Coalition compulsions’ has become a way of explaining away the most preposterous of governmental decisions in which national interest is brazenly compromised at the altar of political expediency. Among others, two major decisions under the UPA rule have made a mockery of accountability and should awaken us to the need to look at our systems and processes. The first was allocation of spectrum at throwaway prices with an astronomical loss to the national exchequer that was a fraud attributed to then telecom minister A Raja. It turned out that Raja had kept the prime minister briefed on his controversial decisions and had even disregarded the latter’s advice, taking advantage of a weak prime minister who was wary of annoying an important coalition partner.
The second is a more recent example of how a civil aviation minister evidently caused a stupendous loss to the national exchequer and virtually wrecked the country’s national airline if the then managing director of Indian Airlines, Sunil Arora, is to be believed on his observations against Praful Patel.
It is a sad commentary on our system of governance that barring a few media comments and some stray interventions in Parliament, the sole blame for the under-valued 2G spectrum sale has been heaped at the door of Raja with no accountability of the Cabinet and specifically the prime minister.
In the civil aviation case, it has now emerged that Sunil Arora wrote to the then cabinet secretary B K Chaturvedi complaining that he and the IA board were being pressured by then civil aviation minister Praful Patel and his OSD to take financially damaging and commercially unviable decisions.
In his May 28, 2005 letter, Arora listed the decisions on which the board was overruled: purchasing more jets than required, disallowing IA to fly on viable routes to make way for other operators and, even ‘changing the seating configuration’ to favour a particular aircraft manufacturer. Expressing apprehensions over the consequences of his letter Arora appealed to the cabinet secretary to share this information only with the prime minister.
Complaining of pressure, Arora said: “During the last one year, almost all board meetings of Air India and even some board meetings of Airports Authority of India have become a farce. Instructions on key agenda items are communicated before hand on telephone or personally by minister, civil aviation, or by his OSD K N Choubey. No suggestions to the effect that the issue in question requires a more detailed examination or that there are some implications are countenanced.”
This is yet another instance of how representatives of coalition partners have been able to ride roughshod over the affairs of their ministries with no fear of a prime minister sitting at the helm. It is indeed imperative that a high-level probe be ordered to get to the root of the issue. It needs to be established whether Arora’s allegations are true and to what extent the minister’s actions were guided by pecuniary considerations. Such monumental errors of judgement that give pecuniary benefits to private parties at the cost of the national exchequer cannot be allowed to go without being investigated and unpunished.
It is not merely a disgruntled MD of Indian Airlines who has spoken up against his then minister. The Comptroller and Auditor-General of India was also scathing in his report on the decisions taken by Praful Patel. The CAG report says Air India incurred a `10,000 crore loss because it was forced into buying 111 aircraft it did not need. On aircraft acquisition it says the mega acquisition is the main reason why the Maharaja is in deep financial mess.
According to the CAG report the proposal to buy 43 aircraft for Indian Airlines in 2005 was done without due diligence regarding the economic viability. The induction plan was based on a study done in the ‘90s and hence not up-to-date, but the civil aviation ministry went ahead despite warnings by the Planning Commission and its own financial adviser. The manufacturer, Airbus, was to invest $100 million after the deal for maintenance and repair, but the fact was missing in the final agreement.
There have also been numerous instances when coalition partners of the Congress have had their way by prevailing upon Congress president Sonia Gandhi who has then made Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s consent a fait accomplii.
As prime minister, Singh could well assert and have his way but that has not been his style. Thereby, the authority of the office of prime minister has been compromised, subverting the whole Westminster model of democratic governance on which our democratic edifice is built.
No one disputes Manmohan Singh’s genius or his fine temperament. However, he is increasingly proving unequal to the task of governing such a vast nation with such a multiplicity of problems at this age and time when wheeling-dealing has become the order of the day. It is time he makes way for someone else who restores to the office of prime minister the authority that is due to it, with a combination of tact and firmness.
One of the basic features of the Cabinet form of government is that although all members are equal and responsible for every decision taken collectively in the Cabinet, the prime minister represents the ‘keystone of the Cabinet arch’ and occupies a position of exceptional accountability on the performance of the Cabinet on the whole.
Singh’s weak-kneed response to situations must not establish a precedent for the prime minister to be pushed around by his Cabinet members or by the constituent parties in the coalition.
It was pathetic how West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee forced her nominee in the Cabinet, Dinesh Trivedi to quit, paving the way for a replacement (Mukul Roy) who overturned the basic thrust of the railway budget that had already been cleared by the Cabinet and presented to the Lok Sabha. This was a mockery of the Cabinet form of government, which should not be repeated again.
It is by no means easy to run a government of so many parties that are all governed by their self-interest and not knit together through a common thread. That’s a challenge that any leader of a coalition has to meet. That Singh has had to contend with a situation where he has to coordinate with a leader who had prime ministership served to her on a platter which she spurned makes his task even tougher. However, Singh has to keep in mind that nothing that he does must compromise the honour and prestige of the office he holds.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a veteran journalist and author.