It's amazing how a tiny public event in a complex and corrupt political
and business society like India can have utterly unpredictable and
wide-ranging domino effects.
A Tweet early last month by Lalit
Modi, founder of cricket's notoriously successful India Premier League
(IPL) set off a political firestorm by revealing that a close friend of
the gaffe-prone Shashi Tharoor, then a junior foreign affairs minister
of state for foreign affairs, had been given a stake in a new team in
Kerala, Tharoor's home state. That has in a few weeks triggered a
series of events that have laid bare the inability of Manmohan Singh,
India's prime minister, and Sonia Gandhi, head of the coalition and of
the Congress Party, to sack or even control government ministers
responsible for policies ranging from telecoms and aviation to
railways, agriculture and fertilisers.
Modi's tweet not only led to Tharoor losing his job and Modi being suspended, but quickly escalated into revelations about government phone tapping of businessmen and politicians.
That led to a report (in Delhi's Pioneer newspaper) on
Nira Radia, the head of public relations firms that handle the
country's two biggest groups, Tata and Reliance (RIL) and who works
closely with their two chairmen, Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani. The
report, quoting phone-taps, said she had been involved as a "wheeler
dealer" on controversial telecom licence allocations in 2008.
started legal action against the Pioneer. Her colleagues, who include
influential senior retired telecom and other bureaucrats in three pr
and lobbying firms, Vaishnavi, Neucom and Noesis, point out that she is a telecoms consultant, so it is hardly surprising that she talks to a telecoms minister.
story led to extended media coverage on several leading
lobbyist-fixers, questioning their propriety (my word-check neatly
turned that into ‘prosperity'!), and revealing details that Radia and
many others would rather have kept well below the radar.
The Outlook news weekly magazine devoted
ten pages to the subject, with profiles and caricatures of the main
players (right). Some of them prefer to operate well below the radar,
and Radia was expert at that, as are one or two others in Outlook's
article. Others profiled there mask their behind-the-scenes lobbying
work with a smokescreen of high profile appearances on TV, in the
social media, and around the party circuits of Delhi and other cities.
The Delhi-based Mail Today,
which has delved far more persistently into the Radia story than most
other newspapers, even dared cheekily to start an article with a spoof
intro saying: "The joke doing the rounds is that the other day
Parliament was evacuated because of a suspicious package, but it was
okay, it turned out to be a bag of cash dropped off by Nira Radia."
first became known in Delhi about 10 years ago as an aviation
consultant. She was close to a Bharatiya Janata Party politician,
Ananth Kumar, who was successively aviation and tourism minister, and
she advised Tata on its unsuccessful bid with Singapore Airlines to
privatize Air India. Her role in Tata, especially with Ratan Tata,
expanded to such an extent that she even persuaded him in 2008 to let
her take on Reliance (RIL), a Tata rival in many areas, as a client.
Last month, Tata's and Radia's roles as client and publicist were
amazingly reversed when Tata issued a statement recognizing their "long
and fruitful association".
This has all been good theatre,
annoying for those who would rather not be written about in such a way,
but good fun for the rest of us, and no doubt useful information to
have out in the public arena. There is of course nothing new in all
this. Fixers have existed for centuries across the world, and in some
places, like Washington DC, they are institutionalized.
more importantly, the theatre has dominated much of the analysis of the
government's year in office since it was elected last May. It has
focused attention on how Singh and Gandhi cannot control cabinet
ministers belonging to coalition parties because they need to keep
these parties content. In most cases the parties virtually nominate who
should be appointed and sometimes even what job they should have –
targeting posts that generate large scale kickbacks, which has for many
years meant ministries ranging from finance and defence to telecoms and
The list of ministers who thus cannot be removed
starts with A.Raja, India's notorious telecoms minister from Tamil
Nadu's DMK party who, the tapes revealed, has links with Radia. He survives in his job, even though he was a candidate to be sacked as along ago as 2008.
was even a story circulating a year or so ago that Raja, when
questioned by the prime minister about the way he was corruptly fixing
a 2G telecom auction for his friends, replied that he worked for his
DMK chief minister. If the prime minister had any complaints, he should
contact him. I believed the story when I heard and do so now,
especially after the way that the government has failed to act
Also outside of Singh-Gandhi control are Sharad
Pawar and Praful Patel, the underperforming agricultural and aviation
ministers from the Maharashtra-based Nationalist Congress Party, who
were named in the IPL scandal and for a time looked vulnerable.
from IPL and the tapes, nonperforming figures include Mamata Banerjee,
the railways minister, who is leader of the Trinamool Congress of
Kolkata where she spends most of her time playing state politics, and
M.K.Alagiri, the fertilizers minister from the DMK party who rarely
comes to Delhi.
There is nothing unusual of course in a prime
minister having to cosset his coalition partners – watch how David
Cameron, Britain's new prime minister, handles his government's
Liberal-Democrat coalition ministers in months and maybe years to come.
Cameron will however get Nick Clegg, the Lib-Dem leader, to agree to
them being replaced if they under-perform – and even more so if there
But that is not the case in India, which
tolerates an outrageously corrupt and inefficient polity. For many
politicians, public office primarily means tapping the gravy train and
its flow of illicit funds, partly for themselves and partly for their
political parties. The prime minister does not dare impede the flow,
fearing he will lose coalition partners.
John Elliott blogs at Riding The Elephant, which appears on Asia Sentinel.