June 26, 1997
Is the seniormost minister in the Central Cabinet effectively a lowly government servant or a petty foot-soldier? This question inevitably comes to mind after reading the defence put forth by former prime minister Narasimha Rao in the St Kitts case. According to newsreports, Rao, as the seniormost minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet and the then minister for external affairs, has pleaded before the court that all his actions such as the alleged fabrication of evidence against V.P. Singh were because of the directions of the former prime minister, Rajiv Ganhi, and/or his office.
This kind of defence is expected from a lowly government servant or a low ranking soldier who is taught not to question why but to jump into action when directed by his superior, and not from the breed of supreme rulers who believe they personify the State. Rao’s averments will be separately considered by the courts on the basis of the legal provisions. But the issues unknowingly raised by him are of basic relevance to the governance of the country.
We have adopted a cabinet system of government but it will be pertinent to consider whether it has really been so in practice, except during the regime of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Some insight into how Jawaharlal Nehru conducted himself vis a vis the cabinet is provided by C. D. Deshmukh in his book, The Course of My Life, (1974). He has observed, “Nehru as head of the cabinet was gentle, considerate and democratic, never forcing a decision on his colleagues….Of course, decisions were taken by consensus and never, as far as I can remember in my time, by vote. The same spirit of accommodation was shown by Vallabbhai Patel…”. This is in sharp contrast to the style of functioning developed by Indira Gandhi. As it was widely acknowledged, and commented upon, she was the only man in the cabinet (with due respect to the advocates of equality of genders and women’s liberation). This is borne out by a number of instances. The most prominent of these was the declaration of Emergency in 1975, in anticipation of the approval of the cabinet. Neither the cabinet nor the president of India had the courage to question the justification and the propriety of this singularly unfortunate and extraordinary step.
Not only Indira Gandhi but her notorious son, Sanjay Gandhi, who was the extra-constitutional centre of power, and the coterie of unscrupulous power-seekers took the law into their own hands and held the country to ransom. Any number of officers and ministers were prepared to anticipate the wishes of these masters and to do their bidding. The darbari atmosphere in which all power was totally concentrated in the hands of the prime minister is further borne out from B. K. Nehru’s memoirs, Nice Guys Finish Second, (1997). Referring to the unhappiness of Lord Mountbatten at the removal of his portrait from the banquet room in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Nehru refers to how he, as our High Commissioner in London, took up the matter with the then President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed towards the end of 1974. B. K. Nehru observes, “But so much had the political culture of India already changed that the President….could only say, `Zara aap unse (Indira Gandhi) kah deejiye’…. The prime minister so dominated the president that the `official portion’ of Rashtrapati Bhavan was under her [prime minister’s] control. As the whole house other than the president’s living quarters was `official’, this meant that in effect the president was not in command of his own residence!” It will be pertinent to recall that Zail Singh, immediately after being sworn in as the President of India was so overwhelmed by his elevation to the highest office that he publicly declared that he would be prepared to sweep the streets if he was to be asked to do so by Indira Gandhi.
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The same sycophancy continued when Rajiv Gandhi took over as the prime minister. No dissenting voices were ever heard in the cabinet, howsoever controversial were the decisions. As has been brought out in The Memoirs of Zail Singh, The Seventh President of India (1997), the same Zail Singh was disillusioned and upset with the treatment he received from Rajiv Gandhi. The Thakkar Commission Report, as mentioned to him by Rajiv Gandhi, was quite upsetting. “Even the cabinet had not seen the report… and thus it was not necessary to show it to the president”, said Rajiv Gandhi. The very concept of the joint responsibility of the cabinet became irrelevant in practice. The prime minister, the charmed circle around him and his frequently changing “kitchen cabinet” could do no wrong. Questioning any direction of the supreme leader was unthinkable. More often, instructions of the supreme leader were passed on by the aides and even unofficial advisers and these were implemented to the last word. It was immaterial if the instructions violated any law or rules. The word of the ruler was the law.
This was equally true of the term of Narasimha Rao as the prime minister when several ministers meekly surrendered and did the bidding of the Prime Minister’s office. This has been one continuous example of the well known adage — power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
One sees the replication of this in the states as well, irrespective of which political party is at the helm of affairs. For example, during the regime of Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu, N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh or Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh there was no question of their word being challenged. This is equally true of the present “remote controls”, whether in Mumbai or Delhi. Currently, a joke is doing the rounds in Mumbai. Someone asks the chief minister of Maharashtra, “What is two plus two?”. He replies, “It is four but let me ask Balasaheb Thackeray”. In the Delhi version the reply of a minister is, “Who wants to know?”. In such an atmosphere of total subservience, the administration too has become a handmaiden of politicians, powerbrokers, business houses, godmen and astrologers. What is now coming to light is thus a much deeper malaise in the governance of this country. The “plight” of Narasimha Rao, as he projects it to earn the sympathy of the common man and reprieve from the court, is the tragedy of the country in the larger sense of the term.
If seniormost leaders and ministers in the government cannot withstand the pressures and represent the highest moral values, how can any courage be expected from civil servants and lessor mortals? Is there anyone who can set the correct tone for the revival of the fast decaying moral fibre of the society? One should not be surprised if the St Kitts case goes the way of the recent court decisions in the hawala case. Some may feel that, in the process, the country would lose yet another battle against corrupting influences in society. But the war can still be won if we learn some larger lessons, from this distressing and shameful episode, of conducting our national life, standing up to pressures, refusing to be party to anything which is against the law, and more than anything else, giving up the lure of the chair and the office.
The writer is a former Union Home Secretary
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