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Babus over netas?

A former British minister will be investigated by bureaucrats for getting his public and private lives entwined. Can you picture such a thing happening in India? Farrukh Dhondy writes.

india Updated: Oct 18, 2011 22:54 IST
Farrukh Dhondy

Some years ago, at a literary festival in Mumbai, I agreed to take two of my fellow speakers, Deborah Mogach and Sam Leith, to a Parsi restaurant. We went to the only one I knew of in the area. It was late afternoon and the proprietor was pulling the shutters down as the last customers dodged the corrugated blinds and left.

“Closed,” he said in English.

“Sahebji, my friends have come all the way from England,” I said in Parsi Gujarati with just the right amount of entreaty.

“Not me,” he replied. “The cook is about to clock off.”

“Can I speak to him?” I asked.

He shrugged and let me in. I went to the open plan counter dividing the kitchen from the tables where the cook was pottering.“Will R200 persuade you to serve one more table. We’ll eat whatever’s going.”

“Wonderful to see you,” he said in a Parsi idiom. “Can you make it 250?”

“Done,” I said.

We were served dhan sakh and plenty more and as we ate the old Parsi gentleman, the proprietor’s grand-dad, his thick trouser-belt embracing his thin chest, came down the stairs and up to us.

“Are you English?” he asked.

Deborah and Sam indicated that they were.

“Do you know Elizabeth?” the old man asked.

“Which Elizabeth?” Deborah asked, thinking he was enquiring after an Englishwoman of his acquaintance.

“This present one. The queen.”

“Well, not personally,” Sam said.

“When you go back,” the old man said, “tell her the British have to return and rule this place. These bloody politicians say democracy, democracy and only loot money.”

I don’t remember if Sam or Deborah promised to have a word, but they seemed astounded.

I don’t recall the incident to reinforce the (popular but absolutely false) canard that Parsis are clandestine British royalists and unpatriotic Indians. It’s just that I was reminded of it when contemplating the resignation of British defence minister Liam Fox in the light of revelations that stimulated wide debate last week.

Fox was, till last Friday, the defence secretary in the British coalition government. A right-leaning Tory and a reputedly efficient minister, he was embarrassed by revelations that he had been accompanied on several official foreign assignments by Adam Werritty, an old flatmate and best man at his wedding, who holds no government position and has nothing at all to do with the ministry of defence.

Werritty (whose wery name prompts one to wonder if there’s something wather wacant and wonky about him) has printed cards with the House of Commons insignia on it, declaring him an official adviser to the defence minister. According to ministry logs, he has been in and out of the defence ministry 40 times in the last year. He was photographed with Fox and foreign defence secretaries and spokesmen, and to date one senior executive of an arms firm has publicly recalled meeting Werritty who posed as the official conduit to the defence secretary.

These events should put Indians in mind of the sting operation in which a bribe was proffered to the then defence minister George Fernandes to induce him to buy military equipment. In Fox’s case, no evidence of bribery has yet come to light. The revelations have embarrassed the British government and Prime Minister David Cameron has initiated an investigation by civil servants at the ministry who will report to one of the most senior civil servants, the cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell (whose initials in Westminster spell GOD).

Fox resigned saying he was sorry to get his private and public lives entwined. His friends claim he didn’t trust his civil servants and sent Werritty before him to foreign official meetings to set up his official meetings with strategy and agendas. This in itself should have caused him to resign. Defence strategy is a matter for the cabinet and not for chums of politicians to determine, whatever opinions they may hold and exchange in private.

The other objection that supporters of Fox have to the investigation is that the scrutiny of an elected politician has been put in the hands of civil servants — among them those whose authority he allegedly used Werritty to undermine.

It suits Fox’s supporters in this instance to cry ‘democracy’. The civil servants are unelected and, therefore, unaccountable. Should they hold the fate of a person with a public mandate virtually in their hands? I can’t in the matter of the inquiry see that Cameron had any alternative.

Lay people can’t be sent into the ministry to investigate what papers or meetings Werritty had access to. Appointing elected colleagues of Fox would bring into play political considerations and wouldn’t work.

The case spells two cheers for democracy. The old Parsi gentleman in the restaurant gave it no cheers at all on the grounds that Indian politics was riddled with corruption. Under the British Raj when Indian citizens had, albeit gradually, increasing but extremely limited legislative power, the Indian Civil Service (ICS) virtually ran the country and, through the conduit of the viceroy, supplied the foundations of policy.

In theory, our democratic Constitution makes politicians accountable. In practice, the allegiance to dynasties, the cohesion to caste and religious denomination, the buying and selling of votes and mafioso domination make a mockery of such accountability. The prevailing national movement against corruption is one corrective. Could our network of civil servants have restored to them some of the authority, if not power, enjoyed by the ICS during the Raj as a restraint on, or cautionary signal to, the elected politicians? Would some friendly (Parsi?) constitutional lawyer please advise on the historically endorsed possibility?

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London

The views expressed by the author are personal