AK Antony: Post 'defence' controversies, Mr Clean is Mr Cool

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  1. ejazr

    ejazr Stars and Ambassadors Stars and Ambassadors

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    AK Antony: Post 'defence' controversies, Mr Clean is Mr Cool - Economic Times

    There is a joke in Kerala's political circles that whenever Arackaparambil Kurien Antony takes oath of office as chief minister or as Union cabinet minister, he keeps a resignation letter in his shirt pocket hidden, so that he doesn't have to waste time in drafting one in case there is a sudden whiff of corruption or a scam in sight in the new dispensation.

    Of course, this is all said in jest, and even his political rivals admit that the Union defence minister is "above board" and would even step down from a post of power if continuing there could hurt his Mr Clean image. CPM politburo member MA Baby says, "His biggest capital is the faith that people have in his honesty, no doubt about that. He has meticulously cultivated an image. At a time when Congress is grappling with several scams, he is a beacon of hope for the tainted party."

    Lone Crusader

    "There is no compromise when it comes to corruption. You have to fight it," Antony tells you when you meet him at his 9 Krishna Menon Marg, Lutyens Delhi official residence. He expects - as he has said before - a CBI probe to unearth the truth about recent controversy, which stemmed from General VK Singh's allegation that a former military officer offered him a bribe at the behest of truck-maker Tatra to swing a defence deal in favour of the Czech Republic firm.

    People close to Antony have often maintained that he has been "unusually prompt" as defence minister -in handling all scandals from from Sukna to Adarsh and even forging ahead with the modernisation drive along the Chinese border. "The impression that he is soft and taciturn is not at all true. He is very stern," says a defence ministry official.

    "No defence minister in recent times has been so stern when it came to ordering probes. He is trying to bring in tremendous transparency in defence deals. It is not easy for one man to make all the change, but he has taken steps in the right direction," he adds, asking not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media. "He has done an excellent job of ordering probes. He has also been diplomatic," says General Shankar Roychowdhury.

    What generates admiration could also be a source for complaint. "In fact, the minister is too honest," says a person who wants to be identified as a "defence businessman" and insists on not being named. "AK Antony is too honest," the person repeats, with a twinge of regret, in an Indian accent slightly mellowed by many years of travel abroad. He admits that his "certain PR friends" have not been able to even arrange a meeting with the minister. "They haven't been able to, for many years now," he adds, confirming that a few PR firms have flourished by just "organising meetings" with "senior people" close to defence deals.

    Powerful Lobbies

    The defence official argues that Antony has single-handedly taken on powerful lobbies involved in defence deals. "This, he did by just being transparent," says he.

    While the "defence businessman" clearly doesn't relish this change, this image of Antony as an incorruptible leader is rather universal.

    "He is very upright," says AK Thomas, Antony's 73-year-old older brother. But, of course, his take on the gains of the man's integrity are different. "The Congress party from Kerala has produced very able and efficient people, but none of them have risen the way he has. Whatever you may say about him, you will never call him a personally dishonest person or corrupt," says Thomas.

    More than brotherly affection, it is the "truthful assessment" of a leader in public life for more than half a century, agrees the quick-witted and cynical Malayalam poet Balachandran Chullikkad. It is tag, which he believes, will stay with Antony for the rest of his life. "Saint Antony from Kerala," he laughs.

    "It is admirable virtue to be seen in a leader in these times," says Chullikkad.

    Making a Point

    A Delhi-based security expert is glad, too.

    "I don't want to comment on what used to happen before. But this minister has brought in a lot of transparency [in defence purchases]," notes the expert who didn't wish to be named because he doesn't want to be seen commenting openly about politicians.

    He declares that it is unfair that a person of Antony's unblemished image is cornered like this - over the crisis that followed General Singh's dramatic disclosure.

    The expert says that there has been "an effort" to "bring the minister a bad name". He doesn't elaborate any further other than arguing that the "companies blacklisted by him aren't saying they haven't erred, but only that his action will hurt their businesses". The companies he is referring to are the ones that are barred from doing defence business in India because they don't meet local benchmarks to be able to sell their products in India, the world's largest defence equipment buyer.

    For his part, a senior official with a defence company says that it is thanks to Antony that the MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) deal was "far more transparent" than any other defence deal in recent history. "He went by the book despite pressure from powerful countries, including the US," he adds.

    He agrees with the defence ministry official: "Antony has shown enough guts to take on very powerful people, groups and countries."

    Transparency & Governance

    However, a few government officials feel that being transparent alone isn't enough. "When it comes to corruption, I understand he is extremely firm," says a government official. He adds: "That is his strength as well as his weakness. He isn't as firm on issues of governance as he is on corruption." Admiral Sushil Kumar, former chief of Naval Staff of the Indian Navy, agrees. He says the minister should have shown more "adroitness" in dealing with the issue. "He was closer to the bureaucracy than to the three arms of the armed forces. Which is why such a crisis happened, in the first place," says he.

    The senior company official says that the three-time chief minister of Kerala knows it only too well that governance is as crucial as transparency. "He is honest, but I think he is not an expert at people management."

    Many officials working closely with Antony refute that charge, saying the minister has been faster or at least as fast as his predecessors. "While it can be said that he has made the process of selection in defence deals more stringent, he has shown extreme diligence in clearing projects, too, which includes the modernisation project along the India-China border," says another defence ministry official, requesting anonymity.

    "Defence purchases can't be done in a hurry. It has to be done in a proper manner, after examining all the pros and cons," he adds. Interestingly, the hardworking Antony - he spends a lot of time in office and works on Saturdays when he is in Delhi - doesn't take a single file home. "I don't do office work at home," Antony says, proudly.

    Moral High Ground

    Thiruvananthapuram-based journalist John Brittas, who is now the business head of Asianet Communications Ltd, has closely watched Antony for many years - both when Antony was Rajya Sabha member as when he was chief minister.

    He says as a politician, Antony has inherited - or cultivated-certain rare virtues. "He never hits anyone below the belt. I mean he never resorts to personal attacks on people, within and outside his party," says Brittas. "He has never attacked anyone including the most vicious of his rivals over personal charges."

    He remembers "debates" Antony has had with the late CPM veteran EMS Namboodiripad. "By engaging with EMS in a healthy debate, in a way, he also displayed a special knack for being in the limelight for all the right reasons-being well-mannered and being in a debate with someone of the stature of EMS," he notes.

    "Have you ever seen Antony launch a vitriolic attack against [CPM heavyweight] Pinarayi Vijayan over the Lavalin scam (a scam related to a deal with Canadian company SNC-Lavalin which resulted in a loss to the state government of `374.5 crore)?" he asks.

    According to Chullikkad, Antony is a very shrewd politician "who comprehends the nuances of political discourse". Adds he: "He is very mature when it comes to dealing with political rivals."

    "I am sure his bete noire, the Congress stalwart, K Karunakaran, wouldn't have left the Congress had he been in the state leadership of the party. He is accommodates everybody," notes Brittas.

    "That observation is right," says Antony. "In fact, post-independence, nobody has done as much for the Congress party in Kerala as much as Karunakaran did," he insists.

    In Kerala, Minority is Majority

    As the conversation veers towards Kerala, his home state where he has set numerous political records of sorts, Antony says the minorities of the state, rich and educated, should consider themselves not as minorities, but as the majority community. According to the 71-year-old Congress veteran, Muslims and Christians are educationally and financially well-endowed across Kerala, and to behave like minorities is not the right thing to do.

    He was referring to the controversy surrounding the approval of a fifth ministerial post in the 21-member Kerala council of ministers for the Muslim League. As of now, there are 12 minority community members in the ministry. Antony had often stated that the minorities of the state shouldn't take the sentiments of the majority community for granted.

    Antony's political records include being the youngest-ever president of the Kerala Students Union, the youngest ever KPCC president, the youngest-ever chief minister of the state. As a young man he had famously defied Indira Gandhi and had briefly left the Congress only to make a comeback. "It was Rajiv Gandhi who brought me to Delhi in 1984 though I was reluctant to be here," says he.

    Antony says he travels to Kerala only once a month which is when he uses his mobile phone. He doesn't have an email ID. Neither does he use a computer. "But meeting people itself is good enough," says the man dressed in khadi dhoti and a white shirt.

    For someone who has antagonised many people through his silent crusade against corruption from within a corrupt system, Antony remains composed and calm. After all, even the CPM leaders are saying "leave Antony alone". A workaholic whose day begins with "yoga and the treadmill", Antony's looks are deceptive - he looks at least 10 years younger than he is, and in good health.

    He goes on to disclose more, but it can't be printed here. "That is not for writing." His face crinkles up in childlike laughter.

    Chullikkad, the poet, sums up: "He is simply a rarity in Indian politics."

    MAKING OF 'SAINT ANTONY'

    At 32, AK Antony became the youngest ever president of the Kerala unit of the Congress party. At 37, he became Kerala's youngest chief minister ever. At 44, he was named AICC general secretary. He became CM twice again. In 2005, a year after he stepped down as CM owning moral responsibility for a poll debacle, he was named India's defence minister. After the 2009 general election, he retained the portfolio. At 72, in a government hurtling from crisis to crisis, his Mr Clean image remains unsullied.

    1940: Born in Alappuzha, Kerala

    1959: Active in student politics; joins "Liberation Struggle" to unseat the CPI government

    1966: Elected the youngest president of Kerala Students' Union, students' wing of the Congress party

    1972: Becomes the youngest president of the Congress' Kerala unit

    1977: Becomes the youngest ever chief minister of the state

    1978: Joins the Indian National Congress-Urs a breakaway group; speaks out against Emergency

    1980: Forms Congress (A) in Kerala after quitting Congress-Urs which decided to support Indira Gandhi in the Chikmagalur by-election

    1982: Merges Congress (A) into Indian National Congress

    1984: Elected All India Congress Committee (AICC) General Secretary

    1985: Elected member of the Rajya Sabha; in 1987, he was re-elected KPCC president

    1994: Named minister for civil supplies, consumer affairs and public distribution under PV Narasimha Rao; resigns on moral grounds over a sugar import scandal though there were no charges against him

    1995: Becomes Kerala CM for the second time when K Karunakaran resigned in connection with the Isro case

    1996-2001: Leader of the Opposition in the state assembly

    2001: Elected Kerala chief minister for the third time

    2004: Resigns as chief minister of Kerala after the Lok Sabha poll setback in the state

    2005: Elected to the Rajya Sabha; named defence minister after Natwar Singh's expulsion when Pranab Mukherjee was transferred to the ministry of external affairs

    2009: Retains the defence portfolio of for the second term

    2012: Orders CBI probe into Army chief General VK Singh's charges that a military defence officer had offered him a Rs 14-crore bribe to approve purchase of trucks from a Czech company
     
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  3. smanekshaw

    smanekshaw Regular Member

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    He is a clown in a lungi
    Most unfit after Mulayam. I don't believe that he is honest. This incompetent rogue, claimed that he had just 1 Lakh Rs as his assets in his election declaration. What a joke!!
    I
     

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