Following an instance of misuse of privilege, Minister of State for Agriculture Sanjeev Kumar Balyan has cracked the whip. His office has gone through the ritual round of retraction, apology and abjuration. But who exactly is in charge, the minister or his staff? Earlier this week, The Indian Express reported that an official manning Balyan’s home office had sent a mail to venture capital firms seeking an appointment for a woman who had allegedly claimed to be his niece. It sought their indulgence for the development of an app — unfair advantage, in short. After the revelation, the minister has declared that he knew the woman and her family, but clarified that she was not his niece. He caused the official to explain that the incident was the result of a “miscommunication”. He had him send a curative email speeding on the heels of the first, asking the venture capitalists he had contacted to junk the request. And he made it clear to his staff that official mail IDs are not to be used for communications with personal content.
However, he neglected to perform the first step of any credible expiation: he declined to take responsibility, saying that the incident had occurred when he was travelling. Dumping on the staff — whether they made a mistake or not — is unacceptable conduct from those in high office. All communications emanating from the office of a minister are sent in his name. It does not matter if he was in Rajasthan and Haryana, as Balyan has explained, or somewhere even more remote, such as Dakshin Gangotri. The communication medium that was used, email, is abstracted from geography and is agnostic to distance. Irrespective of the circumstances in which that email was sent, it sped in Balyan’s name.
This argument of mitigating circumstances is rife in Indian democracy, and part of the problem with it. In Western democracies, the question of impropriety works like a zero-one switch. The quantum of impropriety is only of academic interest. If a minister accepts the hospitality of an interested party, he or she is held to be unworthy of office. In the case of Balyan, an office staffer has taken responsibility. But he acted in the minister’s name.