Politicians’ president

Congress party veteran and former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s consummately plotted transition from North Block, New Delhi to the magnificent 340-roomed Rashtrapati Bhavan, marks the culmination of Mukherjee’s 40 years of survival and prosperity in the treacherous corridors of power in the national capital. On July 22, following his 69 percent vote of an electoral college of MPs and MLAs nationwide, Mukherjee was sworn in as India’s 13th president.

Way back in 1982 as founder-editor of Businessworld, your correspondent was the first journo — courtesy Aveek Sarkar, chief editor of the Ananda Bazar Patrika group — to interview Mukherjee after he was plucked from obscurity by prime minister Indira Gandhi and appointed Union finance minister. I was dismayed that every cliched sentence he uttered was qualified by a complicated contradiction. In short, the interview as recorded made little sense. Shortly thereafter, it became clear that Mukherjee had been recommended as finance minister by Dhirubhai Ambani who had substantially bankrolled Mrs. Gandhi’s return to power in New Delhi in 1980, following the disastrous Janata government experiment after the Emergency. And soon enough Mukherjee — whose Union budgets of the time were reportedly dictated by the powerful tycoon — became widely known as the minister for Reliance, rather than finance.

After Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, he went into obscurity and even started his own political party which was an abysmal failure. But he was readmitted into the Congress and government by prime minister Narasimha Rao, and once again climbed up the greasy pole of the party’s hierarchy to emerge a senior minister in the Congress-led UPA-I government of 2004-09. Committed to obsolete socialist politics, he wasn’t notably successful, but in a coalition of mediocrities he emerged as a troubleshooter and savant.

Perhaps Mukherjee’s best qualification is that he is a committed representative of the control-and-command political class which has profited mightily from confused Nehruvian socialism. In Rashtrapati Bhavan, Mukherjee — a conspiratorial and waspish politician who feels he was done out of the prime minister’s job — is unlikely to be a rubber stamp; he’ll settle scores. Stand by for some nasty surprises.

Legal inferno

In a nation which has a unique record of muddling through every crisis and calamity and whose loud declamations of amazing progress and social justice are in inverse proportion to performance, a sacred cow to whom wily politicians, gullible media pundits and hyper-vocal television anchors pay ritual obeisance, is the country’s independent judiciary which nonchalantly presides over the largest caseload arrears mountain (30 million) in recorded history.

A grim reminder of the law’s routine delay in this benighted republic is an appeal in a conspiracy and murder case filed in 1975 which came up for hearing before a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court on July 25 — 37 years after the offence was allegedly committed. More pertinently, the victim in this case wasn’t just an anonymous citizen. It was L.N. Mishra, Union minister of railways and prime funds collector of the then ruling Congress party led by Indira Gandhi.

On January 2, 1975 Mishra was assassinated while addressing a public meeting, by a grenade which was rolled under his dais in Samastipur, Bihar. At the time of the sensational murder, numerous conspiracy theories speculating about vast hoards collected from industry and stashed away by Mishra during the peak of Jaiprakash Narayan’s Navnirman anti-corruption movement loomed large in the media, and Ranjan Dwivedi, an advocate, and Sudevananda Avadhuta, an Anand Marg sect priest, were charged with Mishra’s murder. That the trial for the murder of one of the most high-profile and  powerful politicians of that era has dragged on for 37 years during which the 27-year-old accused has transformed into a senior citizen, and 31 witnesses and four legal counsel have died, is indicative of the ineptitude and inefficacy of the legal system fashioned by the over-hyped bar and bench of post-independence India.

While hearing the appeal of the accused and counsel’s plea for acquittal of the accused on grounds of the law’s delay, Justices H.L. Dattu and C.K. Prasad were much anguished. But they declined to accept the plea of unconscionable delay to order acquittal of the accused: it might set a precedent. In short, business as usual in the modern avatar of Dante’s inferno — shining India’s legal system.

Disgusting neglect

Perhaps the most humiliating — and disgusting — act of omission and commission of successive governments at the Centre and in the states, and particularly the Congress party which has ruled in New Delhi for over 40 years, is the neglect of public sanitation and hygiene. Mahatma Gandhi accorded sanitation the highest priority in precept and practice. His unworthy political heirs  have allowed free India to become the world’s most insanitary nation with 60 percent of the population without access to modern sanitation.

The criminal apathy of the omniscient neta-babu nexus to this vital health issue is indicated by the shocking reality that 65 years after independence, the public sector Indian Railways  — which transports 11 million passengers per day — is a stranger to modern chemically-treated waste disposal systems, prompting a Union minister (Jairam Ramesh) to describe it as “the world’s largest open-air toilet”. Repeated reminders in this and other publications that over 80 percent of government schools countrywide are bereft of toilets, hasn’t stirred the stony conscience of the neta-babu kleptocracy busily engaged in primitive capital accumulation.

Nor is this a trivial issue. According to Dean E. Spears, professor of economics at Princeton University, writing in the Business Standard (July 28), lack of modern sanitation is a serious public health and productivity hazard. According to Spears, there is a direct causal link between poor sanitation and stunting of children.

With embezzlement of public funds having become the nation’s premier sport, very little is left for the Central government’s grossly under-funded Total Sanitation Campaign. Consequently the much invoked common man — and the nation’s vulnerable children — continue to wallow in squalor and shame.