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Gaps in party-government coordination

Monday 15 August 2005, by KHARE*Harish

The controversy over the Nanavati Commission report highlights the need for better political coordination between the Congress party and its government.

PRIME MINISTER Manmohan Singh’s emotionally evocative speech in the Rajya Sabha last week has, for now, capped the Nanavati Commission-generated political storm. But the nagging question remains: why did the United Progressive Alliance Government fail to anticipate the consequences of the Nanavati Commission report on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots? No less at fault is the Congress party’s political establishment. Why, for instance, did it take days to get Jagdish Tytler to resign?

Detailed inquiries point to two facts. First, the inquiry commission report and the Action Taken Report (ATR) were not brought before the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs - the designated sub-committee for politically sensitive matters. Secondly, the full Cabinet disposed of the ATR in under two minutes. The only inference possible is that either the allies were equally inattentive to the political ramifications or were unwilling to tread on what they must have presumed to be the Congress party’s sensitive toes.

Sources at senior levels in the Congress party lament that the Union Home Ministry kept the Nanavati Commission report very close to its official chest. Neither Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil nor his senior officials are known for any kind of political insightfulness. Officials cannot be expected to be more proactive than their Minister; in any case, the last six months saw a change of guard at the level of Union Home Secretary. Both bureaucratically and ministerially, the Union Home Ministry was ill equipped to gauge, anticipate, and contain the political fallout of the Nanavati Report.

However, the Home Ministry alone cannot be singled out. Obviously, the Prime Minister’s Office too failed to summon the requisite sensitivity. Notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s own masterful response in Parliament, Dr. Manmohan Singh ought to have intervened internally much earlier rather than let the entire government appear wilfully callous towards the enormity of the 1984 violence.

Was the Prime Minister, too, afraid of rubbing the Congress party on the wrong side? By his own account, he and Congress president Sonia Gandhi had sought forgiveness and spiritual guidance at the Harmandir Sahib. Then, where did the diffidence creep in with respect to the Nanavati Commission report? The Prime Minister can still make up for his own reluctance to speak up earlier within his own administration; all he has to do is to reiterate and expand before the entire nation from the Red Fort the themes and promises he made in the Rajya Sabha last week. Otherwise, the emotional performance in Parliament would get reduced to a political ploy rather than be an exercise in healing.

Two lessons

Two lessons - one minor and one major - suggest themselves. First, the minor one. After more than one year, it is obvious that there is a "political gap" in the Prime Minister’s Office. The botch-up over the Nanavati report is only the latest reminder of the political gap widening. Admittedly the PMO cannot assume a proactive role for itself in a coalition arrangement, but that every arrangement makes it all the more imperative for the Prime Minister to have political advice from within his own establishment. How the Prime Minister uses those inputs will necessarily vary from case to case, but there is no alternative to a political perspective.

The second lesson relates to the larger problem: the very newness of the UPA Government arrangement. The Congress party is for the first time experimenting with an arrangement in which the offices of Prime Minister and party president are not merged in one person. Even after one year there is no operating protocol on how to work the relationship between the government and the party. The result is that the government acts or does not act by trying to anticipate the preferences and prejudices of the party leadership. Those who processed the Nanavati report and prepared the ATR must have proceeded on the assumption that Ms. Sonia Gandhi still remained a prisoner of the 1984-85 theologies and would therefore be unwilling to countenance any "action" against those indicted in the Nanavati Commission report.

The situation is further compounded because there is no arrangement by which the Nanavati Commission report could be discussed with the Congress party’s political leadership. Till the document was placed before Parliament it was a confidential report. If a politically alert Minister had headed the Home Ministry, it would have been possible for him to share informally with the party leadership the contents of the Nanavati bombshell. On the other hand, Ms. Sonia Gandhi herself has not put in place an office establishment competent to study and dissect a document like the Nanavati Commission report.

There remains a marked - and healthy - reluctance on the part of the Congress leadership to be seen as meddling in the Government’s functioning. Yet there has to be a recognition of the need for a functional coordination of political impulses between the government and the party.

See online : The Hindu

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