Hence they say that the replacement ought to be A K Antony, a leader from Kerala who has retained hishumble way of life despite getting into powerful positions, including his present responsibility of Defense Minister. Interestingly, informed groups say that over the past year, key politicians in India have taken away their Swiss bank holdings by converting bank deposits to bankers cheques and taking these away. Hence, they say that very high levels of the political class will no longer have a problem if Antony begins a policy of identifying and getting back Indian cash in Swiss banks.

Indeed, should Antony take over as PM, that is precisely what he is expected to do. Unlike the present Finance Minisrer, who has been dragging his feet even on the names in his possession such as the 820-plus Indian depositors of the HSBC bank in Geneva, a list of which has been in his possession for months. Pranab Mukherjee has thus far done a very poor job of rooting out cash from Swiss banks, but if he were to become PM, A K Antony may be much more active. This would improve the standing of the Congress Party, and perhaps even ensure its victory in a fresh election. While Antony is at work getting back cash from Swiss banks, Rahul Gandhi is expected to take charge of the Congress Party because of the illness of his mother. Thus he would be the Sonia Gandhi to Antony’s Manmohan Singh.

Change seems to be hovering around Zone Raisina in Delhi, the square mile within which key decisions get taken. The present drift is unsustainable, and the present PM seems to have lost the plot. He seems a helpless and forlorn figure, being skewered for decisions that he was too weak to avoid. Of course, miracles do occur and Manmohan Singh may suddenly emerge as a decisive figure. But short of that, he seems to be developing into too big a liability for the Congress Party to retain.

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