Watching Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee refuse to deny the ministry's note when questioned in Washington DC about making public Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram's involvement in the decision process that led to the gift of spectrum to a clutch of telecom companies a few years ago, it was clear that the ageing warhorse has had enough of the hypocrisy and dissimulation that high-level politics has descended to in this country. Pranab declined to duck when asked to confirm the truth.
This is unusual in a party where even the health of the Supremo gets treated as a state secret. Of course, we have on record both Ambika Soni and Digvijay Singh, who have informed the nation that Mrs Gandhi is not merely fit but radiantly so. That in fact, she is even healthier now than long years of boiled vegetables and steamed chicken have kept her. But for the fact that both Soni and Singh are competing for the Dev Kanta Barooah Award for Loyalty to the Boss, we may have even believed them. As it is, the silence over her condition has spawned a raft of rumours that cross the gamut from the theory that she is perfectly fit but has recessed herself for a while in order to orchestrate from behind the hospital curtain the removal of Manmohan Singh, to reports that Sonia Gandhi is gravely ill.
Palaniappan Chidambaram owes his job to Sonia Gandhi, who plucked him from inconsequence into super-stardom in 2004 by making him the Union Finance Minister. Since then, he has beavered away at fulfilling her desire that the country get liberated from the timid shoots of liberalisation introduced by the much-despised Narasimha Rao, and return to the statist model favoured by Indira Gandhi, who changed policies at whim with only one constant: that the government has all the discretion and the people, none. As Finance Minister, he adopted policies that were the reverse of those he embraced during 1997, that of lowering tax rates and declaring an amnesty for unaccounted money.
This columnist is among those who favour lower tax rates to generate greater economic growth and better compliance. Also, he strongly favours an amnesty scheme that would get at least some of the money now getting mouldy in offshore banking havens. Given the shaky situation of European banks, that cash is likely to be permanently lost, both to the nation and to its owners, unless steps get taken to bring it back to India by a combination of sticks and carrots.
Will Pranab Mukherjee's Zen Moment continue to include efforts at tracking the flows of unaccounted cash from India, or has it been exhausted in his few seconds of candour? Should the Finance Minister (and the PM) finally shake off the fear that seems to be slowing both of them down and take vigorous steps to track cash secreted abroad, they would redeem themselves in the glance of history. Even an amnesty scheme needs to have a strong regime of accountability and compliance for it to be effective, something that Chidambaram forgot in 1997. In his 2004-2008 avatar, the Union Finance Minister contented himself by creating a Kafka-esque cesspool of regulations that has collectively made the Income-Tax Department one of the most affluent in the government system, rivalling even the police in the volume of bribes garnered. Since Chidambaram took over, harassment and intimidation have become the norm, each taking vast amounts of cash to surmount. Just as Chiman Patel used to arrest folks under TADA only to blackmail them into paying him money to get out of jail, these days many tax raids get conducted with the sole purpose of getting paid in cash so as to compound the findings.
As Union Home Minister, Chidambaram has carried his fealty to Kafka (who is the true inspirer of the Indira-Sonia model of Restrictive Governance) to the new ministry. These days, the Home Ministry is working overtime to restrict tourist arrivals by a ridiculous visa policy. It is labouring to prevent external investment, by mistaking bedbugs for spies in numerous investment proposals. It has crafted a regime that is making the Indian corporate sector dash for the door. Given that the UPA is determined to bring the country back to the Nehru Rate of Growth of 3% and below, this is a performance that should ensure the prime ministership for Chidambaram, when a grateful Sonia Gandhi at last decides to reward her paladin with a post that her non-constitutional but very real authority has devalued to a nullity.
This columnist has watched with admiration the efforts of Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia and judges of the calibre of Ganguly and Singhvi to bring accountability into the functioning of government. They have spoken out with a candour that is rare in this country, and have refused to accept excuses or take shelter under the defeatist view that change is impossible in India. The past year has seen more forward movement against corruption than has been the case since 1947, and all this despite the CBI working hard (as it usually does) to save the guilty by fudging cases or simply by not obvious leads. Clearly, the CJI has the government in a quandary. The entire edifice whereby politicians become super-rich (if coy about their wealth) is under scrutiny, if not threat. In such a situation, it must have come as a relief to the UPA to know that at least one Supreme Court judge still believes that the Government of India can be trusted to battle black money. Justice Altamas Kabir would like to move away from the 4 July judgement of Justices Reddy and Nijjar that took away from the government the monitoring of steps to unearth black money. Given the failure of the state in this direction so far, such a judgement (by the two) was welcome. However, it may yet get overturned, if enough judges have the same level of confidence in the honesty and efficacy of the state as Justice Kabir seems to possess.
As one among a billion-plus citizens, as someone who does not now or ever has had a red light as a fashion accessory to his vehicle, the hope of this columnist is that Justice Kabir will look around him and see for himself the reality of life in India. And that, in time to come, instead of placing his faith in government, he will carry forward the revolution initiated by Chief Justice Kapadia. Asking politicians and officials to clean up an act that has made them super-rich may be a tad difficult to enforce, unless Justice Kabir himself someday supervises such a cleanup. Should he do so, the country — as distinct from the government — would be grateful to him.