By Pushkal Shivam:
Ideally, gaffe is the last word a government would want to be synonymous with. But as Groucho Marx once said, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well, I have others.” The UPA-II flitted from one gaffe to another without compunctions throughout 2011. Its notoriety for making gaffes has an underlying binary principle. With a feckless leader at its helm, the government likes retreating into a muted state of indecision. When it acts, it bungles. This bipolarity has become the quintessence of the ruling dispensation. As if scum-tainted skeletons which tumbled out of its closet were not enough, the government did much to embarrass itself this year. Here is a look at the moments which left it red-faced:
India’s External Affairs minister SM Krishna is infamous for being uninspiring and stodgy. He almost gave that perception a stamp of legitimacy when he inadvertently read out Portuguese foreign minister’s speech at a UNSC meeting. About three minutes into the speech, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Hardeep Singh Puri came to his rescue. By that time Krishna had read out, “On a more personal note, allow me to express my profound satisfaction regarding the happy coincidence of having two members of the Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP), Brazil and Portugal, together here today.”
For a Prime Minister who rarely speaks, a meeting with country’s top editors from the print media was a refreshing change. However, in a freewheeling mood, Dr. Manmohan Singh went to the extent of dubbing 25% of Bangladesh’s population anti-Indian. He reportedly said, “But we must reckon that at least 25 percent of the population of Bangladesh swear by the Jamiat-ul-Islami and they are very anti-Indian, and they are in the clutches, many times, of the ISI.” What followed is even more interesting. Without realizing the sensitivity of Prime Minister’s remark, the whiz-kids at the PMO put up the comments on its website. Sections of Bangladeshi media had a field day as the fodder had come straight from the horse’s mouth.
In a paper titled “Why, for a Class of Bribes, the Act of Giving a Bribe Should be Treated as Legal”, Chief Economic Adviser to the Ministry of Finance, Government of India Kaushik Basu argued that a certain class of bribes be legalized. The paper was even put up on the website of Ministry of Finance. Mr. Basu pitched in with his “small but novel” idea at a time when the government was bearing the brunt of revelations in an array of cases like CVC, 2G, CWG etc. Mr. Basu has a history of coming up with “small but fairly radical” ideas. In a 1994 New York Times article, Mr. Basu argued against banning child labor. He even contended that people of the third world need it.
It’s hard to decide which is more embarrassing. That Finance Minister and No.2 in the Cabinet Pranab Mukherjee’s office was bugged or that conspirators- possibly from within the government- reportedly used chewing gums to carry out the task when technology offered better alternatives. Mr. Mukherjee registered his concerns in a letter written to the Prime Minister. Although IB investigated into the case and found “nothing”, newspapers pointed out that the choice of CBDT (Central Board of Direct Taxes) for the de-bugging operation instead of IB (Intelligence Bureau), which has the expertise, was curious.
“Sanity is not statistical”, says Winston Smith, protagonist of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.The world outside the Yojana Bhawan has to be insane enough to buy into the statistics that the experts inhabiting it churn out. For them “sanity is not statistical” as they are under the impression that the world is insane and they are sane. We know how ridiculous Planning Commission’s definition of poverty line is. We finally came to know the truth behind government’s claim that inflation would moderate: false inflation projection by Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Presto! The riddle was solved. Reassurances by the government that stubbornly high inflation would moderate were based on a false projection. (I even tried to live on Rs. 32 a day. Check out my experiences here.)
What was being touted as “symbolic of the new and modern India” is fast becoming a chimera. The government’s pet project UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) or AADHAR, chaired by “modern” India’s blue-eyed boy Nandan Nilekani, could be scrapped altogether as it is ridden with loopholes. The scheme had enjoyed a positive image in the eyes of India Inc and sections of media until a Parliamentary Standing Committee headed by Yashwant Sinha repudiated the National Unique Identification Authority of India Bill. According to the committee, the project is not tenable in its current form. The Home Ministry itself raised questions over security of the data collected.
“How many people will come and tell you that we have goofed up; there was a mistake. I have said it openly there is nothing to hide; there is no shame in admitting that there is something wrong”, said Commerce Secretary Rahul Khullar admitting that this year’s export figures were inflated by more than $9 billion due to a glitch in the computer software. The $9 billion goof-up came close on the heels of an embarrassing policy U-turn by the government on FDI in retail.
By arresting Anna Hazare in order to stop him from fasting at Delhi’s JP Park, the government painted itself into a corner. It was too late by the time it realized that it had made a martyr of Hazare. Under enormous public pressure, the government had to order his release. But Hazare was too clever to miss out on the opportunity. He turned the tables on the government by refusing to accept bail. Hazare remained inside the Tihar Jail demanding an unconditional release and permission to carry out his protest. The government had to relent. Arresting him cost the government dearly.
If CBI is India’s premier investigation agency, then we need to redefine the way a ‘premier investigation agency’ works. Being under the thumb of the government it has little autonomy. Its goof-ups, therefore, should reflect equally badly on the government. First, it landed in Denmark seeking extradition of Kim Davy, a prime-accused in the Purulia arms drop case, with an expired warrant. Second, it goofed up the list of India’s 50 Most Wanted fugitives allegedly hiding in Pakistan. As Pakistan was reeling under global outrage in the wake of Laden’s killing, India had an opportunity to step up pressure. CBI had egg on its face when it turned out that two men included in that list were actually in India. One out on bail in Mumbai’s Thane suburb, other lodged in a jail in the same city.