Political Ideals of Convenience

01 December, 2010

The three financial scandals were different in nature but shared some modalities. First, they all involved massive amounts of public money. Between three trillion and four trillion rupees were spent on the CWG, more than ten times the original budget; the 2G spectrum handout has reportedly cost the exchequer 176 trillion rupees. The recent Adarsh building society scandal in Mumbai, huge in isolation, seems like small pickings in comparison.

Second, in every case, the United Progressive Alliance leadership—meaning Congress party President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—took punitive action only after they were pushed into a corner by the media and the opposition. But by the time the waffling and the filibustering played out, the Congress’ hard-gained appearance of propriety had been wrecked for, at the very least, condoning top-level corruption.

It is ironical that this is the same party whose president had taken some extraordinary steps towards building a clean image of governance and propriety over the last few years.

It was on 23 March 2006, while resigning from the Lok Sabha, that an emotional Sonia Gandhi had said, “Following the principles of probity and my inner conscience, I am resigning my post in the parliament…. I did not enter public life for any personal gains. I have made a resolve to serve the country and Indian society and to protect secular values. That is why, in keeping with the ideals of public life and politics as well as my own beliefs, I am resigning as an MP.”

Her resignation came in response to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) charge that she had broken parliamentary rules by simultaneously being a member of parliament (MP) and the chairperson of the National Advisory Council (NAC), an ‘office of profit’ that MP’s were constitutionally forbidden from holding.

Sonia Gandhi’s voluntary resignation—from both posts—was a stunning act of renunciation, at a time when it was yet unresolved if the NAC chairpersonship was indeed an ‘office of profit.’ She was later re-elected to the Parliament in a by-election and named the chairperson of the NAC after a bill was passed that exempted 56 posts, including that of the NAC chairperson, from being considered ‘offices of profit.’

Then again in April 2010, Sonia Gandhi sought to re-assert the Congress’ ‘clean’ image by telling Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor to step down following a series of allegations that he might have used his official clout to influence the multi-billion-rupee Kochi IPL team’s franchise bids.

But the IPL is a private entity. While Tharoor’s lobbying might be called unethical at most, it is doubtful if it was corruption per se. In this case, no government assets were involved, whether by way of contracts, rights, licences or any other form, yet the book was thrown at him anyway.

So how is it that the very government that acted promptly and decisively to establish a benchmark and a precedent for ethical conduct on two prior, relatively innocuous, infringements by senior leaders could bury itself neck-deep in a morass of inaction with regard to three later instances of greatly more punishable malfeasance?

Is the explanation that, say what it will, the Congress is inextricably enslaved to the guiles of realpolitik? In the two earlier, milder instances of irregularity, perhaps the party was aware that reparative action would carry only the benefits and none of the disadvantages of claiming the moral high ground. Nor would such action threaten the delicate balance of power called for in a coalition government.

Having won from Rae Bareilly in 2004, there was no reason for Sonia Gandhi not winning in 2006 too, especially after her much-appreciated abdication. And in Tharoor’s case, there was no danger of rubbing anyone the wrong way if he were asked to put in his papers—except, of course, Tharoor himself, which was a small price to pay for the attendant benefits.

But where Raja and the CWG were concerned, the stakes were astronomical. There was always the danger that the DMK would dig in its heels if Raja were told to go. So, for three long years, even as media reported on the breaches of regulations in the 2G spectrum allocations, the prime minister kept his own counsel.

As for Kalmadi, any suggestion that he worked alone is implausible. It is difficult not to surmise that other, senior members of the Congress were in league with him. This confederacy of corruption would have discouraged any attempt to dig deeper and expose the skeletons that senior party members had hidden. Maybe the most prudent strategy, after all, was the one adopted—to wait until it was all over, and the cost-benefit analysis swung in the government’s favour before it took action.

Then, again, perhaps the government is learning that rapid reaction pays. It moved blisteringly fast against those involved in the Adarsh society scam, but that could also be because the media frenzy was uncontrollable and sacrificing Ashok Chavan wasn’t much to pay for relief from the din of media and popular piety.

At the end of the day, the Congress’ ethics might be all about political convenience.

Anant Nath