Political resignations mean two things: assertion of high moral ground or tactics to put rivals on the back foot. In either case, the person giving up office has to have a clean image sought to be unfairly besmirched.
Lal Bahadur Shastri is remembered as much as India’s former PM as for his resignation as railways minister owning up vicarious responsibility for a rail accident. There have been other equally impactful resignations: VP Singh’s in protest against corruption in defence deals, Madhavrao Scindia’s after an air mishap, Arif Mohammad Khan’s on the Shah Bano issue, LK Advani’s till he faced the Jain Hawala case and Sonia Gandhi’s after the 2006 office of profit controversy. She re-contested and returned to the Lok Sabha from Rae Bareli the same year.
All these leaders acted on their own volition. The way Sanjiva Reddy did in the 1960s as Andhra Pradesh chief minister in response to the Supreme Court verdict against his government for nationalising public transport in Kurnool. “The allegations (of private operators) that the CM was motivated by bias and personal ill-will against them stood un-rebutted,” noted the Court, prompting even the state advocate general, D Narsaraju, to resign. He did so owning up responsibility for the position Reddy took on his advice in the apex court.
Such shining precedents of ministers owning up moral responsibility to save themselves and their parties from public opprobrium are part of the folklore that lacks contemporary equivalents. It’s an abandoned tradition across the political spectrum.
That demitting office is now a scarcely used tool to silence detractors is rooted in the fear — simulated to suit convenience — that making a minister resign could give political adversaries a chance to crow triumph; to showcase the government as weak and declare its ousted member guilty without a trial. That was the fate that befell the Manmohan Singh regime. To see the BJP subscribe to it isn’t a wee-bit surprising.
The reality is that we are dealing with reputations that cannot be laundered through resignations. Those in power loath to give in to the Opposition’s demands. They brazen it out instead, unmindful of the fall in popular esteem.
The UPA indeed showed the door to ministers in the face of charges of graft, impropriety, conflict of interest and misuse of office. But they exited after dragging feet, destroying in the process the political capital the ruling combine could have reaped from their timely departures.
The logic that making ministers quit is an acceptance of frailty is so obviously flawed. It can be par for the course only for those who have much to hide and much too little to show by way of probity.
“You don’t become a legend by brazening it out,” remarked a former minister known for his standards of probity. “Resignation has to be out of moral impulsion, not political compulsion,” he said.
As the buck stops at the PM’s desk, he feared the present incumbent, like his predecessor, is unlikely to gain from the NDA’s ‘pot calling the kettle black’ strategy to counter the Congress. “At the end of it all, they’d need freshly laundered shirts on either side….”