Yes ministers

Two senior ministers squabbling, and then rushing to authority figures to complain, makes for good soap opera. But the soap opera is a symptom of a deeper political crisis. P. Chidambaram is in the dock not because of Pranab Mukherjee. He is in the dock because the UPA has wrecked the basic premises of government; and this wreckage will now haunt each minister.

Chidambaram's problem is not Pranab Mukherjee. It is Manmohan Singh. The prime minister has distorted the entire structure of ministerial politics by not frontally owning and defending the decision not to auction 2G. He has tried to play an avoidance game, implausibly distancing himself from his own government.

This avoidance strategy of the prime minister has landed Chidambaram in a mess. In the public debate, two issues have got confused. There is the policy issue: could a case be made for not auctioning 2G? There is the implementation issue: were there improprieties in the process of implementing the policy (like changing the time), and can these be connected to money trails? But the prime minister's way of protecting himself is to distance himself from all decisions. This gives the impression that anyone who was associated with the policy decision not to auction must be suspect. This is the tack the opposition and the public are taking. But how did we come to such a pass? The prime minister consistently chooses to protect himself rather than credibly defend the government. This makes it easy to impute guilt to other ministers. His evasions also contribute to intellectual confusion. When the prime minister can't tell you honestly what decisions he took, all decisions get tainted.

The prime minister's evasion set the tone for other ministers. In this climate, who would not want to earn political brownie points, or protect their backs, to try to show they are above the fray? This is the game ministers are playing. If the PM disowns his government, as it were, why will others not follow? So it was inevitable that the cabinet would look like a bunch of schoolboys tattling on each other. You can almost hear the dialogue in the presence of Sonia Gandhi, "He did it, ma'am." And the only thing worse for a minister is the prime minister defending him. The PM's defence, to the effect that Chidambaram was trustworthy, damned him more than anything else. What Chidambaram needed was a ringing defence of the decision not to auction 2G. But the PM has not been upfront about his own role. With his own credibility diminished, his defence of Chidambaram does Chidambaram more harm than good.

But there is also a larger crisis in government that flows directly from these avoidance games. This crisis has to do with two relationships: between the bureaucracy and government, and the way in which the public perceives this relationship. The culture of avoidance at the level of the PM has also created a culture of avoidance at the level of ministers. But this manifests in an unfortunate way. A normal process of government ought to be this. Officials express their professional opinion with full candour. A minister takes due cognizance of all the considerations. He then takes a decision. Unfortunately, what is happening in government is this. Ministers don't want officials to write notes that might turn out to be contrary to their eventual decision. Just the fact that they are seen as overruling bureaucrats can be grist for the political mill. It says something about the politicians' lack of self-confidence that they don't want to be seen to be overruling opinions. And it is often officials rather than ministers who are then asked to defend decisions. The result is a rather curious culture of subterfuge. Files will be prepared according to the narrative that leads up to the decision required. But somewhere the "fact" will be planted that opens up intriguing possibilities.

In the 2G note by the finance ministry, there is a delicious Humphrey Appleby-type interpretive possibility. The note was written in the context of the PMO wanting a full "factual" account of the 2G episode. You can imagine a bureaucrat saying, "I will give the full facts." It is a "fact" that Chidambaram could have done more to insist on an auction. But this fact is neither here nor there. It puts Chidambaram on the spot only when you assume three things: that the policy was wrong, that being associated with the policy does put a question mark on your integrity, and that the decision was not the responsibility of the prime minister or cabinet as a whole. Unfortunately, the prime minister has contributed to confusion over all three assumptions.

The prime minister has set a bad example by trying to protect himself by distancing himself from his own government. This in turn gives ministers a licence to show they are not responsible. They, in turn, pressure bureaucrats, so that ministers are not seen to be overruling professional opinion. Ministers then don't take ownership of their decisions. These avoidance games diminish the credibility of government. This credibility is further diminished when the CBI does not follow all leads, uses double standards in questioning and then other files come out. This in turn ends in a scenario where a mere policy decision begins to carry the odour of a conspiracy. This leads to an outcome where a minister's greatest achievement is to be able to say, "I did not do anything." If governance is to be restored, we need a rebooting of several roles: the role of the PM, the role of the cabinet, individual ministerial responsibility, and the relationship between the bureaucracy and ministers.

We also need to be more nuanced in the distinction between policy disagreements and corruption. It is a bit like saying that if someone can prove corruption in one particular PPP contract, anyone associated with the formulation of PPP contracts in general stands tainted. This is a recipe for government paralysis.

But the fundamental issue is this. If the crime is not auctioning 2G, then the whole government is responsible. If the issue has nothing to do with the decision not to auction, but is limited to decisions within a first-come framework, then we need a more nuanced consideration of guilt. But the prime minister's equivocations have given ammunition to those who think that the policy issue and the issue of corruption in the 2G case are now one and the same thing. Chidambaram is a victim of this confusion, which is now endemic in government and civil society alike.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi
express@expressindia.com

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