The highly articulate and bright Jayanthi Natarajan of Chennai — the city I come from — is in trouble. My memory goes back to the early 1970s when she created waves as president of the famous Ethiraj College for Women. She spoke so well to welcome Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that all of us in the audience were bowled over. We foresaw a bright career for her, either in law or in politics — she is the grand daughter of former Chief Minister Bhaktavatsalam. And she did not disappoint us.
When she was made Environment Minister I was certain she would make a mark. By all accounts she was performing reasonably well. So I was surprised when she was recently eased out of the Union Council of Ministers to do ‘party work’, an explanation not many people were willing to buy. Subsequent developments have confirmed that this was a punitive move.
It will be unfair to accuse her of a lack of probity. But from what I have read in the media the charge that she abnormally delayed taking decisions in crucial matters deserves some analysis. This is especially in the context of the amazing speed with which her successor has disposed of pending files. Is this just a contrast in style, or something more than that? We may not ever know, because transparency and government are poles apart. Inspired leaks are a poor substitute for open government, the crying need of the hour.
If Jayanthi accumulated so many files, what was the secretary to the ministry doing? Did he pick up enough courage to reason out with her why she cannot sit over files? Ministers, whatever be their calibre and reputation, will yield to reason. And certainly Jayanthi is not all that imperious to discard well meaning advice. Yes, I look upon the secretary to a ministry as an adviser, much more than a rank subordinate taking orders. Otherwise, he or she will have failed a minister, especially of the Jayanthi variety, who is a novice in administrative matters.
If a secretary does not have the persuasive powers or the guts to handle an intransigent minister, he has the recourse of going up to the Cabinet secretary, the head of administration. In Jayanthi’s case, did the secretary to the Ministry of Environment brief the Cabinet secretary? If he did not, this was a failure which possibly resulted in the embarrassing and eminently avoidable situation.
Assuming the Cabinet secretary was briefed, did the latter speak to Jayanthi and counsel her? If he did not, he should explain why he chose to be mute.
One more piece of action was required. It was incumbent on the Cabinet secretary to brief the Prime Minister, his immediate boss. Information on non-performing ministers finds its way to the Prime Minister, sometimes through the IB chief who gets a daily darshan. I will be surprised if all these channels had failed in Jayanthi’s case.
Provided he had all the required inputs, the Prime Minister was well within his rights to pull up an erring minister. I quite appreciate that the public cannot be taken into confidence on every detail of the requests made to Jayanthi to take quick decisions, because of the political sensitivities involved. But then we deserve to know what efforts are being made to ensure that such a situation will not be allowed to happen again.
Non-performing ministers are not a new phenomenon. So, let us concentrate on how future governments will be made to understand that every minister should be evaluated on his or her speed of response to public grievances. True, there will be errors in the course of fast decisions, but such errors can be forgiven, if they are bona fide.
The writer is a former CBI Director