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The croupier's wager

Publication Date : 01-11-2012


He shuffled his cards this week and he has a new, younger team of ministers to run the show, but Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will always be a croupier.

For over 20 years he has wooed punters to the casino table he crafted, to plunder and squander fortunes. Robust subsistence farmers became cash crop derelicts.

Buoyed by the sheer volume of unsuspecting gamblers, who would soon include cash-strapped housewives and pensioners alike, Harshad Mehta would replace the iconic "Matka King" Ratan Khatri.

The casino owners are pleased with the new croupier. It is elementary knowledge that his economic policies are not entirely shaped by him. It is axiomatic too that they are still framed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) via a revolving door fashioned to rotate his officials.

They leave his room to join the IMF/World Bank as others arrive with a fresh brief from the masters to be his advisers. One just did in August. In between, there are a couple of tycoons who call the shots though their demarches are usually dressed as pre-budget advice.

Taking a cue from Joseph Stiglitz’s criticism of the revolving door between big business worldwide and the IMF, an Indian People’s Tribunal on World Bank posed an as yet unanswered question: “How else would one explain the fact that for much of the last 20 years, and particularly since 1991, many if not most of the top economic policymakers including members of the planning commission, secretaries of the finance ministry and Governors of the Reserve Bank have been staffers of the World Bank/IMF.

“They have moved smoothly and seamlessly between the World Bank/IMF and the government of India, as if the government of India were just a division of the World Bank/IMF.”

There have been countless scams in the casino under Dr Singh’s watch but he has remained unfazed.

A clutch of hapless Indian banks were slammed with charges in the Harshad Mehta plot but the major players, including at least two foreign banks, managed to show a clean pair of heels. More recent scams saw ministers and senior colleagues spending a few months in prison, but it was otherwise back to business as usual.

It is not for the first time that Dr Singh has relocated his oil minister in a cabinet reshuffle. Even newspapers that are indulgent towards business lobbies have noted how Jaipal Reddy was virtually shunted out from his post to please powerful interests. Reddy is widely loved for his peerless integrity and old-worldly charm.

Earlier, the axe fell on Mani Shankar Aiyar when he headed the oil ministry. He sought an ambitious alliance with China at the time to build a club of hydrocarbon consumers to tame Western-controlled oil cartels.

Aiyar was shown the door for dreaming Nehruvian dreams. He is among the few Congress MPs without a scam shadowing them. Such people are inevitably blackballed from the high-stakes table at the casino, which the oil ministry seems to be.

The prime minister’s foreign policy options are similarly fudged by spurious advice. After he professed India’s love for a singularly unpopular American president, a communist deputy told him to speak for himself.

As for his preferred approach to peace with Pakistan, the one potential feather in his cap, he badly needs to kick the habit of being vetoed by his own agencies.

The Sharm El Sheikh fiasco was an example of a prime minister being double-guessed by his intelligence advisers. For better or worse, he had agreed to discuss Pakistan’s concern over alleged Indian interference in Balochistan, and he had agreed not to let an incident like 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack derail the peace process again. His officials put the document in the shredder.

It is, therefore, a matter of conjecture as to what if any gains could accrue by his changing of the foreign minister.

The outgoing foreign minister S.M. Krishna and the incumbent Salman Khurshid have little in common other than their foreign law degrees. After resigning from the cabinet, Krishna spoke well of his Pakistani and Chinese counterparts, saying he had struck up an agreeable rapport with both.

The former chief minister of Karnataka also showed that he was no pushover when he slammed the home secretary of the day who tried to queer his pitch by alleging Pakistan’s anti-India plots during Krishna’s visit to Islamabad. It takes something for a foreign minister to stand up to the Indian home ministry on policies concerning Pakistan.

By contrast, Khurshid runs the risk of being identified with his previous innings as a junior foreign minister. On one occasion during that tenure he called Benazir Bhutto a "hot air balloon" after she likened Kashmir to Bosnia. The Pakistanis responded equally rudely by branding him a "rented Muslim".

In his behalf it must be said that he is well-spoken though he is getting impatient with critics. The announcement of the December cricket tour by Pakistan within days of Khurshid’s anointment as India’s new foreign minister augurs well for a potential new beginning in political ties. And yet who can deny that today even cricket matches have acquired many characteristics of a casino.

Croupiers don’t place wagers on the tables they ply. They don’t need to, sanguine as they are in the knowledge that the casinos never lose. And so when they retire, as they no doubt will some day, the bets will continue to come in. A handpicked heir will take over to spin the impoverished nation’s wheels of fortune, into the wee hours.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.


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