By MD Nalapat
Even those who disagree with the policies and approaches favoured by Sonia Gandhi will agree that she has been very effective in ensuring her sway over first the Congress Party and subsequently the Government of India. That she was hugely influential throughout the term in office of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi was no secret. Contract after contract got awarded to an Italian conglomerate that had as its fixer in Delhi, a person by the name of Ottavio Quattrocchi. While Sonia Gandhi’s admirers claim that the Quattrocchi and Maino clans were and are distant from each other, others claim that even now, his wife and children meet frequently with the Mainos, even spending holidays together.
Certainly, only intervention from the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao ensured that the Italian middleman was enabled to escape from India in 1994, never to return. Almost before the aircraft in which he was travelling from Delhi touched down in Europe, Sonia Gandhi got launched a campaign against Rao, inspiring admirers such as ND Tiwari and Arjun Singh to even float a new party, although she disappointed them by not being present at the launch. In 1996, the split in Congress votes caused by the Tiwari-Singh faction, added to the dip in the party’s image because of their incessant cries that it was Rao rather than the BJP that was the main enemy resulted in the defeat of the Congress Party and the subsequent ouster of Rao, who unwisely agreed to surrender the post of Congress President to a man who each day used to fall prostrate at his feet, Sitarm Kesri. Just hours after taking over as AICC President, instead of reaching out for Rao’s feet (the way he had till then), Kesri grabbed at his political throat, soon bundling Rao out of the leadership of the Congress Parliamentary Party as well, with help from Sharad Pawar. In a short while, he was himself turfed out, being replaced by Sonia Gandhi in a coup masterminded by K Karunakaran.
So pervasive has been the charm of Sonia Gandhi that her interests were energetically protected by the NDA, under the gentleman Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who treated the Congress President as an adopted daughter, despite the fact that it had been Sonia Gandhi who had persuaded J Jayalalithaa in 1999 to withdraw support from the NDA and join with the Congress Party to form an alternative government. That move collapsed only because Sonia Gandhi insisted on her party forming the government on its own, with her other partners having to be content with a supporting role.
This was not acceptable to Mulayam Singh, who declined to support a government led by Sonia Gandhi, and who has since been kept out of the Central government by Sonia Gandhi. Reports are that this spell in the purgatory of being neither ruling nor opposition will end soon, and that the Samajwadi Party and the Congress Party will once again team up, with (if they get enough seats) Akhilesh Yadav as the new CM of UP and Mulayam Singh taking over a key ministry in Delhi, the way Ajit Singh has. As the example of Jaipal Reddy shows, Sonia Gandhi is willing to forgive past critics if expediency demands, although she may not forget.
Indeed, during the six years that the NDA was in office, pro-Congress elements were given priority over nationalists in the shows broadcast by All-India Radio and Doordarshan. The then National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra was very respectful of the feelings of the Pakistan army, and helped ensure that many scholars who had consistently opposed the Pakistan army disappeared from AIR and Doordarshan, getting replaced by those close to 10 Janpath (and to Pakistan). It is also not possible to forget or to excuse the fact that it was the NDA that allowed Ottavio Quattrocchi to escape from Malaysia, because of the CBI presenting a shoddy case before the courts in that country, a case prepared by the Union Ministry of Law. No official responsible for Mr Q’s escape has had his or her career harmed in the slightest. Instead, many have been protected and promoted by the UPA.
Returning to the ideology of Sonia Gandhi, those tracking the tension and subsequent snipping that was directed against PV Narasimha Rao by her were of the view that the root of it was personality. That Sonia could not abide a person outside the clan being PM, is much the same way that Indira Gandhi looked with scorn at Lal Bahadur Shastri. However, after an analysis of the way her government has been functioning since 2004, it is clear that it was ideology more than personality that was behind the cooling of relations between Rao and Sonia. The AICC President is a believer in the Nehru model of governance, which is founded on the European colonial principle that the people of India are immature and need guidance and control by a strong hand. While admirers of Jawaharlal Nehru across the globe see him as the “Father of Democracy” in India, the reality is that Nehru continued (with a few cosmetic changes) the forms and processes of governance that had been established by the British. Over more than two centuries, the East India Company and post-1857 the Crown had put in place a system of governance which obliged the population to seek permission from one official or the other and often more than one before undertaking most tasks.
Every day of his life, the citizen was faced with roadblocks that could only be crossed if some official agreed to step aside. The consequence of such micro-management was a steady shrinking of economic welfare. The share of India in global output fell from 24 per cent in 1820 to less than a twentieth of that by the time in 1946 that signs of mutiny within the armed forces (epecially the navy) finally convinced Whitehall that India could no longer be held, and that it was best to leave.
While India has a relatively democratic constitution, thanks to individuals such as BR Ambedkar, the country still has a colonial criminal code and a colonial system of administration. So does Singapore, except that the difference is that in that city-state, the administration is free from corruption, and hence delivers results. In India, while the vast discretionary power of the colonial state remain in the hands of those in control of the machinery of government, there is so much corruption that the administration has become much of a burden and a hindrance as was the case under the British. What the people of India are enduring today is the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, whose concept of democracy was to give people the right to vote in exchange for taking away all other rights. “Freedom” should not come once every five years, but ought to be present 24/7 in the citizen’s life. Unfortunately, in India almost any activity necessitates a visit to a government office and the payment of a bribe to secure a service. This is in line with the core philosophy of Nehruism, which is that the people of India ought to be treated the way children are. They should always be under supervision and guidance, the way it was under colonial rule. It is a philosophy that has been wholeheartedly accepted by Sonia Gandhi, and which she is making sure her government follows.
Narasimha Rao and A B Vajpayee had a different vision from that of the Nehruvians, which was that the people of India were not immature but adult. That they could be trusted with the same rights and freedoms as populations in Europe or North America enjoy. Rao and later Vajpayee began to dismantle the colonial-style web of powers and procedures that stifled initiative in India. He was less than 20 per cent successful, but even this small change has resulted in a significant increase in economic output and public expression. Both the courts as well as the media became more independent of the executive during the five year tenure of Rao. After that, it was only during the AB Vajpayee regime that a further increase in the discretionary power of the citizen vis-a-vis the state took place, to about 30 per cent of the desired level. Once the UPA came to power, year by year since 2004 the level of discretion available to the citizen has fallen, so that it is now close to 15 per cent. Before the next Lok Sabha elections in 2014, it may fall still further, to the colonial level of 10 per cent that was the case during the regimes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The latter had even less compunction than her father in taking away the rights of citizens, in the process creating potential future minefields in international law. An example was her 1969 decision to abolish the rights granted to the former royal families through the Instruments of Accession signed by each in 1947. It is this framework of covenants that is the legal basis of much of the Union of India, including the State of Kashmir. By unilaterally breaking such a covenant, Indira Gandhi has shown her contempt for the very process that resulted in the accession of the princely states to the Union of India. What if Islamabad now brings up before the International Court of Justice that the accession of Kashmir is void, because Indira Gandhi’s government unilaterally tore up these covenants by her arbitrary action of unilaterally breaking the solemn promise made by the Government of India in 1947 to the former rulers of the princely states? In the colonial form of administration continued by Nehru and his succesors, promises made by the “rulers” to the “natives” are not to be taken seriously. In the British-Nehru system of governance being followed since 1947, the “rulers” are those who man the machinery of government, while the rest of the population comprise the “natives”.
This columnist has been to several countries that have been democratic for many more decades than India has been. In each, those in government do not observe the wall between the Governors and the Governed that is commonplace in “democratic” India. Take the example of Sonia Gandhi. Whoever be the Prime Minister, Sonia Gandhi has been granted privileges not enjoyed by any other wife or widow of a past PM. She travels in a long motorcade, with traffic being stopped for long periods of time whenever her convoy leaves the gates of 10 Janpath. An army of government staff attend to the needs of her and visiting relatives. Even her two children each enjoy substantial privileges, not given to the progeny of even the incumbent Prime Minister of the country, Manmohan Singh, whose family members go about their lives unobtrusively and without incurring huge public expenditure and inconvenience. In this respect at least, Manmohan Singh is a much better example in democratic standards than his political boss. But why such privileged treatment to her? It is because Sonia Gandhi is now the principal upholder of the British-Nehru School of Governance, in which the people of India are regarded as children needing to be constantly chastised and directed. If in the past, such overlordship was conducted by those of European (especially British) ethnic origin, the only change since 1947 is that these days, the rulers are from the same gene pool as their subjects.
A visit to any government office will show the lack of respect and attention given to members of the public by these neo-colonial representatives of the ruling politico-official elite. Toilets for the public are filthy and usually unusable. Chairs are in disrepair, where they are provided at all. No respect is given to the fact that the time of the citizen is valuable. He or she is forced to wait for long periods and finally receive atrocious service, unless a bribe be paid.Indeed, just as the British in India became wealthy by looting the public, so is the new ruling class. The British-Nehru system of governance is ideal for the generation of bribes. Which is why every 5-star hotel has its restaurants filled with the families and friends of officials whose salaries would not pay for a single meal, especially given their affinity to Scotch whiskey and French wines. Of course, when the rulers go on tour to the rural areas, the water they and their entourage takes with them has to be Evian. Anything Indian is looked down upon by the British-Nehru ruling caste, especially the ordinary people of this once-great country.
Today, there is a conscious effort by the UPA to reduce to the level found in China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran access to the internet. Bandwidth is deliberately kept low and slow, while coverage is restricted by high costs of usage. Contrast the situation in India with South Korea, whose people had a lifestyle even lower than that in India when Jawaharlal Nehru took over the reins of government in “free” India 65 years ago. Today, they are on an average fifteen times richer and have universal internet access at high speeds. Fluency in international languages and the internet is core to the future of India and both are being neglected by a ruling caste that knows only a lack of knowledge and consciousness among the people can preserve the system that first made the British in India rich, and now them. Despite his many admirable qualities, Anna Hazare has erred in placing emphasis on administrative solutions to the problem of corruption in India. What is needed is the dismantling of the British-Nehru system of governance and its replacement with a construct that is modern and democratic, not just the creation of yet another gargantuan bureaucracy, with immense potential for subversion from within.
Although the Right to Information Act is a useful first step (being indeed the only worthwhile reform implemented by Manmohan Singh since 2004), lately the PM has begun to side with those calling for its dilution. Instead, the RTI needs to be expanded and made stronger so that officials and their political masters face a transparent process while they take decisions. Freedom of speech and access to the internet need to be expanded to the level enjoyed by citizens in a genuine democracy. The entire population of the country needs to be enabled to learn at least one international language, so as to improve prospects. Rather than boost foreign businesses at the expense of domestic entrepreneurs (which is what the Nehru-British model does), the reverse should be the case. Even under Narasimha Rao, his failure was to extend the benefits given to foreign businesses to Indians, especially ordinary Indians. While Finance Minister Manmohan Singh was ever ready to slash import duties and spread a welcome mat for foreign enterprises to take advantage of the domestic market, he refused to lower taxes in India, especially income tax. Unfortunately, Pranab Mukherjee is following the same path, refusing to acknowledge that lower rates of tax would lead to greater collections through higher buoyancy and compliance. Instead, he has continued P Chidambaram’s vicious policy of harassment of taxpayers. At the same time, he has obeyed the wishes of Sonia Gandhi, who is opposed to an amnesty scheme designed to bring back illegal overseas deposits into the country. Such a move would hurt foreign banks, which is why the UPA Chairperson has refused to back it. However, it would bring back enough money into the country to reduce to zero the budget deficit, as well as raise funds for infrastructure development.
When will the people of India understand that their “democracy” is a sham? That there has been a seamles continuation of the British colonial system since 1947? That there has been no increase in the discretion given to the citizen vis-a-vis the government? That foreign businessess continue to be given preferential treatment over Indian entities, notably by RBI policies designed to please foreign financial enterprises by hurting the interests of the citizens of India? Only when they do will a movement arise that can replace the Nehru-British system of governance with a construct that has democratic values and which gives the people of India the rights and freedoms enjoyed by citizens of genuine democracies.