By M.J. Akbar | 19 November, 2010

A less complacent lot might have seen the approaching firestorm from some distance. Someone somewhere was bound to turn up with a matchstick. The Supreme Court, which has emerged as the supreme voice of the nation, asked the explosive question that is echoing across the land: what precisely was the relationship between Ali Baba and the 40 thieves?

For those who have just discovered that familiarity is not synonymous with certainty, Ali Baba was an unassuming professional with humble appetite and mumble diction who was transformed when he overheard the secret password to the treasurehouse of thieves in a jungle that was certainly less ferocious than Delhi. In one magic moment Ali Baba became the keeper of fabulous fortune. So what did this God-fearing man do? Report the stolen goods to the law? Or did he mutter, under his beard, something about stable government and the compulsions of coalition politics, and let sleeping crooks lie? Ali Baba did not steal anything, mind you. He merely took passive advantage of someone else’s malfeasance.

Perhaps the cracker lit by the Supreme Court would have been a damp squib were it not for the sheer extent of the loot stolen. Bofors became a national byword not because of the money involved, but because a government was suspected of having compromised the nation’s strength.

A. Raja’s spectrum scam is about sheer size. I have no idea at which point India’s mind begins to boggle, but once you have written Rs 1.76 lakh crore in digits, you are very clearly in boggleland.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has tiptoed through six boggle-free years with ballet steps. His feet seemed to know their way through the minefield which is government almost instinctively, even occasionally landing safe after an acrobatic leap or two. But mines are silent, dark and deep, and they have promises to keep. They await their moment with deadpan patience. Then they explode. And you lose face.

With one stiletto sweep, the Supreme Court has torn multiple holes into the face-veil that has protected the Government’s pockmarks from the public eye. It asked the Prime Minister of India why he had presided over the loot of India in order to preserve himself in power.

It is nonsense to suggest that the prime minister is first among equals. He sits at the head of a Cabinet controlled by an utterly imbalanced caste system, in which only he is the Brahmin and the next level a few rungs below. Dr Singh knew precisely what was happening in the telecom ministry among the lower orders, which is why he wrote to his telecom minister suggesting transparency in the bidding process before it began. Raja had less respect for the Brahmin than the Brahmin expected. Raja laughed in private and did precisely as he pleased in public, adding insult to injury by putting his shrug on record in a letter to the Prime Minister’s Office. What did the prime minister do? Acknowledged the letter, and added his warm regards in the process. Raja, and his party, DMK, never once had any doubts that power was so important to the Congress that corruption would be the least of their concerns. Who can blame Raja for being so accurate in his assessment?

The prime minister does not sit in a helpless office. He has the right to demand any file from any ministry. A note from him can stop any process till fuller examination. A phone call by a bureaucrat from his office will pour sand into any government wheel. Any decision that involves more than Rs 500 crore has to go through the Cabinet. Dr Singh knew every detail about the one thief who could have put 40 from Ali Baba to shame. What did he do about it? A whole lot of nothing.

It is fashionable to label every Opposition protest in Parliament unruly. When was the last time that a ruly Opposition has achieved anything? In fact, the Opposition has been terribly ruly about the spectrum scam for too long. This story began in UPA-I and is destined to continue into many more serials in UPA-II. The CAG exposé of Raja was known to government before the Opposition disrupted Parliament. Why did the prime minister ignore publicly evident condemnation until ruly turned unruly?

Dr Manmohan Singh’s government is scheduled to last for three-and-a-half years more, and possibly it will. It has however lost something vital. Mathematicians have not created enough digits to measure the loss of credibility.

This piece appears in India Today this week.


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