Friday, January 4, 2013

Congress tries to douse fire, but slips on fire

(First appeared in The Pioneer dated October 31)


On October 23, The Pioneer published an editorial titled, “Kejriwal playing god?” The editorial cautioned India Against Corruption chief Arvind Kejriwal against going overboard without plausible evidence in his campaigns that targeted public figures for their alleged corrupt activities. At the same time, the editorial also commended him for the good work that he has been doing in raising the level of awareness and highlighting dubious deals of some public figures with believable material to justify the allegations.
The editorial drew a flurry of response from indignant readers who took exception to the criticism of the anti-corruption activist. Even readers who did not completely endorse the ‘hit and run’ methods that Mr Kejriwal has adopted, and also did not believe that the IAC leader is himself above board, jumped to his defence. The bottom line was: ‘We have had enough of nonsense from our politicians. Here is a man who has taken on the corrupt in high places, and he has our support.’ There was also a letter writer who said that, if Mr Kejriwal is indeed playing god, the country needs more gods like him. The Pioneer published many of those letters.
What does such support indicate? It would be wrong to personalise the confrontation as being one between Mr Kejriwal and the political establishment — more specifically the Congress-led UPA Government. Just as it would be misplaced enthusiasm to see into this a battle between David and Goliath. The support for Mr Kejriwal is in reality a manifestation of the anger that the common man feels over the manner in which the political rulers in the country, now led by the Congress, have been taking the people for granted. It is also a manifestation of the aam aadmi’s frustration at being so helpless as to do nothing while he is trampled all over.
Mr Kejriwal’s detractors within the UPA will of course claim that all this talk of anger and frustration is hyped-up nonsense, and that the Congress-led regime is completely tuned in to the aspirations of the people. Well, the sweeping changes that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made to his Council of Ministers on Sunday do not in any way indicate that the Congress has much regard for public opinion. On the contrary, the reshuffle appeared deliberately designed to cock a snook at such public opinion. It has provided more ammunition to the likes of Mr Kejriwal, besides the Opposition. But then, it seems that the Government is beyond caring anymore; it just wants to hang on to the rest of the tenure, even if it gets mired in further ignominy as the days go by. 
The Congress would like us to believe that the reshuffle will provide the much needed momentum to governance and that the new team will lead the party to success in the next Lok Sabha election. We don’t know about that. What we do know is that the Sunday exercise has exposed the party and the Prime Minister to serious charges of buckling under pressure from various lobbies. We know too that being tainted is not an obstacle for a Minister in getting promotions. And, we also know that honest Ministers can expect rewards by way of being shunted out. These are indeed strange ways for a party that swears in the name of the common man and  propriety to demonstrate its commitment to the two. 
The dirt over Mr Jaipal Reddy’s shift out of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Ministry has already hit the fan, and Congress leaders have been tying themselves up in knots since Sunday trying to play down the Minister’s transfer. Yet, there are certain facts, and when they are seen in the context of the reshuffle, they do give rise to doubts that Mr Reddy, who by all accounts has been an upright Minister, was removed from the Ministry because he shared an uneasy relationship with an influential corporate house which is engaged in what the UPA regime may believe is crucial to accelerating economic growth. Mr Reddy had held up some key proposals of the corporate house which, among other things, is engaged in oil and gas exploration. He had also turned down the industrial house’s plea to hike rates in its favour. Congress apologists have rubbished the allegation that corporate lobbying led to Mr Reddy’s removal from the Petroleum Ministry. 
Fine, but what then explains his transfer? There can be three reasons for a Minister to be shifted out of his Ministry. Because he is incompetent. Or, because he is inconvenient. Or, because he is rewarded with something bigger. The Congress has been claiming ad nauseam since Sunday that Mr Reddy is honest and efficient and that he had done a wonderful job in the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas. Therefore, we can rule out the first reason. 
The third reason too is invalid here, because Mr Reddy did not get a promotion. As we now know, the Congress did not just decide to punish Mr Reddy by ousting him from the Petroleum Ministry but also to further humiliate him. That is how the affable but knowledgeable Minister ended up with the low-profile Science and Technology Ministry. Had the intention not been to rub in the insult, the Prime Minister could have easily given Mr Reddy a Ministry that befitted the 
latter’s stature. 
The only plausible explanation lies in the second reason: That, as Petroleum Minister, he was proving to be an inconvenience to some elements within the Government and outside of it. He had to be removed from the way so that these elements had their way.
If the Jaipal Reddy episode has exposed the Government led by the Congress for what it really is, then the elevation of Mr Salman Khurshid has left a bad taste in the mouth. It’s not that Mr Khurshid will make a poor Union Minister for External Affairs. On the contrary, he may well prove to be a most capable one. But Mr Khurshid faces serious allegations of irregularities involving a non-Government organisation which he runs, and those charges have yet to be laid to rest. 
His defence so far has raised more questions than it has answered. Critics of the Congress justifiably see in Mr Khurshid’s promotion a deliberate snub to the Opposition and the anti-graft activists who have been demanding a probe against the Minister in the wake of revelations in sections of the media about the NGO’s 
dubious conduct.
Given such questionable decisions of the Congress and the Prime Minister, can we then blame the Opposition and Mr Kejriwal for raising the pitch? Should we treat with contempt the voice of the masses that is getting increasingly strident against such skullduggery? Must we ignore the call for a new, hopefully better, order?

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