|The old party line again|
|Thursday, 17 February 2011 00:00|
How many governments do you know of who get a minister to resign on grounds of corruption, and then arrest him? How many governments have arrested former officials on grounds of corruption, who have chosen to give up many of their discretionary powers … had PM Manmohan Singh taken this line at his first post-scam press conference, it would probably have ended up convincing people the government was serious about cleaning up its act. More so given the kind of planning that went into the press conference — a careful selection of television journalists, including some from overseas, ensured there were less questions on A Raja and other scams and more on issues like Telangana, Ulfa, agriculture reforms, GST (which allowed the PM to hint the BJP was opposing GST because of Amit Shah’s arrest in Gujarat), safety nets for the poor and, if you please, even one on whether the absence of a rupee debt market was holding back infrastructure development. And yes, even one on who his favourite cricketer was.
But since the PM chose to stick to the old party line, his statement about how the media’s exclusive focus on corruption was hurting the country’s image also failed to make the kind of impact it should have. The fact that the PM was badly briefed didn’t help either. One of the first questions asked was why the PM brought back Raja in 2009 when it was obvious in 2008 itself that the government had lost a lot of money when two firms that got cheap licences from Raja sold a part of their equity at a huge premium. While talking of the compulsions of coalition politics, the PM added that since both the finance ministry and the Telecom Commission had agreed to the points Raja was making, he didn’t think Raja had committed any great wrong on policy either — since the Justice Patil committee appointed by the government has made it clear the finance ministry was ignored and that the full Telecom Commission had been bypassed on the matter, it is clear the PM was badly briefed. The PM’s reply to where he stood on the Sibal (zero-loss) and Chidambaram (governance deficit) statements was an eye-opener and signalled there was little change in the government line on the scam. The Budget, the PM said, gave Rs 80,000 crore of subsidies on food and large amounts on fertiliser and kerosene — was this to be considered a loss of revenue, he asked, in the way the CAG said Raja’s actions had caused a loss of revenue to the exchequer? While the subsidy losses are unconscionable, it takes a real leap of faith to compare subsidies for the common man with subsidies to firms owned by billionaires (some of whom were quick to monetise the profits), but that’s what the PM did. Even American presidents, with all their preparation and folksy answers, have a tough time dealing with an angry press — Indian heads of state, unused to dealing with direct questions and answers, would do well to stick to televised addresses to the nation.