Saint Antony of the defence ministry

The defence minister has a clean image, but why did he not act when allegations of bribery first surfaced in the helicopter deal?
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First Published: Fri, Feb 15 2013. 01 34 PM IST
The defence minister A.K. Antony attained sainthood by maintaining probity in political life. To remain a person of impeccable integrity for nearly six decades in public life is nothing short of a miracle. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
The defence minister A.K. Antony attained sainthood by maintaining probity in political life. To remain a person of impeccable integrity for nearly six decades in public life is nothing short of a miracle. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Updated: Fri, Feb 15 2013. 04 02 PM IST
The Catholic Church confers sainthood on people who die defending the faith and on those who lead a life modelled on Christian virtues. The former are martyr saints and the latter confessors.
Martyrdom is enough to be recognized as a martyr saint. Confessors need the posthumous performance of miracles. Sometimes, popular veneration may lead to sainthood. The first Indian saint of the Catholic Church, Sister Alphonsa of Bharanaganam, Kerala, was venerated as a saint decades before the Vatican conferred sainthood on her in 2008.
Bharanaganam is less than 100km from Cherthala, the native place of Arackaparambil Kurien Antony aka Saint Antony.
Sainthood was conferred on this non-practising Christian by the media, in a case of canonization by popular veneration. The defence minister attained sainthood by maintaining probity in political life. To remain a person of impeccable integrity for nearly six decades in public life is nothing short of a miracle.
If maintaining Gandhiji’s simplicity was a costly affair, Antony’s sainthood has also been an expensive project. It’s a project in the sense that it has been a joint venture between Antony, 72, and the anti-Left media of Kerala. The media actively collaborated with Antony to build his image as the Mr. Clean of Indian politics. Antony has never been a good source of news for journalists. But he has always remained their darling, even of Left-leaning journalists.
Antony has maintained a clean image through his long political career. In his first five years as Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh also had a teflon image. No scandal or controversy would stick to him. Singh, a less experienced politician than Antony, failed to maintain that in his second term as Prime Minister. But Antony could camouflage his administrative inaction with his image of simplicity and integrity. Even the Communists, bitter rivals of the Congress in Antony’s home state, have never pointed fingers at the defence minister.
No other Congress leader can equal his proximity to the Gandhi family, which trusts him despite the fact that he once deserted Indira Gandhi. That was in 1978. Antony quit the Congress after the original Mrs Gandhi got voted back to the Lok Sabha from Chikmagalur, a year after the electoral debacle of 1977. Antony returned to the fold in 1982.
For the Italian-born Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Antony is still the most trusted lieutenant. In all top-level meetings of the party, before taking a final call on any issue, Gandhi will turn to Antony for his opinion.
Antony has quit as Kerala chief minister twice, heeding the call of his “inner voice” and put in his papers as Union minister of food and civil supplies, taking “moral responsibility” for a sugar import scandal in 1994.
He has behaved differently after 2004, when he resigned as chief minister of Kerala, accepting responsibility for the Congress party’s rout in the state during the Lok Sabha elections.
Antony did not react to opposition calls for his resignation last year on charges of “patronizing corruption” in the wake of a disclosure by then army chief V.K. Singh that he had told the defence minister about having been offered a bribe to clear a contract for the purchase of sub-standard trucks for the army. The opposition accused Antony of not acting on Singh’s revelation.
When the Sukna land scam and the Adarsh Housing Society scandal put many in the armed forces and the government under a shadow, Antony’s clean image came to his aid.
The defence ministry has once again got caught in a serious controversy, this time over allegations of bribery in a Rs.3,600 crore helicopter purchase deal, after the Italian police arrested the chief executive officer of defence company Finmeccanica SpA. Many are asking why Antony did not act when suspicions of wrongdoing in the contract first surfaced last year.
So how will the defence minister be remembered—as patron saint or patronizing saint?
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First Published: Fri, Feb 15 2013. 01 34 PM IST
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