The Headmaster of a school for scandal

IN THE end it's the jokes that get you, isn't it? SMS, that deadly virus, has been spreading sound bites like "Sting is King". Its first cousin, email, has been circulating emotional pleas to the heartless Finance Minister:

By M.j. Akbar (Byline)

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Published: Mon 28 Jul 2008, 10:01 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:12 AM

"Don't you know how old MPs are? They have bad backs! Can't you print Rs 100,000 notes instead of measly little thousand-rupee notes??? Do you know how heavy a sack of 30 crores is?" There are heart-rending stories of MPs breaking down because they did not know how to take their loot, collected in Delhi, back to the security of their small towns.

One email was untouched by levity and weighed by hurt and anger. Dr Manmohan Singh had repeated Guru Gobind Singh's famous battle hymn, in which he asked the Lord to ensure that "shubh karman mein kabhu na darun [may I never be afraid to do right]" before the debate began. How could the Prime Minister have recited this just before he launched into unprecedented "dushkarman [misdeeds]"?

The Prime Minister won his battle in July. He may have lost the war that is only a few months away. He won the confidence of the House only to lose the trust of the nation.

Dr Manmohan Singh's reputation for personal honesty was the last remaining undiluted asset of the Congress after four years of government. The voter did not ever believe his ministers to be clean. Some of them have established fresh records in corruption. But he was certain that the Prime Minister was an honest man. After the cash-for-votes-and-hide-the-tape scandal, Manmohan Singh is just another sullied politician, willing to feast on Grub Street in the company of the most famous bagmen, and travel the Gravy Train chatting with fixers and pushers in order to remain in office.

As the cash disbursers have proved, the Congress is full of calculators. It needed a mathematician. A strategist would have analysed the cost-benefit ratio and sabotaged the cash-and-carry operation on grounds of common sense. What has been won is nothing compared to what will be lost.

There is enough evidence that the voter punishes corruption and rewards probity. Leaders like Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Naveen Patnaik, Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi have won support because they are believed to be personally honest. It may not be the only reason for re-election, but it is a primary reason. The Congress had that advantage in the image of Dr Singh. That reputation has self-destructed.

Inflation had already weakened the voter's confidence in Dr Singh's abilities as an economist. His second asset was wiped off the books in July.

The Prime Minister cannot hold his nose above the stink anymore. He was personally involved in the purchase of MPs. He was visibly uncertain at his own dinner on the eve of the debate, despite the fact that Shibu Soren had already been bought in what should be called the real "1-2-3 Agreement": the cash-stoked coal portfolio for Soren, deputy chief ministership of Jharkhand for his son, and a second ministerial berth for a party MP in Delhi. By Monday morning, the Prime Minister was smiling, and waving the V sign as he entered Parliament. Late at night he received word from his money-managers that enough MPs had switched, or been neutralised, to ensure a comfortable victory. Parliament had become a sleaze house, but so what? The mask of morality used to fool us for four years now lies in that great receptacle called the dustbin of history.

There is a problem when you tread on sleaze. You can slip on it, hurting yourself badly, even as your fall becomes the source of cynical laughter.

The Prime Minister's face turned visibly ashen when three BJP MPs threw bundles of currency notes into the well of the House. For the nation, that was the turning point of the debate. They may or may not have understood the intricacies of the Hyde Act. But they did recognise the corruption that had been hidden.

Sections of the urban middle class which welcomed the idea of closer relations with America [you could call them the Green Card Party of India] felt utterly betrayed by a man they had trusted, and besmirched by corruption.

In the process, Dr Manmohan Singh has one remarkable achievement: he has united the Opposition. For the last three decades, this has been the most difficult act in Indian politics. The irony is that he subverted what Mrs Sonia Gandhi had woven in order to bring the Congress back to power: she had used the Gujarat riots to create a formidable coalition against the BJP. Dr Singh has destroyed that framework by breaking with the Left and turning the Congress into an irredeemably right-wing organisation, with a foreign policy to match its economic thrust. This turn to the right will change the character of the Congress irrevocably.

By opting for the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, he has catapulted a dynamic agent of social change, Mayawati, into the leadership of the Third Front. Mayawati is the only regional leader with a national base, for she has a constituency in every constituency of India. She can lend Dalit support to an ally in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh as easily as in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Her candidates do not have to win; by contesting they slice enough Congress votes by ensure its defeat. It would have made more sense for the Congress to keep Mayawati as any ally, but that would need a leader who was a mathematician instead of a cash-broker. The Government is trying very hard to "prove" that Mayawati is corrupt. Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh must be regretting deeply that they let her off in the Taj-corridor development case during those happy days when they were attempting a deal with her instead of Mulayam Singh. The important fact is that Mayawati's voters are unimpressed by such accusations against their leader. She has empowered them and they are grateful to her.

Corruption is not a sudden swerve into perdition for the Congress: the first jeep scandal [an extremely innocuous, by today's standards, desire for vehicles] broke out before the first general election in 1952. But flexibility in election expenditure is one thing; the purchase of elected MPs at exorbitant rates quite another. Venality turned into a rot when PV Narasimha Rao purchased Shibu Soren and his MPs in order to save his minority Government. Dr Manmohan Singh was finance minister, and no one heard the mildest protest from him. Perhaps he thought that he could repeat what his guru Narasimha Rao had managed. What was it that Marx said? History repeats itself, first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. But Dr Singh does not read Marx.

Power seems to have changed Dr Singh's character and temperament in crucial ways. Was it too much to expect some grace from him in this purchased victory? Instead, in his reply to the House he descended to the personal. That is not done.

But what is the point of expecting decorum when Parliament has been turned into a School for Scandal?

M J Akbar is Chairman and Director of Publications, Covert

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