Ye gods! It doth amaze me
A man of such a feeble temper should
So get the start of the
And bear the palm alone.
Cassius famous lament comes instantly to mind as one reflects on Rajiv Gandhi’s entire style of functioning as Prime Minister of India in the last two years. The grievous wrong he has inflicted in a willfully mean manner on the head of India’s Foreign Service, Foreign Secretary A.P. Venkateswaran, is only its latest expression. A style of government is a potential threat to Indian democracy.
People were slow to perceive this aspect when Mrs. Indira Gandhi abruptly transferred a fine civil servant, Srichand Chabra, in 1970 because he had incurred Sanjay Gandhi’s wrath. Unchecked, her power grew. Maruti and the Emergency followed. But that transfer pales into insignificance when compared ‘to the disgraceful manner in which Venkateswaran’s tenure in office was brought to an end.
The consequences of this action are staggering to contemplate. The sudden and public dismissal of the head of the IFS can only demoralize the entire civil service. Its morale is none too high as it is. Precisely because of the prestigious and sensitive nature of the post of a foreign secretary, the shabby treatment meted out to its incumbent impairs the country’s prestige and credibility in the eyes of the world. It cannot but fail to lower the standing of the Prime Minister who metes out such treatment.
It will take long to repair the damage done to the Ministry of External Affairs. [t had suffered the least from the ravages of partisanship of successive regime. It enjoyed a high reputation in the chanceries of the world and in the councils of the world and in the councils of U.N. A precious national asset was being eroded gradually in recent years. It was left to Rajiv Gandhi to inflict a crippling wound on it.
He is temperamentally indifferent to the line dividing the party and the State. The worth of civil servant he measures by his pliability to his whims. But the integrity of the civil service is indispensable to democratic government under our Constitution. As Dr. B.R. Ambedkar warned: “It is perfectly possible to pervert the Constitution, without changing its form. by merely changing the form of the administration and make it inconsistent and opposed to the spirit of the Constitution.” Suborn the loyalty of the civil servant to the law, by intimidation or bribery, and make him serve, instead, the interests of the regime and all Constitutional checks on power are reduced to naught. Personal rule replaces the rule of law.
What is one to think of a Prime Minister who in the course of three weeks alone humiliates as many as four high-ranking officials, secretaries to the government of India including the secretary to the Prime Minister himself. Where will he stop? D. Bandopadhyay, Secretary, Rural Development, and CS. Shastry Secretary, Agriculture, were insulted on January 9 in the presence of several officials. N.R. Reddy, Deputy Director of the Special Protection Group was ordered to be sent back in disgrace during the Andamans jambooree. When the P.M.’s secretary, Sarla Grewal, sought to pacify him, she was asked to go back with Reddy on a special flight. Venkateswaran received shabby treatment at the press conference on January 20.
The pattern is by now a familiar one. A little over a year ago, the chief of protocol, a key figure in leasing with foreign missions, was abruptly transferred. G. Parathasarathi, Mrs. Gandhi’s eminence rise in the Ministry of External Affairs, was for long a drag on the institution, But it makes no sense to make him head of a high level policy advisory committee on April 26, 1986, and dissolve the body suddenly on new year’s day, without the slightest prior hint of such a summary action.
Rajiv Gandhi revels in the glamour of international diplomacy. Under his regime the turnover of India’s foreign ministers has been as remarkable as the frequency of the Prime Minister’s trips abroad Bali Ram Bhagat, P. Shiv Shankar, and now N.D. Tiwari. From September 25, 1985 to October 22, 1986, there were as many as six reshuffles of the Union council of ministers. Bhagat saved from September 25, 1985 to May 12, 1986. Shiv Shankar succeeded him and was duly sent packing on October 22.
In between there was harebrained scheme to set up a computerized data bank for the Congress (1) MPs as well as the MLAs. Two of the five computers had already arrived by the end of 1985, technicians were hired, A lengthy preform a was circulated for party MPs to fill in. But the Prime Minister had underestimated the guile of his party men. They evaded Big Brother’s “Computer Watch”.
Which other head of a democratic government would even think of keeping such a tab on his party colleagues? It simply reflected Rajiv Gandhi’s profound contempt for the very men on whom his power depends. It is this mentality which inspired the ignoble performance at the recent press conference. Pliable civil servants are to be rewarded, independent ones are to Le discarded. Everyone around is to be used. And there are plenty around who are willing to be used. Not least in the media.
A.P. Venkateswaran became Foreign Secretary by right. his credentials were outstanding. He has something much more valuable than a brilliant intellect. He has that rare quality, integrity. With these, alas, came independence. And Rajiv Gandhi has no use for independent civil servants or for independent advisers.
However, the manner in which he has got rid of such an adviser reveals the man beneath the veneer of pleasantness. To the discerning the record even in the brief three years before Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister (198184) were warning enough.
Amiya Rao asked in a letter to Indian Express (March 2, 1982) “Did it occur to him as exceedingly odd that, for his private visit to Tirupati, a special plane should have been chartered from the Bihar government and that he should have been accompanied by a Central cabinet minister and a large number of Andhra Pradesh legislators ….?”
When Morariji Desai was labeled as a CIA agent by a foreign Journalist, no one gave the charge any credence. But on May 7, 1984 at Tirupati, Rajiv pointedly and disgracefully recalled the accusation while denouncing Desai.
In February 1984, he confidently predicted that Pakistan would invade India within a year. The prediction was made in an interview with John Elliott of the prestigious Financial Times of London (February 6, 1984), Rajiv said that the invasion was most likely “at what we call the *Chicken’s Neck’ near Jammu which is our most vulnerable point on the border.” On February 9 at Cochin he explained that he had revealed no defense secrets to the paper and added that even in 1965 and 1971 we knew the exact points where the attack took place. Lt. Gen. S. K. Sinha (Retd.) ridiculed the claim. He recalled that in 1965 and 1971 Pakistan had attacked at Chamb and not at Chicken’s Neck.
All through 1983 and 1984 Rajiv Gandhi conducted systematically a campaign of vilification as Congress (I) General Secretary on the theme that the Opposition would “sell” the country to serve its needs. i : “ Rajiv Gandhi shot into “national fame” by his public insult to the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, T. Anjiah, at the Hyderabad airport on February 3, 1982. Central and State ministers and many others were present. They angry remark he shot at Anjiah was in execrable taste. It was left to Shiv Shankar to grovel before the master and plead with him to save their izzar and not go back.
He “suffered” firefighting operations in Delhi on September 19, 1982 when he humiliated Delhi’s Commissioner of Police, Bajrang Lal. He publicly, and unjustly, reprimanded him, in the presence of his subordinates and fire brigade officials “uring a firefighting operation at Parichkuin Road. The Deputy Commissioner R.K. Sharma was caught by the shoulder and asked, “Is there any crowd control arrangement here?”
Yet the nation was willing to take him on trust. It was stunned by Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Her son was seen to bear his distress with great dignity. He seemed to be different. He seemed to be pleasant. The country was sick of the squabbles of politicians. It accepted the outsider’s promise of change. But people do not change easily. Power did not impart maturity to Rajiv Gandhi. It only emboldened him in his ways. He had won and he could does he pleased.
This election campaign of 1984 was an exercise in sheer mendacity. The Anandpur Sahib Resolution was used to impugn the Opposition’s patriotism (To wit, on December 4, 6, 12, 14and 17). On July 24, 1985 he agreed to refer this very document to the Sarkaria Commission. One sees the same techniques at work on Gurkhaland. he went so far as to justify Subhash Ghising’s letter to the King of Nepal as one from a Nepali citizen to his monarch. On September 18, 1986, he denied that Ghising demanded a Gorkha state separate from West Bengal.
Both statements were palpably false.
The weapon of abuse was used as freely as before. Cheap ridicule of a respected MP like Jaswant Singh and tasteless comments on K.P. Unnikrishnan MP’s girth are one thing. It is another to say of the veteran Jyoti Basu, “Do you want to answer everything that the chap keeps saying? This was in response to newsmen’s query, at Shantiniketan on December 16, 1985, about Jyoti Basu’s criticism of the PM’s “misbehaviors” with him at a meeting of the National Development Council. On March 5, 1986, the PM accused the Opposition of having a vested interest in the country’s poverty. Comparison with Mrs. Gandhi is natural. She was as prone to abuse of power; as prone also to impugn the Opposition’s integrity and to lie without batting an eyelid. But she did not stoop to cheap abuse. She was ruthless in getting out of her way civil servants who were too independent for her tastes. But Nirmal Mukherjee and T.C.A. Srinivasawardan were neither insulted nor humiliated. This trait belongs distinctively to Rajiv Gandhi.
Sad to say, but said it must be. The country yearned for “a gentleman in politics”. It acquired instead a leader who had no real understanding of the political process but imagined that he could beat the politician at his own game by fighting more roughly. In two years’ time the atmosphere of hope and confidence is gone. The Prime Minister’s credibility is lower than ever before. Rajiv Gandhi reflects the sorrier traits of Indira Gandhi but without her talent.
What one finds now is a growing impatience with the forms and norms of public life. And an ignorance which disdains even appearances of respect for them. “I have departed from convention in hundreds of things”, the PM said on June 16, 1985. He had been in office only for a few months. And he was speaking of the relations between the PM and the President. That relationship rests largely on judicially recognized conventions. Remove them and the President becomes an overlord.
The loan meals of the past were reenacted on a larger scale with announcements of handsome cent ‘Yal assistance during the PM’s visits to West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana and Kerala the States which are getting ready to go to the polls.
Relations with Parliament and the press were no better. The factual errors in his oration on the press (October 2, 1986) are understandable. What is not forgivable is the anger against the “whiners and groaners”. No PM in the world has had a more indulgent press or a more docile Opposition.
We must ask with St. Luke “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” This question brooks no evasion. If Rajiv Gandhi can behave the way he does when there is no threat to his power, to what depths wills he not stoop when he is threatened? “He will be ruthless, then” a veteran congressman, who despises the Pranab Mukherjee gang, told this writer.
What checks have we against that? Like American military strategy which is hooked on the Pearl Harbor syndrome, our thinking has been riveted on the Emergency. True, Rajiv Gandhi has repeatedly justified it. But what may well be in store for us is something far worse. It is just what Dr. Ambedkar foresaw a subversion of the Constitution, not by a fraudulent Emergency or a formal amendment, but by a perversion of the administration to the personal whims of the ruler. We have none but ourselves to blame for that. We ignored the sage’s warning.
On November 25, 1949, when the Constituent Assembly finished its task, Ambedkar advised Indians to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, named, not “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions.” There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered lifelong services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness.
The Venkateswaran episode reveals in a flash all the personality traits of Rajiv Gandhi which we would have liked to overlook although they were forcing themselves on our perception the savage brutality in treatment of persons; the aridness for uncontrolled power; and the lack of maturity. it would be foolish to ignore them, now. They will assuredly come to the fore precisely when they are most dangerous when the man is peeved, feels insecure or is under stress in a crisis.
That A.P. Venkateswaran was outstandingly qualified to be Foreign Secretary to the government of India is beyond question. Rajiv Gandhi on the other hand has yet to prove his fitness to be Prime Minister of a great country.
Courtesy: Illustrated Weekly of India