The perks of being a VIP

It’s an insult to Indian resourcefulness that despite the opportunities thrust upon him, Manmohan Singh is one of the poorest men in his government

It’s tough being a minister. When I bumped into Dinesh Trivedi in the Taj Hotel lobby the other day he was grumbling about the tiresome things he had to do when he was in charge of the railways. “Why should the minister have to approve when some official goes abroad?” he asked. Later, I heard him reiterate on TV that 99 per cent of the files he had to sign were unnecessary.

Was Dinesh being disingenuous? I remember a senior member of the National Democratic Alliance government seething with rage over the ingratitude of a prominent Delhi editor. “I sent him abroad for the first time,” the minister exploded, “and look what he’s writing!” Apparently, the minister had included this editor in a government delegation to North Africa, expecting a lifetime of hagiographic coverage in return. His hopes were not fulfilled. The beneficiary was canny enough to build on that first trip to cultivate other patrons and play one off against another.
Gambles can misfire but I doubt if many ministers would object like Dinesh Trivedi to what is still a powerful instrument of leverage. Exchange control is more relaxed nowadays and travel restrictions no longer flagrantly violate human rights. But what V.S. Naipaul called India’s “craze for phoren” remains strong as ever. Not that the railway minister sanctions only trips abroad. Vacancies must be filled, promotions approved, sleepers passed and rolling stock and signalling systems bought at huge cost. Trains can’t run on time if the minister doesn’t appoint Railway Board members. Uniforms, caps and boots are purchased even if they are never seen on any railway staff. Every sanction and signature has its price.
It’s so with all ministries. Mines raise the spectre of Coalgate. Everyone knows HRD is only a fancy term for allowing industrialists to call their estates universities and for appointing millions of teachers. With China and Pakistan yapping at our borders, the defence minister’s patriotic duty is to buy guns. Civil aviation means keeping out the best foreign airlines until they agree to terms. Rajiv Gandhi’s comment about only 15 per cent of development funds reaching the target means that rural development is swimming in funds. Since reports need to be touched up and accounts passed, the law and finance ministers enjoy special rights.
The prospect is dauntingly boundless. No wonder some ministers, even Prime Ministers, pass on onerous responsibilities to their sons. According to an undoubtedly apocryphal story, when Devi Lal was asked why he favoured his son, he retorted, “Whose son should I favour, yours?” Another variant had him saying, “If I don’t favour my son, who will?” Some prefer nephews whose different surname can act as a smokescreen. But evil-minded Opposition politicians see through it.
They are more polite in Sri Lanka. When nephew Kotelawala succeeded uncle Senanayake as Prime Minister, the wits were content with calling the ruling UNP (the United National Party which enjoyed power for 33 years) the Uncle-Nephew Party. One heard a palpable sigh of relief when Hussain Mohammed Ershad made his wife official First Lady of Bangladesh. The separate office to which she became entitled enabled her to deal directly with suppliers and contractors without going through meddlesome middlemen. Ershad made no secret of his admiration for Indonesia’s Suharto whose wife was known as “Madam Ten Per Cent”.
Pakistan is in a class by itself. No one knows yet whether the loaves and fishes of the new regime will fall to Nawaz Sharif’s glamorous daughter Maryam or his astute brother Shahbaz. No fewer than 18 Sharifs were exiled to Saudi Arabia; so there are plenty of others (including Nawaz Sharif’s three sons) sniffing around for pickings. There’s also — sounds familiar! — a son-in-law about whom clings just a tantalising whiff of scandal. But then, as the fate of the Bhutto-Zardari dynasty confirmed, Pakistan’s politicians don’t really count. No matter who buys the most votes, the Inter-Services Intelligence is the winner.
If only Asia could be as straightforward as Europe where Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands the other day demoted herself to princess and anointed son Willem-Alexander king while the crowd cheered. No one demanded that Willem-Alexander address businessmen and industrialists to prove his mettle. Beatrix’s public kiss was enough. But, then, an Asian Beatrix would have insisted on remaining queen even while elevating her son.
A tall and thin Delhi journalist who visited London when I lived there bought an expensive suit for someone short and fat. He explained that the finance ministry official who had upgraded his foreign exchange allowance (which his paper paid of course) wanted a branded suit in return. If a mere exchange control clerk could demand a Jermyn Street suit in the austere Sixties, imagine what senior ministers can command!
No wonder they sneer at the Prime Minister as an amateur fallen among professionals. Forgetting the prime bit, he has charge of personnel, public grievances and pensions, planning, atomic energy and even space. Fortunes are waiting to be made in every one of these portfolios. Ministers in the states with none of his advantages cultivate a profitable interest in such unlikely material as cement, fodder and bran. Even lordly Indian-origin lawmakers in distant Britain prove they haven’t discarded their ethnicity with their passports by inventing addresses in the country to claim fraudulent expenses. It’s an insult to Indian resourcefulness that despite the opportunities thrust upon him, Manmohan Singh is one of the poorest men in his government. That sets the wrong example. He must be changed. Quietly spreading the word he has to be visited and nudged into sacking corrupt ministers is a step in that direction. Even alien and irrelevant notions of public integrity can be put to political use.

The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author

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