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A Revolving Door For Democrats, Dictators And Bankers

By Jawed Naqvi

10 April, 2007
The Dawn

We'll come to Ashok Mitra's book in a moment in which he damns Manmohan Singh as an American plant. But let us first take a bird's eye view of South Asia's blossoming republics. How long ago was it when Indira Gandhi imposed her emergency rule in India? Her dictatorship lasted all of 18 months between 1975 and 1977, when she called elections and lost. The howls of protest against the brief authoritarian rule came mostly from the West, and they were deafening. This was strange from a world that was playing footsy with the notorious generals, Messrs Zia in Bangladesh and Pakistan, not to forget Junius Jayewardene in Sri Lanka..

Let's not forget also Mrs Gandhi's circumstances, particularly in the wake of the far more serious happenings that are under way vis a vis the judiciary, for example, in Pakistan today. Mrs Gandhi was a Soviet client, and her emergency was supported by allies like the pro-Moscow Communist Party of India. Bad enough. On the other hand, the groups ranged against her included the pro-American wing of the fractured Congress party and the religious revivalist Jana Sangh, a creature of the world's original anti-Soviet strategy in South Asia, a forerunner of today's BJP. Other opponents of Mrs Gandhi were led by pro-China communists.

By today's standards of subversion of democracies, Mrs Gandhi's case was a tame affair. On June 12, 1975, Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court found the prime minister guilty on the charge of misuse of government machinery for her election campaign. The court declared her election null and void and unseated her from the Lok Sabha membership. The court also banned her from contesting any election for an additional six years. This is exactly what pro-American Jayewardene would be found doing to the staunchly non-aligned Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka. He suspended her from contesting future elections.

Ironically the really serious charges such as bribing voters and other electoral malpractices were dropped in Mrs Gandhi's case. Instead she was held guilty for the building of dais by state police and provision of electricity by the state electricity department and height of the dais from which she addressed the campaign rally! As anyone conversant with these matters would know these "charges" were in reality an essential part for the prime minister's security protocol.

Even more laughably, by today's yardstick of political abuse, one other point for which she was held responsible for misusing the government machinery was a government employee, Yashpal Kapoor. It was found that he started campaigning for her before his resignation from government service was accepted! Because the court unseated her on comparatively frivolous charges, while she was acquitted more serious ones, The Times described it as 'firing the Prime Minister for a traffic ticket'. The emergency was her response. Its enormity was heightened in public view chiefly due to its immediate relevance to the Cold War chess game then being played out in South Asia. Our approach to dictatorships is usually determined not so much by the characteristics of the lapdog but by the public clout of its owner.

There can't be any other credible reason why the world readily embraced the military-sponsored emergency rule that was quietly slipped in through the backdoor in Bangladesh in January this year. In fact the arrival of Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed as the "chief adviser" to the "caretaker government" of Bangladesh established a missing link in the pattern of governance prevailing in post-Cold War South Asia for some years. Dr Ahmed is a banker with experience of working in various capacities at the World Bank. Pakistan's Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz too is a banker, his last outing being with New York-based Citicorp. Both are backed by the military in their countries. And who can deny the revolving door that links the Indian Prime Minister's Office (the
all powerful PMO) to the World Bank. Two of Dr Singh's key officials, the deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India and the deputy chief of the Planning Commission, are virtually wet leased from the World Bank. Many more officials have been passing through the revolving doors, but these are presently the main two. In the Vajpayee era, the minister of disinvestment was a former World Bank employee.

It is not easy to forget the outrage the Vajpayee government publicly voiced in October 1999 against General Musharraf who had toppled Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup. The Indian prime minister was not willing to be even seen in public with the usurper of power from Pakistan. The Kathmandu Saarc summit was delayed by over a year as a result of this standoff. India's public anger with Musharraf rings pretty hollow against the ease with which New Delhi warmed up to the civilian face of the Bangladesh military recently. The difference between Delhi's position in 1999 with 2007 should be understood clearly. In 1999 the world (read the United States) didn't really know if Pakistan's new dictator would pursue Sharif's pro-market economic policies. The
doubts should have lifted within a month of the coup when Shaukat Aziz was summoned from New York to take up the job at the finance ministry. But it took a while for India to see a continuity in Musharraf's economic policies and also, let's admit, to swallow a bit of its pride.

During his trip to Delhi last week, Mr Aziz did not spare any opportunity to express his obeisance to the mantra of privatisation and liberalisation. He said so at his press conference and two other forums. It is tempting, perhaps necessary, to link his government's current difficulties with the judiciary to Mr Aziz's obsession with privatisation, a feature he shares with some other colleagues in South Asia. A nine-member full bench of the apex court, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, declared the $362 million transaction of the Pakistan Steel Mills with the Russian-Saudi-Pakistani investors null and void. As Bertolt Brecht tartly counselled Hitler to "elect a new people", the Musharraf-Aziz duo appear to be trying to "elect a new judiciary", one, hopefully, favourable to their obsession with privatisation. The only higher state of nirvana for a pro-markets World Bank acolyte would be a job at an oil transnational, such as Unocal. We have one example sitting out there in Kabul.

Now let's see what Dr Ashok Mitra has to say in his fascinating book "A Prattler's Tale". The book translated from Bengali is an acid trip down memory lane. The octogenarian Mitra was economic adviser to Indira Gandhi and finance minister in the Marxist government in West Bengal. He has a startling revelation about the unexpected appointment of Manmohan Singh as P.V. Narasimha Rao's finance minister in 1991. In his own words:

"Foreign exchange reserves had shrunk to a point where they could cover only a fortnight's imports. India was 'fast approaching bankruptcy'. The US administration, in coordination with the IMF and World Bank, sent a 'categorical message' to Delhi through 'secret talks' that began as soon as the Lok Sabha results were known: obey and save yourselves, or object and go hang. Delhi agreed to obey. But wary of similar assurances that had been belied in Latin America, Washington sought an implicit guarantee. It was decided that 'the IMF and the World Bank would nominate the finance minister of the country after consultations with the US authorities'…The prerogative of naming the new finance minister was also transferred to Washington". And so the revolving door that links our leaders, be they democrats, dictators or bankers, continues to turn relentlessly somewhat like a wheel of fortune that could eventually define South Asia's future.


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