In Delhi’s durbar and subordinate aristocracy, as time passes and files file-up, even the most upright of officers can buckle under the weight of inefficiency and corruption

Voices Sunday, August 24, 2014 - 05:30
By Chitra Subramaniam Shelf life is not only for noodles. At any given time, New Delhi’s shelves are full of files and many of them routinely make their way to newsrooms to be filed. “Méré paas file hai,” is not a quip, it is a reality. Next week, a book on the coal scam that rocked India is slated to hit the stands, probably detailing why some files moved with lightning speed while others disappeared. Files don’t have feet – they have figures. In his book, The Accidental Prime Minister – The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh – Sanjaya Baru, a journalist who was media adviser to the Prime Minister during UPA 1 (2004-2009) details real and imagined power centres in Delhi’s corridors of power. Beyond the names of bureaucrats, the positioning of ministers and the brazen flaunting of government of India rules, perhaps the most striking thing about the book is that it is written at a time when India is not willing to read and listen with arms folded. Fatalism is dead. That is the smaller point. The moot point is a question we as Indians must ask ourselves – why do we as a people do the same things with the same people and expect different answers? Orchestrated and systematic helplessness is the shield of the weak, the leitmotif of minor beneficiaries. Delhi oozes corruption and is packed with pliant officers willing to crawl when told to sit. This malaise also stretches to some in the media and civil society who together chase shadows and naked emperors. And they know it. Within weeks of a minister assuming office, bureaucrats and other officials can tell which way the wind is blowing. Baru writes that Pulok Chatterjee, the Principal Secretary was inducted into the PMO on instructions from UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. He had regular meetings with her and her instructions were sought on various issues. “He was the PMO’s main point of contact with the NAC (National Advisory Committee), a high-profile advisory board chaired by Ms. Gandhi with social activists as members. It was sometimes dubbed as the shadow cabinet, “Baru writes in his 201 page book published by Penguin. Baru also claims that Ms. Gandhi decided key appointments to the Indian Cabinet and the PMO. In Delhi’s durbar and subordinate aristocracy, as time passes and files file-up, even the most upright of officers can buckle under the weight of inefficiency and corruption.. It is never clear to an outsider what role is played by which bureaucrat in a system where what is unsaid is often more important than what is jotted down on files. In fact, file jottings are a way to distance oneself from the crime or impending scams.Many people in Delhi were distraught to learn that capable and respected bureaucrats like A.N. Varma and N.N. Vohra’s name was in lists of Indians who attended meetings where details of the Bofors cover-up were discussed. That does not make them party to the theft – it makes them a witness. Sten Lindström, the Swedish police officer who led the Bofors investigations had wanted to question Ms. Gandhi. He was blocked by Indian bureaucrats who instructed their Swedish counterparts. What is an officer to do when faced with such situations? Is it normal that Brajesh Mishra’s remit stretched well beyond his job description as NSA – is it possible to quantify or circumscribe a job that requires people to be the eyes and ears of the country’s top leaders? Are we framing the wrong questions so answers will be perpetually skewed? You can't bypass a system that does not exist. You cannot negotiate with shadows and smokescreens. If Manmohan Singh was mute, it was because many people around him were mute too. If Sonia Gandhi was the real Prime Minister as Baru says, it was not a situation that emerged overnight. It is a standing joke among foreigners (business and political circles) who know India that when two Indians meet, most often than not, the conversation will be about Indian politics and politicking right down to wondering which serf have been juggled with. Be it in Davos or Washington, Johannesburg, or Brussels, Beijing and Tokyo, Indian bureaucrats and politicians move in groups carrying with them all their suspicions and despair re-cycled to suit the setting and some in the media dutifully report the garbage back. Trade, disarmament, environment, arms purchase – you name it and we have a history of supplication. At the time of writing, Guido Haschke, one of the middlemen in the Augusta Westland scam is plea-bargaining in a court in Italy. It is never too late to correct a course, but for that you need will power and sense of duty to a nation, not to careers. Sonia Gandhi should be blamed where blame is due. Manmohan Singh should have resigned if he had any self-respect. But, exaggerating the importance of power or the lack of it also points to a very pliant people that we in India have become. There are no shadows at noon.
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