Is PM accountable for making false claims?
Reported By : Subodh Ghildiyal in TNN on 4 Feb 2008

NEW DELHI: Can the prime minister be held accountable for what he says on important occasions like Independence Day when he spells out his agenda and achievements of his government?

The crucial question has sprung from a dogged six-year-long contest against a claim made by ex-premier Atal Bihari Vajpayee in his 2002 I-Day address, where he said: "My government has extended the period of reservation for SCs/STs in government service by another 10 years."

With a citizen taking on PMO over the sensitive issue, the Centre has virtually conceded that it was a factually incorrect claim made by the PM but was unable to put a finger on who could be held responsible for the gaffe. While the PMO said that "I-Day speech is finalized by the PM" based on inputs from Union ministries, it has added that Vajpayee's speeches were drafted by his OSD, Sudheendra Kulkarni.

Unlike reservation for SCs/STs in the political sphere, which have to be validated every 10 years, no time limit has been envisaged on job quotas.
An RTI application filed by R L Kain, general secretary of an Ambedkarite outfit, to pin the blame for the claim has resulted in the PMO pleading that files on the drafting-approval of the 2002 speech were untraceable.

Moreover, it said the speech-writer Kulkarni left office on change of government in May 2004. This line of defence elicited a sharp riposte from the CIC which called it "unusual" that office records were disappearing with change in officials.

Though the controversy has kicked off a tricky situation for the PMO which is faced with the embarrassing option of rebutting an ex-PM's I-Day speech, the serious gaffe gives a peep into the expanding world of speech-writers taking over politicians to spin even sacrosanct, apolitical addresses into election-type rhetoric. Clearly, the claim was aimed at reaching out to the electorally significant Dalits and tribals.

Vajpayee's claim on the NDA regime extending job quota by 10 years flew in the face of the distinction between political reservation and that for public sector employment. While the earmarking of Lok Sabha and assembly seats for SCs/STs, provided by Article 334 of Constitution, is valid for a period of 10 years, there is no time-limit attached to job quota governed by Articles 335 and 16(4).

After an agitated Kain failed to get a retraction of the controversial claim and action against "those responsible" for it despite repeated reminders to the PMO, he filed a plaint under RTI in 2006, seeking files on the 'address to the nation', names of those involved in its drafting and the action taken towards correcting the mistake.

The issue is now locked in an RTI battle, with CIC Wajahat Habibullah directing the PMO to "make a renewed effort to trace records of the drafting of the speech". The fight for the speech records may not go too far but it may have done enough to train the focus on the culture of speech writers who have taken over politicians a la West.

Observers have often lamented the trend, recalling the personally-penned 'Tryst with Destiny' of Jawaharlal Nehru which moved a sea of humanity as the nation emerged free from the British. Since then, politicians have outsourced the crucial job to spin-masters.

The all-pervasive trend was true even for Vajpayee, whose oratory could hold people in thrall. While he held people captive with his words for years, he is said to have handed over writing speeches to a ring of aides after taking up the top assignment, much to the disappointment of his followers.