The ham-handed handling of Baba Ramdev’s movement against foreign bank accounts of Indian nationals by the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh does not speak well either of the government headed by him or of the Congress (I) headed by Mrs Sonia Gandhi or of the senior bureaucracy advising the PM.
Public anger against the perceived lack of action by the government to detect and proceed legally against the holders of illegal accounts abroad had been building up at least for a year, if not longer. This anger was more faithfully and accurately reflected in the NET than in the print and electronic media.
While the electronic media played a commendable role in reflecting public anger over the foot-dragging by the government in taking action on charges of corruption against certain political leaders, it did not take serious note of the NET anger over government’s perceived inaction against illegal accounts held abroad by Indian nationals.
Repeated examples of cover-up by the government in the Bofors case where one had useful leads of some illegal accounts held abroad by some of the dramatis personae in the Bofors scandal created strong suspicions in the minds of many that there must be other such instances of cover-up by the government to prevent the truth from being found out in respect of foreign accounts.
The government did face a genuine difficulty in taking action since the co-operation of foreign governments was involved. But there have been instances where other governments such as those of the US and Germany had overcome such difficulties and successfully elicited the co-operation of countries such as Switzerland for action against financial wrong-doers.
Adding to these suspicions in the public mind was the evasive reactions of the government to the leads coming from Wikileaks on this issue. Instead of taking these leads sincerely and seriously and examining how the government could use them, the government treated them casually as if the leads found in the Wikileaks disclosures were of no significance or importance.
The government thus failed to follow up vigorously on the few leads that were forthcoming, thereby creating--rightly or wrongly-- an impression in the public mind that the government is not serious about taking action to detect and prosecute holders of illegal foreign bank accounts.
The government not only failed to act, but it also failed to notice how public anger was building up on this issue in the NET. Since this anger was not reflected by the print and electronic media, the government thought that it could continue to get away with its inaction, amounting to a cover-up of a serious problem.
There are various ways in which the government could have acted in order to remove this impression in the public mind about studied inaction by the government of Dr.Manmohan Singh and the Congress (I).
The PM could have addressed the people and interacted with civil society leaders agitating on this issue in order to convince them about the seriousness of the government’s plans to deal with this issue. He didn’t. He maintained a sphinx-like silence, which comes naturally to him.
The Prime Minister could have visited countries like Switzerland which attract financial wrong-doers in order to seek their co-operation in the matter. He could have made it clear to their leaders that future development of our trade with those countries would depend on their co-operation with India in detecting and prosecuting financial wrong-doers. He didn’t.
He could have set up a Task Force consisting of experts in financial intelligence collection and investigation to study how countries such as the US and Germany have dealt with this issue and draw lessons. He didn’t.
He could have asked the same Task Force to study the working of our institutions responsible for financial intelligence collection and investigation in order to identify deficiencies and remove them. He didn’t.
He could have set up a mechanism for keeping the public continuously informed of the actions being taken by the government. He didn’t.
When he heard that Baba Ramdev was planning to agitate on this issue in a big way, the PM should have asked his emissaries to contact him, explain what the government has already been doing and what it intended doing in future and advised him not to embark on an agitationl approach which could prove counter-productive.
Instead of doing so, the government mistakenly thought that it could benefit from the support base of the Baba to reduce the support base of Anna Hazare. It was ridiculous to have sent a group of senior Ministers to meet the Baba at the airport on his arrival and negotiate with him there. The negotiations with the Baba should have been before he arrived in New Delhi and not after his arrival at the airport or in a well-known hotel.
Through its actions and inactions, the government unnecessarily and unwisely built up the image of the Baba. When the government found to its consternation that the Baba was not as malleable as it thought he would be, it swung to the other extreme of midnight action using tear-smoke to put an end to the hunger-strike. The way the government acted would have recalled to the minds of many how the Indira Gandhi government used to act during the days of the Emergency between 1975 and 1977. If the government had wanted to act strongly against the Baba, the right time for his arrest would have been before his arrival in New Delhi or on his arrival at the airport. Instead of sending his senior ministers to hail him, the Prime Minister could have sent the police to arrest him and take him away from New Delhi.
The government and the Congress (I)) due to their inability to think lucidly and act convincingly and meaningfully have landed themselves in a messy situation with likely negative consequences.
The first step for getting out of this mess is to convince the public that they have taken note of its anger and are serious about dealing with this issue. The Prime Minister should address the nation, exercise his personal leadership, keep the ministers and party spokesmen under control instead of making highly unwise and potentially provocative statements and make it clear to the party and Mrs Sonia Gandhi that he would not brook any interference in this matter. He should make it clear that he would be prepared to quit as the PM if there was any interference.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.