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The fine art of doing nothing

M J Akbar (Byline)
Filed on June 22, 2008

SENSIBLE politicians are wary of big words: they never know when one will rebound and bite them, with painful consequences. The philosophy of power is one word too many in a phrase about politics.

Politicians keep their nose to the ground, philosophy out of their thoughts, and their conscience in a safe deposit vault, so that, while it remains out of sight, it can always be taken out, brushed up and put on display when expedient.

And yet, everyone who exercises power does so on the basis of some logic, even if we cannot in justice extend its meaning to the expanse of a philosophy. You have to be not merely very brave, but also intellectually robust to be a disciple of Kautilya, or even of Machiavelli. Their treatises on governance are more comprehensive and demanding than their one-liner reputations might lead you to believe.

The only Indian Prime Minister who saw himself as a potential Kautilya, as early as in the 1930s, and had the intellectual bravado to pull it off in the 1950s, was Jawaharlal Nehru. Mrs Indira Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee had read enough to appreciate the nuances of a Kautilya, but they chose to stress different elements of the Arthashastra prescription, creating vastly different medicines for the national health. No Government of India has been as minimalist as the UPA regime. For over four years now it has survived on a simple basis: Do nothing, and nothing unfortunate will happen. There are some good reasons for this.

The central motivation of the UPA coalition has been fear of failure. It wanted to survive in office above all else. It knew that the alliance was brittle, and so compromised on two basic elements of power. No action was ever taken on the corruption or misrule of ministers, for fear that it would break the alliance. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could not possibly have had two standards on corruption, a wink for allies like the DMK, and a taskmaster's discipline for Congress ministers.

So when DMK ministers began raking in the loot like there was no tomorrow (and maybe for some of them there isn't) Congress ministers welcomed the signal. They got a free ride on a highway without tolls, and, being seasoned Congressmen, devised artful and even brilliant forms of bribery. I believe the fashionable thing to do now is to ignore silly old cash, and settle for benaami equity in private sector companies.

Ministers with less imagination used power to get benefits for companies owned by relatives. Ritu Sarin of the Indian Express has done some superb investigation of how rules were bent and laws broken to favour a distillery owned by Home Minister Shivraj Patil's son Shailesh. You only associated the Home Minister with starched clothes, white shoes, pomade and cluelessness, did you? Well, he had a distillery up his armpit.

What will happen? Nothing. Any action might cost Dr Singh his job and his boss, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, her reputation. The Hindustan Times story on uranium might not have the drama of the Express investigation but it is, in a sense, even more damaging. It undermines the very basis of Dr Singh's arguments in defence of the Indo-US nuclear deal, that India needs foreign uranium for its civil nuclear programme.

As Neelesh Misra reports, "India has been sitting on massive, untapped reserves of uranium, hundreds of tonnes of which have been discovered over the past couple of years adding to the over 1 lakh tonnes already identified in Jharkhand, Meghalaya, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu." That is enough for our requirements for at least 40 years. Why did the Prime Minister keep this a closely guarded secret for four years?

What will happen? Why, nothing of course. To do anything would mean that the Prime Minister would have to appear on national television and cough discreetly before declaring himself guilty of misleading the country.

Dr Singh learnt what little he knows of politics from P V Narasimha Rao, a Prime Minister who perfected the art of doing nothing, and flaunted indecision as a decision. The epitome of this model was reached on 6 December 1992 when, in an unparalleled display of comatose indifference Rao did nothing while the Babri mosque was being destroyed through the day.

Singh was Finance Minister then, and arguably the most important minister after Rao. What did Dr Singh do? So much of nothing that you could write a book on silence out of it. But here is the surprise. The government got away with it. Rao manipulated the still dominant government audiovisual media from the evening of 6 December, sold a lie, and the Congress won a handsome victory in the Assembly elections held a year later.

Moral of the story? If you do nothing successfully enough, you can always drift back to power. The danger of doing nothing is that it can become a habit. Witness how government has tackled rising prices. Measures against inflation should have been put in place in December last year. The government did nothing. By March this horse, inflation, had bolted. However hard the government slams the door now, the damage is done.

Narasimha Rao could legitimately claim some redemption in his record. He did do something in one area, the economy. He might not have done what he did were it not for the financial emergency he inherited; and he certainly could have done more, as Dr Singh would attest. But economic reforms will stand against his name.

The record of the last four years, in contrast, is marked by only one significant departure from the norm: the Indo-US nuclear deal. That deal seems to have been sacrificed to survival. The Dr Singh years add up to a fragile zero. Perhaps the Prime Minister is beginning to understand this. Those who saw him on television asking ministers to stop going abroad in order to save Indians from the whiplash of rising prices were not overly impressed.

His mien was never very colourful, although he could be brisk. If he began as a grey man, he has deepened towards an ashy pallor. The price of power was visible in his eyes. You might imagine that if you do nothing, nothing will happen to you. Your eyes betray you.

M J Akbar is Chairman and Director of Publications, Covert


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