By Swapan Dasgupta
Those familiar with the political history of India since the decline of the Moghul Empire in the 18th century will easily detect a common thread that runs through to the present: the weaker the regime the greater the levels of intrigue and conspiracy in the courts. In Bengal, for example, the levels of intrigue reached colossal heights in the courts of Siraj-ud-Doulah, Mir Jafar and Mir Qasim—nawabs who combined impetuousness with eroding authority. And in western India, the term “Peshwai intrigue” became a stereotype for displays of purposeless cunning so much so that Veer Savarkar lamented the great Vedantist Baji Rao II’s inability to distinguish between a kingdom and a pension.
It may seem far-fetched to extend the mystical charms of oriental intrigue to the India of Manmohan Singh. Yet, occasionally, such a temptation is irresistible.
Last Wednesday morning—before the Prime Minister intervened in Parliament to inform Italy of “consequences” if it persisted in harbouring the two fugitive marines—a bizarre story began doing the rounds of the political towns of Delhi. The PM had, the previous day, met agitated MPs from Kerala and had placated them with the message that he too felt found the attitude of Italy completely unacceptable. The PM’s assurance soon found its way into the newsrooms and some of the next morning’s newspapers even had a mention of it. Yet, it seems that late at night some media people were contacted by a Race Course Road functionary and told that there was no need to over-interpret the PM’s displeasure.
When the PM got to know of this spin-doctoring the proverbial excreta, it is said, hit the ceiling. According to those who claim to be in the know of the innards of the system, he posed a fundamental question: who controls the Prime Minister’s Office? It’s a question many have privately asked and now, it seemed, the PM had stumbled on the same query.
It is a matter of some solace that the PM did not budge from his original displeasure with the proverbial ‘nation-in-law’. His intervention in Parliament may have lacked delivery but its larger message was quite forthright.
At the same time, the question persists: why was there an attempt to dilute India’s outrage over Rome giving a new twist to the concept of “most favoured nation”? Was this a unilateral gesture by a courtier who was trying to second-guess the ‘real’ power centre? Or, was there some basis to the thwarted revisionism? In that case, from where did it originate?
These are questions that will never be satisfactorily answered. When it comes to the intrigues of the court, no absolute verification is really possible. What is important, however, is not whether an attempt was made to underplay the significance of Italy’s hostile action—if it was, you can be rest assured that Indian diplomacy will not pursue the issue relentlessly and, instead, allow it to fade away from public memory. To my mind, the significance lies in the fact that even in matters that involve national sovereignty and India’s place in the world, the preoccupation of the court is factional one-upmanship.
Those who narrated the supposed sequence of events to me were gleeful that the PM had “asserted” himself. But the mere fact that the PM did what the occasion demanded invoked a celebratory mood among those who still retain a soft corner for him is itself revealing. It suggests that the mind of the government is in a haze and systemic dysfunction so deep-rooted that the movements of the left and right hands are wilfully uncoordinated.
India’s stock in the world has fallen so alarmingly in the past year that Rome doesn’t think twice before flashing two fingers at New Delhi and Islamabad is brazen enough to pass a provocative resolution on Afzal Guru in its National Assembly. Nor does it stop here. Even Maldives doesn’t feel that Indian counsels amount to very much. In the game of international politics, India is precariously poised to become the football—an object that can be kicked around merrily because its rulers are busy settling factional scores and its functionaries are gleefully taking advantage of a prevailing power vacuum.
It is wrong to believe that the state of drift we are witnessing today is a function of incoherent economic policies. That one wing of the government wants to end its term with a colossal display of fiscal profligacy while another wing is pondering over the judgment of history is only part of the problem. The unpalatable truth, that we as Indians must recognise, is that we are confronted with a lame duck government that has lost both the will and the authority to function.
One pillar of notional authority is concerned with the legacy question; another, and more formidable, pillar is preoccupied with the question of inheritance; and the third is self-absorbed with evolving management information systems. Last week, on Times Now, a belligerent retired Pakistan Admiral mocked India for its hollowness. It made a lot of us very angry but there was a ring of truth behind his sneer.
Sunday Pioneer, March 17, 2013