December 04, 2020
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The Caesar's Wife Syndrome

The Caesar's Wife Syndrome


Radhika Ramaseshan had provided the background to the PM presser in the Telegraph:

The political rationale behind the interaction is that Singh has lived for too long with the Opposition charge that he does not open his mouth on the “burning” issues of the day, the sources said. Singh has addressed the controversies at public fora.

Moreover, the interaction would give Singh a chance to counter home minister P. Chidambaram’s recent comment to a newspaper that the UPA suffered from an “ethical and governance deficit”.

“It was thought that it was better for him to try and clear the air before the House convened rather than let the Opposition gain an upper hand from Day 1,” a political source said.

Another source said the owner of an English channel had been requested to be present instead of deputing a colleague [who had featured prominently in the Radia tapes] The owner-editor of another Delhi-based channel was also told he would be welcome. Other channels were sent a general invite.

The caution came against the backdrop of the Niira Radia tapes featuring conversations of some journalists.

The Presser 

A hurried, top-of-the-mind listing of some of the obvious, most significant bits which did not add up, or jarred, at least to this blogger:

1. That some journalists clearly were picked to ask soft questions about Egypt, Telengana, Cricket, Kerala & Assam elections and so on and proceeded to do just that. There were no questions about the Radia tapes, controversial appointment of the CVC (or his role as the telecom secretary), the strange stone-walling on black-money cases, or indeed, even on the Davas deal. For example, when Times Now's Arnab Goswami tried asking a follow-up, the PM's press-adviser thought it fit to intervene by saying, "Mr Goswami, this is not an interrogation of the PM". As the media-watch website the Hoot said:

Does the prime minister  need to be protected from Arnab Goswami? His media advisor evidently thought so. Harish Khare intervened rather sharply when our inquisitorial friend sought to do his usual number on the head of government. He accused him of interrogating the Prime Minister and jumping from one scam to another without letting the PM finish. And when Goswami tried again towards the end of the press conference, the PM had to intercede with Khare to  allow him to proceed.  

2. That the PM said the following without any sense of irony, without any reference to any of the corporate lobbying that clearly went on as revealed by Radia tapes:

The other thing that you have mentioned about Mr. Raja being inducted into the Cabinet, I cannot divulge what went on in the processes of Cabinet formation but I would like to mention that we are a coalition government.

and that none of the journos took him up on it.

3. That the PM actually said:

I did not feel that I had the authority to object to Mr. Raja’s entry because I quite honestly, in May 2009, although complaints were coming from all sides, and some were from those companies which had not benefited, some were from those which had benefited but not benefited adequately, and therefore,  I was not in a position to make up my mind that anything seriously was wrong with Mr. Raja’s doing at that time.

Despite of course having corresponded with Mr Raja during 2007-2008. Despite Mr Raja not following his instructions. Despite the fact that his government had been tapping Ms Radia's phones for a considerable period. Despite all the letters of complaints the PM himself admits to have received. Despite the fact that the press reports by April 2009 had started naming how Unitech and Swan were selling off their shares to foreign companies soon after the licences were awarded to them at massive windfall profits.  

Apart from his epistolary exchange with Mr Raja, perhaps the PM should also be reminded of what he said while inaugrating India Telecom 2007:

The policy regime for making spectrum available should be fair, transparent, equitable and forward looking. It should not create entry barriers to newcomers or barriers to the continued growth of the important sector. At the same time, the revenue potential to the government must not be lost sight of. After all, governments across the globe have harnessed substantial revenues while allocating spectrum.

Despite all of this, it is rather strange to hear the PM claim that he did not know who "gets licenses, the first come first serve policy, how it was implemented" and that he was "not in a position to make up [his] mind".

4. That the PM should be using the following alibi:

because if the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Telecom both agree and they have the obligation of the Cabinet Decision of 2003 to decide on the matter and also since TRAI is an expert body and Telecom Commission has experts, if all of them are of the same view, I did not feel I was in a position to insist that auctions must be insisted. 

Did this sudden reference to the finance ministry have something to do with the then finance minister's  recent remarks about an “ethical and governance deficit”? Should a PM not have the courage of his convictions rather than worrying about his "position"? And could he please share with us what the then finance secretary views on Mr Raja's methods were? Will the then finance minister share with us the letter he wrote to the PM in Jan 2008 on Mr Raja's methodology in spectrum allocation?

5. That he should not only also be bringing in "presumptive loss" but comparing it with other subsidies:

And also depends upon our opinion we have a budget which gives subsidy for food, 80,000 crores per annum, some people may say these foodgrains should be sold at market place. Will we say then because they are not sold at market prices, because you are giving them a subsidy, it is a loss of 80,000 crores. We give subsidy to fertilisers which cost about 60,000 crores every year people can say that these fertilisers should be priced at the market rate, would you then say that there is a loss of revenue of 60,000 crores in fertilisers sale. We subsidise the price of kerosene to an extent which is greater than many other subsidies, that imposes burden on our oil marketing companies, should we say then that because we give subsidy for kerosene sales under public distribution, that there is loss of revenue.

Is there a corresponding windfall gain for other corporates also in those subsidies?

6. That the PM actually took the "media did it" defence:

“An impression has gone round that we are a scam-driven country and nothing good is happening in our country, that we are weakening the self-confidence of the people of India. I do not think that is in the interest of anyone in our country….This sort of atmosphere is not good. It saps our own self-confidence. It also spoils the image of India”

As the headline to an article by John Elliott put it in the Independent, "Manmohan Singh is weak on corruption so spotlights the media":

he admitted that he could not control all his ministers, and indirectly appealed to the media not to play up the many corruption scandals that are now being unearthed across the country.

As Reuters’ correspondent Alistair Scrutton tweeted from Delhi just after Mr Singh had spoken, “Blaming media is often the action of a cornered leader. India’s PM has just done that by criticising coverage of the corruption scandals,” to which Andy Buncombe, The Independent’s Delhi correspondent replied “Didn’t Mubarak also blame the media?”.

7. That his claim that "There have been no backroom talks" with Davas has been directly contradicted by Davas time and again. [Incidentally, on the Devas-ISRO scam, the Asian Age, owned by a Congress MP, had its own spin today]

8. That if the following is his stand, why allow the entire winter session to be wasted? Why not break his silence earlier and even accept the demand for JPC:

I am not afraid of appearing before any committee including a JPC. And this is entirely a wrong impression that I was the one who was blocking the agreement about the JPC because I did not want to appear before the JPC. I have always said that as Prime Minister my conduct must be like Caesar’s wife above suspicion and I am quite prepared to appear before any committee that may go into this.

9. That he should insinuate the bit about Amit Shah but then get all coy about what the BJP had actually demanded. If the BJP demanded a quid pro quo in going along with reforms, he should have asserted it unequivocally and exposed their machinations. His party should have been screaming about it from the roof-tops, but his first bringing it up and then lapsing into sudden coyness is rather mystifying:

But the opposition parties, particularly, the BJP has taken a hostile attitude and the reasons that have been given, frankly I cannot mention it in public, they say because you have taken some decision against a particular person, who was a minister in Gujarat, we must reverse it, I don’t want to add further.

Did his government actually cut a deal with the BJP for going soft on Amit Shah and did the BJP subsequently renege on it? If not, then why this silence all this while? When was the quid pro quo broached or mentioned? By whom in the BJP? Why is the PM not taking the country into confidence? Who is he trying to protect and why? Why doesn't he just come out and say what actually happened rather than getting, bizarrely and suddenly, all coy with  "I don’t want to add further" after insinuating and suggesting a rather brazen and sordid bartering attempt. As an aside, perhaps his coalition dharma prevented him from sharing what his allies such as DMK feel about the same GST.

10. That much as one understands coalition compulsions, one also expects the PM to accept full responsibility instead of passing the buck which must stop with him.

And if the PM must indeed use the allusion he is clearly so fond of, he would do well to ensure that all his ministers remain above suspicion. In our constitutional scheme, the PM's role has to be that of Caesar, not his wife.

The video of the presser is here. The preliminary transcript is here.

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