Comic Distractions at Home and Abroad
Posted on 1-December-2010
During the whole of the last month, the Indian government was engaged in an effort to keep from being stifled by a miasma of corruption. At first there were the postponed controversies over allegations of large scale thievery of public money by the organisers of the Commonwealth Games in October and their political and business friends. Then came stories of financial and administrative skullduggery by politicians, civil servants, a retired admiral and some retired generals over a housing project on a particularly expensive piece of real estate in Mumbai which was supposed initially to house war widows. The case of this housing project--ironically named Adarsh (meaning, ideal) Housing project or scheme--became so embarrassing that the leader of the Indian National Congress asked her party's Chief Minister of the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, to resign. Then came stories of illicit money making on an even larger scale in the case of the allocation about two years ago of radio frequencies to cellular phone operators. This episode led to the political leadership reluctantly asking the telecommunications minister to resign. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India has found many instances of wrongdoing in the allocation of radio frequencies and his report has created problems for the government, prompting the Indian prime minister to make an absurd criticism of the office of the Comptroller. The Supreme Court of India has looked askance at the role of the prime minister's office in the radio frequencies case. In sum, even though the Indian government seems at the moment bent on brazening these controversies out, it seems to be losing its credibility fast in the eyes of the public. Any hope it might have had of enjoying the after-glow of a "successful" visit to India by Barack Obama is now lost and at this moment there is no sign of the government's difficulties over these three scandals lessening any time soon.
In the midst of all this a short-lived respite came in the form of an article by K.Sudarshan, the former head of the militant Hindu organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In this article he said that the President of the Indian National Congress, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi was an illegitimate child, that she was an agent of the CIA and that she had conspired to have her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi and later her husband Rajiv Gandhi assassinated. For a few days various members of the Congress, desirous of demonstrating their loyalty to the leader, not only went into loud denunciations of the RSS and its affiliate, the Bahratiya Janata Party (BJP), but also vandalised many of their offices. Congress spokesmen demanded apologies from the RSS and the BJP both of which dissociated themselves from Sudarshan's remarks. When an RSS spokesman suggested that Mrs. Gandhi could take Sudarshan to court if she wanted, I tried to imagine what would happen if she did. She could establish by producing her Italian birth certificate and her parents' marriage certificate that she was not an illegitimate child, but would she say in court "I am not a spy" as Nixon had said several years ago "I am not a crook"? Why Sudarshan chose to write what he did at this moment is not clear, but the Congress seized upon this writing as a welcome digression from the stories of corruption. Both the Congress and Sudarshan were after all playing in a political farce which proved to be nothing more than a minor comic interlude in a much more serious, and for the people of India, tragic drama being played out right now. What the people are being made to witness are revelations about the manner in which they have been spoliated by a venal, grasping political and business elite under the nose of a prime minister whose only two interests seem to be to continue in his office as long as he can and to win some kudos abroad.
Howsoever serious Government of India's troubles and howsoever ridiculous its minor comedies, they are provincial. The world's problems are obviously of much larger proportions. The People's Republic of China and the United States of America seem to be engaged in an incipient currency war which if allowed to develop might create a full-fledged crisis for the international financial system. In the largest economy of the world, the administration's stimulus package has produced no more than tepid economic growth and failed to reduce unemployment. After the mid-term elections it has become impossible for the administration to even contemplate a supplementary stimulus package. From now until 2012, the Obama administration can hope to make no or very modest progress on capping carbon emissions, pushing for clean energy or taking any bold initiative anywhere. Any hope it might have had of bringing about an early resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem seems forlorn. It cannot hope for a rapprochement with Iran because it cannot reassure the Iranian government that it has finally abandoned the decades old US goal of regime change in Iran. And US troops now seem set to stay in Afghanistan till 2014. All this means that the world will have to deal with a shaky international financial system and the thousand year hostility between the western powers on the one hand and the Muslim populations and many governments of the Middle East on the other for many years to come.
The above is a very quick and admittedly superficial description of the predicament of the world's indispensible nation. It is not a very bright, hope-inspiring situation. But then comes Wikileak with its publication of US State Department documents--mostly communications exchanged between the Department and US embassies abroad. Western media organisations have since then given much time and space to these leaks through their news and views coverage and talk shows on television. Spokespersons from the USA, Hilary Clinton downwards and including people like John Negroponte have hyperbolically described these leaks as major diplomatic and national security disasters. In contrast with the cool reaction of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, described in one of the leaked diplomatic dispatches as crazy-- he dismissed the leaks as distractions planned by the Americans with a view to creating confusion--Hilary Clinton's outburst was hysterical. Not only to practiced diplomatic and political eyes but to ordinary people, used in their daily lives to the gap between private thought and motives and public face and profession, none of the leaks publicised by newspapers and television will appear shocking and in a few days people will cease paying attention to the contents of more and more such leaks.
None of the leaks will disturb the universe. There is nothing new about the contents of a diplomatic dispatch containing unflattering descriptions of the situation of a host country or of its political leadership becoming public. In such situations a public statement and a private clarification are all that are offered and thereafter it is business as usual. The only person who is really affected in these cases is the author of such a dispatch which is not such a disaster, for diplomats who as a tribe tend to take themselves very seriously do from time to time merit a comeuppance! Nor is it such a shock for people to know that some diplomats should receive instructions to collect information about some of their diplomatic colleagues or about the head of an organisation--intelligence agencies the world over collect such data. Some of the leaked documents bring out the trivialities diplomats often concern themselves with: Colonel Qaddafi's fear of height and his liking for the presence around him of a voluptuous Ukrainian blonde. One diplomat seems to have described in detail a wedding reception at the home of a local grandee in Dagestan and another dispatch contains a prediction that was off mark by miles. Diplomatic archives the world over abound in trivia of this kind. In one capital I served in, the health of the head of the host state and the marital troubles of a diplomatic colleague formed the staple of conversation at one ambassadorial dinner after another. It would not be surprising if some diplomatic dispatches from that capital, routinely labelled secret, contained details of both. Then in the Wikileak papers there are more "serious" revelations. Or are they so serious? No one who is aware of the habitual gaffes of the husband of Elizabeth Windsor will be shocked by a report about the rude behaviour on a visit abroad of one of her sons--if his father's gaffes have not affected British relations with other countries, his rudeness, which will have been forgotten about a long time ago, will matter even less. King Abdullah's unflattering opinion of President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan will make no difference for relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan because no Pakistani government can think of being on the wrong side of Saudi Arabia. Revelations that the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrein urged the USA at different times to take pre-emptive military action against Iran will not have come as news to the Iranian leadership. These will not change either the long standing suspicions between Iran and its Arab neighbours or the need they feel for some modus vivendi between them. All that will happen is that readers of the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel or viewers of the CNN and the BBC among others will for a while be titillated.
Ruling establishments the world over like news that provides divertissement. The more beleaguered they are, the more eagerly they clutch at distracting news. Wikileak has provided such a distraction in the USA just as Sudarshan provided one in India. But real problems just do not go away. They need real solutions. Temporary relief in the form of public entertainment in the end turns out to be nothing more than that. In the mean time, I thank Sudarshan and his political opponents and Wikileak for the amusement they have offered in a month in which news from home and abroad was mainly depressing and saddening.