Only Transparency Can Improve Institutions
By Subroto Roy
First published in The Statesman, July 20 2007, Editorial Page Special Article http://www.thestatesman.net
“Stonewalling” has come to mean being continually evasive and misleading in politics by, for example, parroting a party line against fair public inquiry or criticism. “I want you to stonewall it”, was Richard Nixon’s infamous instruction during Watergate. (The original meaning was not ignoble: General T. J. “Stonewall” Jackson, during the US Civil War stayed on his horse under constant fire, taking all the bullets “like a stonewall” until he was killed.)
Stonewalling is what we are likely ever to receive from Pratibha Patil and the present day Congress Party. It is not as if India and the world will not survive if she becomes our President. Rashtrapati Bhavan has had undistinguished occupants before, even ones with clouds of disreputable or nefarious public deeds hanging over their heads. All that will happen is that our political institutions shall retrogress for five years; a pity but not something catastrophic in view of our long history ~ Nadir Shah’s brief stay set the standard for catastrophic behaviour in Delhi.
“Individuals may form communities, but it is institutions alone that can create a nation”, said Disraeli. Nation-building would become that much harder, our pessimism and disillusionment about whether we will ever succeed would become that much greater.
The corrosion of our political, financial, academic and other public institutions over decades has been something in which all our official political parties and religious formations are hand-in-glove complicit. In the case of Pratibha Patil, it is the PM and UPA Chair who are directly responsible for the institutional corrosion taking place in full view of all with respect to the highest office of the land.
But then Dr Manmohan Singh, despite his sojourns as a young social scientist in Britain, has not cared a hoot that the Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy must seek to be an elected member of the House of the People. Also, ever since 1991, he has permitted the flattering fiction to develop that he or any of his acolytes had something to do with the origins of the economic reform. As for Sonia Gandhi, her list of naïve misjudgements only grows longer ~ cardinal among them being her having apparently retained as trusted advisers around her persons who had been warned about the vulnerability of her husband to assassination. Had Rajiv not been assassinated, Sonia would have been today merely a happy grandmother and not India’s purported ruler.
Stonewalling has become standard government practice in 21st century India across party-lines. The BJP stonewalled after the post-Godhra pogrom in 2002 and held none of its own responsible; the CPI-M has done precisely the same after the Nandigram pogrom a few months ago.
In October 2005, the Supreme Court ~ proving yet again that there are or can be institutions which do work in India ~ found the Union Government had behaved unconstitutionally. Lesson 101 of Constitutional Politics says: If you are uncertain whether a head of government commands confidence, ask him/her to prove his majority on the floor of the house. Instead the Sonia-Manmohan Government had launched a pre-emptive putsch against an aspirant for a democratic majority in a State assembly. What Sonia-Manmohan should have done in response to the Supreme Court’s finding was to recall or transfer the apparent culprit, and express regret to Parliament and the Court. That would have ended the matter and also engendered some moral growth in the polity. What they did instead was stonewall. Worse stonewalling was to follow from the whole of Parliament itself in the “office-for-profit” scandal.
Aristotle said politics was the supreme good because the ends of all other activities are subsumed in politics. This means that if the politics of a national society gets corroded, so does everything else. It is because India’s politics have become rotten, that our financial, academic and other institutions have followed.
The private American “equity group” Blackstone recently purchased Hilton Hotels for 26 thousand million American dollars cash. Why is that significant to Indians? Because India’s Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, took the unprecedented step of naming Blackstone along with one private Indian citizen, Deepak Parekh in his February 2007 Budget Speech. He referred to a Government of India financial scheme by which favoured private businesses can “borrow” India’s foreign exchange reserves to pay for purchases of foreign assets. The same Reserve Bank of India which cracked down on Pratibha Patil’s dubious bank-dealings has now been bullied into allowing India’s foreign exchange reserves to be “borrowed” ~ and quite possibly never to be returned. Furthermore, foreign exchange reserves are not like tax-revenues but largely constitute already borrowed funds!
In academia, Mr Arjun Singh tyrannises defenceless medical students but presides (like his predecessor Dr Murli Manohar Joshi) over appointments at national institutes of full professors without postgraduate degrees or any experience of teaching or research. The Union Finance and Education Ministers report in the Government and their party to the PM and the UPA Chair. But neither Dr Singh nor Mrs Gandhi can have any effective control over the rot in India’s macroeconomic, financial, academic or other institutions when they are presiding over political rot themselves.
Stonewalling is the political behavour of the shameless. Shame used to be a cultural means of political self-control in traditional societies. Modern politics makes a distinction between private and public domains, and says that transmuting valuable public property of any kind into private wealth or advantage constitutes nefarious corruption. It is possible our subcontinent has not wished to or has not yet entered the world of modern politics. Instead we remain feudal in our political behaviour ~ where large rival clans perpetually battle over what is the ill-defined common property of the realm. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the militaries predominate and participate in this feuding. In India the feuds take place within a framework which outwardly seems democratic with institutions of a free society like a free press and official civilian control of the military. Our feuds are between three large rival clans: the Indira-Sonia Patriarchal Matriarchs, the Hindu Patriarchs, and the Communist Matriarchal Patriarchs. The Congress, BJP and Communists are yet to become modern parties, and unless and until they do, our politics shall remain in retrogression.