When I was principal secretary in Bihar, an old acquaintance from a district town came to see me once. He said he had come to seek the intervention of a minister to get a problem sorted out.
When he explained to me what the problem was, I was surprised that he had to come all the way to Patna and seek the minister's intervention to get such a minor job done and asked why the matter could not be sorted out at the local level by the collector who was well known to him.
He said the collector was a good man and was very popular in the district because of his courteous behavior but he had one weakness: he could not take decisions and, therefore, never did anything. When I pressed to know how an officer who did nothing could be popular, my friend told me that not doing anything was the only complaint against him but there was no complaint against his integrity or behavior.
The Bihar collector that I described is not an exceptional case. We have seen political leaders who scream from rooftops about corruption in public life but never take any action when they are given popular mandate and executive powers to govern the state.
People of Kerala generally consider A. K. Antony and V. S. Achuthanandan as honest though there were many stories of the junior Achuthanandan's shenanigans when his father was the chief minister. There were no stories about Antony's sons as they were kept at an arm's distance when their father was in power. It is well known that nobody can get any job done by Antony even if he were to perform the miracle of getting Antony's sons or wife to intervene in a matter.
Because of his clean image, A. K. Antony is known as St. Antony in Delhi even among his political opponents. When Antony was appointed defence minister, political observers thought that this was indeed Sonia Gandhi's master stroke. Rajiv Gandhi's reputation could not survive the taint of the Bofors scandal. With A. K. Antony as defence minister, however, there was no chance of any corruption scandal on arms purchases destabilizing the government.
This part of the prediction proved correct and Antony kept his part of the bargain by completing his long tenure as India's defence minister with his squeaky clean image intact. By itself it was a great achievement, but it was made possible at tremendous cost to India's defence preparedness.
Antony achieved this by stalling and going for review every time a loser or a blackmailer mentioned corruption, and blacklisting the arms manufacturers whenever anyone alleged wrongdoing. This is such an unending process that the minister who presided over the highly corruption-prone defence ministry for the longest period, failed to make even a single decision in a major defence procurement deal.
Many years ago, a senior journalist told me about his experience of conducting interviews for recruitment of aspiring young journalists. When asked to name the Kerala political leaders they admired most, a majority of them mentioned K. Karunakaran and V. S. Achuthanandan because these two were considered fearless fighters.
At that time Karunakaran had been chief minister more than once but Achuthanandan had not yet held any office in government. Karunakaran was seen as a man of action who never hesitated to make decisions and effectively implement them without unduly worrying about offending anybody.
Achuthanandan's admirers felt that he too would be an effective chief minister if ever he was given the opportunity. They cited the example of Imbichibava who had been considered one of the most effective ministers that Kerala had ever seen in spite of not having much formal education.
Achuthanandan's organizational abilities had become legendary even before he was made party general secretary. His performance as the leader of opposition was brilliant. He was admired for the way he crisscrossed the state and took up issues of public interest, like encroachment of public land and sexual exploitation of helpless women. Much was expected from him when he became the chief minister 10 years ago.
Instead, what Kerala got was a 5-year governance holiday. In spite of having some very bright people in the cabinet including a brilliant economist as finance minister, this turned out to be a lost half decade in Kerala's development story. If someone had gone to sleep when Achuthanandan became chief minister and woke up only when Achuthanandan was leaving Cliff House, he would not have noticed any change in Kerala!
Those who had expected Achuthanandan to pursue the matters of public interest which he had brought to public notice as the leader of opposition were in for a shock. Not even one of these issues could be brought to its logical conclusion during Achuthanandan's tenure as chief minister. He seemed to have forgotten that he was the chief minister and kept fighting and maligning his own ministers.
On laying down office, he took up the mantle of leader of opposition again but this time his performance was a caricature of his earlier term in the same office. Reading out statements written for him by somebody else and demanding the chief minister's resignation every day do not make for a great leader of opposition.
And now, the unsubstantiated stories dished out by a murder convict and a self-confessed woman of ill repute seem to have created a smoke screen in Kerala's political landscape on the eve of another general election to the state Assembly.
Cry, Kerala, if so many of the state's political leaders are so sex-starved that they would fall over each other for the imagined charms of a female. Cry, Kerala, if the state's leaders have such poor taste and even poorer judgment. Cry, Kerala, if on the eve of choosing a new state government, the people of the state get obsessed with the pornographic stories of sleaze dished out by the TRP-hungry electronic media and have no time to appreciate the tremendous developmental strides the state made in the last five years, or think about the need to build infrastructure to meet the requirements of the future. Cry, Kerala, if a leader shouting "corruption" from housetops everyday as a matter of habit while in opposition, and doing nothing about it and suspending governance while in power, is who the people of the state want.
(The author is a former civil aviation secretary and former member, Union Public Service Commission. The views expressed are personal.)