Yet More Comic Distractions
Posted on 1-April-2011
In 2008, the Communist Parties of India together with their leftist allies withdrew their crucial support to the ruling coalition in power in India over the proposed agreement between India and the USA on cooperation in the field of non-military uses of nuclear energy. This necessitated a confidence vote in the lower house of Indian parliament on which the survival of the government as much as of the proposed agreement between India and the USA depended. The Indian National Congress, the dominant member of the ruling coalition worked hard to get the support of an alternative group of political parties and succeeded. The ruling coalition won the confidence vote and the government survived. So did the Indo-US agreement. The last minute tergiversations of some of the political parties which had till then opposed the nuclear agreement naturally surprised many. Large numbers of people in the country familiar with the venality of India's politicians suspected that people had been paid money to change their position on the agreement. Not only did many reports circulate about millions of rupees having been paid to people, but three members of parliament from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party came to the lower house in the middle of the debate on the confidence vote with bags full of money saying that they had received the money from a leading member of a political party which had been won over by the government only just before the confidence vote. An Indian television channel even produced a video recording purporting to corroborate the claim of the three members of parliament. But the government, after winning the vote of confidence just went about its business as if nothing had happened taking full advantage of the system in which a government can ignore all criticism and protest as long as it has the support of the slimmest of majorities in the lower house of parliament. A parliamentary committee was appointed to investigate these allegations of monetary inducements to members of parliament for changing their vote and the episode was more or less forgotten about. After the general election of 2009, the Indian National Congress returned to power at the head of a slightly different coalition, enabling the Indian prime minister to recently make the extraordinary claim that the election victory of his party had washed it and his government clean of all stain. At the time of these controversies in 2008, the US embassy in Delhi was never mentioned but to those with even a superficial understanding of the way the world works it would have seemed unimaginable that the embassy or different other entities in the USA would not have mobilised their friends in India to lobby (in the fullest meaning of the word) support for the government, given the sizeable commercial gains US companies expected to make from the sale of nuclear power plants and technology to India and the great influence and leverage the US administration would acquire over India's activities in the area of nuclear power.
By the beginning of the present year, those events of 2008 were no longer of current importance. Public discourse in the first quarter of the year had been dominated by talk of corruption and incompetence in government at the highest level. On one question, that of the annulment by the Indian Supreme Court of the appointment of the head of India's anti-corruption watch-dog, India's Prime Minister, so loath to enter into any controversy, had to admit error of judgment and own responsibility, having initially attempted to pass the buck to one of his ministerial colleagues. Most of the month of March was dismal for the government as not only would some of the corruption stories simply not go away, but almost every other day a critical pronouncement on the government by one or the other judge of the Supreme Court would be made or some more embarrassing detail would come out of one corruption enquiry or the other. In the midst of it all , the English language daily, the ever so prim and proper Hindu, printed from the Wikileaks a series of cables sent from the US Embassy in Delhi to the State Department, including some sent around the time of the confidence vote of 2008. If the editors of the Hindu did not know that by printing these cables they were providing a welcome diversion to India's political class, they were either naive or utterly foolish. Crediting them with much more intelligence, I think they knew that these cables would amuse and distract rather than inform and enlighten their readers on any thing important. Those familiar with the ways of diplomats know that diplomats' reports can an as often be clever and astute as foolish and trivial. Besides many diplomats like journalists are not above embellishing their reports or engaging in self-aggrandisement and bravado. Most governments have people sitting in ministries of foreign affairs evaluating what comes in diplomatic dispatches, separating grain from chaff. These are very good reasons why no wise man should give too much weight to the diplomatic cables printed by the Hindu or to other diplomatic cables published by the Wikileaks.
One of the US embassy cables printed by the Hindu about the confidence vote in parliament in 2008, made a near exact forecast of the vote count. In another an embassy counsellor described how during his visit to the house of a minister in the days preceding the confidence vote, a political aide of the minister had shown him two bags full of cash to be disbursed among members of parliament and said that several times more cash was lying around in the house ready to be disbursed. In a third cable the embassy reported that another minister was similarly occupied in winning support for the government with the help of bags full of money. These were seized upon by television channels and members of parliament alike at a time when parliament and the media should have been engaged in a discussion of Government of India's budget for the next fiscal year and asking questions about the government's priorities and policies, forgetting that authorising the government's expenditure and taxation is one of the most important powers a parliament has. For three days parliament talked about only these cables in a session already curtailed on the spurious ground that the members of parliament would need to be free to campaign during April and May for elections to be held in five out of thirty-two of India's states and federal territories. The opposition feigned outrage and asked for the prime minister's resignation and the government feigned hurt innocence. Irrelevant talk of immunity of diplomatic communications and about concerns of one elected house dying with the end of its term flowed freely. People shouted themselves hoarse till they had exhausted themselves. The approval of the budget by parliament was barely noticed. The most important annual meeting of India's parliament, and usually the longest, simply fizzled out. It almost looked as if the principal political party in power and the principal political party in opposition had by common and tacit consent enacted a charade hoping to bamboozle the people. After all they have a shared interest in distracting attention from some of the coruption investigations which if conducted honestly might drag the names of many of their luminaries and business friends into excrement and filth. No one asked a simple question: had Mr Lassange's revelations added anything of importance to what people already knew of the 2008 vote which was that the government had survived it by crook rather than hook?
Impressions of silent collusion between the Indian National Congress, the Bharatiya Janata party and the Hindu in enacting a mock battle in parliament and outside aside, three of the leaked cables were particularly amusing but caused only small furor. In one of these India's present home minister was reported as telling the US Ambassador in Delhi that India would be achieving much higher rates of economic growth but for the drag of North Indian states. In another, a US diplomat quoted the leader of the opposition in the upper house of parliament, one of the stars of the Bharatiya Janata Party, as telling him that his party's talk of Hindutva was no more than a feint. In another, Mrs Sonia Gandhi's son whom her courtiers are ever keen to promote to prime ministership of India was quoted as telling the US ambassador in Delhi that Hindu terrorism posed much greater danger to India than terrorism promoted from across the border with Pakistan--he seems to have said this at a time when, in the months since the terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, government spokesmen had been busy saying urbi et orbi that the Mumbai attacks had been planned in Pakistan and directed by people there. Assuming that these cables more or less faithfully recorded what these three gentlemen actually said in private conversations, and there can be no reason why the Americans reporting these conversations should have seriously distorted them or failed to catch any nuances, it is left for us to wonder how the the three gentlemen could express themselves so simplistically. Could it be that the three are simply not intelligent enough to think and express themselves a little more subtly--for one hallmark of intelligence is said to be the ability to see differences? Or, perhaps they should be judged more charitably. Perhaps this lack of subtlety is merely a reflection of their cocksureness. Perhaps, after all, in spite of all their much vaunted (to themselves) proficiency in English language their ability to wield words in an alien language is limited. Or perhaps they were simply overawed by the US diplomats while talking to them, betraying the habitual feeling of inferiority of Third World educated classes when facing Europeans or North Americans. Whichever of these explanations is true,--or may be they are all products of a sick and tired mind--these cables and the others printed by the Hindu must cause at least wry smiles to those who read about them.
Hopefully, the new month that begins today will bring other distractions. Two of them can be easily foreseen: the final match of the One Day Cricket World Cup on 2nd April and the election campaign in April and May. India, being one of the contestants in the World Cup match, the "patriotism" fever is already high and the people will all drown in jubilation or sorrow for the next week depending on whether the Indian team wins or loses. The election campaign will bring amusement of a different kind, even though the results will affect the lives of millions. And if time is left after all these, some distraction will be provided by noisy controversies over the latest book on Mahatma Gandhi. The country will need these amusements in a month when the weather on the Indian plains turns seriously hot.