The controversy over the recent books by former insiders at high levels of government was no surprise, and at one point was almost a form of entertainment as accusations and rebuttals flew in all directions. To start with, the timing of Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister: the Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh (Penguin 2014) and the former Coal Secretary P.C. Parakh’s Crusader or Conspirator? Coalgate and Other Truths (Manas 2014) would be difficult to explain as an accident. The purportedly injured parties, particularly those in the party of government, were understandably furious about what they must have seen as betrayal, not to mention defection to the Opposition cause during a general election campaign.
The Opposition, needless to say, was delighted, claiming that the books show the Prime Minister as having little or no control, that key decisions are instead made by the president of the main party of government, and that gross irregularities — to say the least — over major policies have been commonplace at both the Central and State level. The offended figures retaliated by calling at least one of the books “mischievous,” and other allegations were made that the books were motivated (though by what seems not to have been specified; the books can hardly have been accidental creations, but this may not be the place to go into philosophic arguments about authorial intention).
The Biden example
In the row, Indian politicians were criticised for having very thin skins, and their responses were contrasted with those of, say, the Obama administration following severe criticisms of the U.S. Vice-President, Joe Biden. But politicians spend a lot of time in a world in which any utterance and any gesture is a potential hostage to fortune, and even the toughest-looking of them can be touchy. I once telephoned a former academic colleague, who was also a senior figure in a British political party, to offer congratulations on a fine article in a national newspaper, and got the gloomy response that the article had upset X, who at the time was shadow minister for a high cabinet post. After the next election he held the relevant post for several years, and repeatedly implemented cynical — and worse — policies. He had been upset by one line expressing a minor reservation about a particular draft policy, even though his party was in opposition and there were still some years to go before the election. X may have been one of the few who even noticed the line. I got my former colleague a consoling drink the next time we met.
So what of the recent row? The publishers must be congratulating themselves on their timing, and the authors may be wondering which of their former colleagues and associates are still talking to them. Nevertheless, the controversy raises serious questions; it is not clear if the books involved count as whistle-blowing, itself a deadly serious issue which has cost many courageous whistle-blowers their lives, but the impact on the governmental climate could be far-reaching. At least one former senior civil servant has said in public that on his first day as a State Chief Secretary he refused to authorise an illegal policy and was told to be ready for a transfer that evening. He simply said he was ready for that. He was not only not transferred, but soon found that the Chief Minister had told the whole State cabinet not to bully the civil servants into illegalities, because the Chief Secretary had already resisted.
Similar things have happened in other countries; many U.S. and British public servants, including several in the military and security services, were so horrified by the way their respective political executives treated their — often accurate — analyses of Iraq between 2001 and 2003 that in 2012, when the politicians looked likely to repeat the performance by attacking Iran, some of them went literally public, and gave the media their considered comments. The British Parliament, perhaps mindful of its own performance over Iraq, also rejected the government’s proposal for military intervention in Syria in 2013.
What could happen in India then, is that major policy, irrespective of which party forms a government, could well be subjected henceforth to closer scrutiny at the preparatory stages than it seems to have been so far — scrutiny not only by public servants but by the public. What, closer public scrutiny of draft policy? Yes, it’s something to do with democracy apparently.
We may never know if the two books’ respective authors meant to achieve that result, but it may be one of the consequences of their actions; it may also be the kind of thing Hegel meant by the cunning of reason, die List der Vernunft . Time to contact my former colleague again.