THE principal difference between an 'off the record' and 'on the record' conversation with a politician is that the former is likely to be much closer to the truth.
'Off the record' does not mean 'outside the discourse'; after all, the best way to keep anything to yourself is to remain silent. When a politician chooses to talk without attribution, it only means he, or indeed she, is sending a message with an in-built denial clause.
'Off the record' is a means of placing frustration and anger into public play. This is par for the course, and far more fun than the carefully chosen phrases of official fudge.
One senior Congress politician has an extraordinary wish for 2012. He wants the opposition NDA (National Democratic Alliance) to come to power in the new year for just one reason — so that NDA might suffer Mamata Banerjee's tantrums just as the present coalition has had to bear them.
His assumption that no government in Delhi is possible in this parliament without an alliance with the Bengal chief minister is correct. He could think of no greater curse than survival with the support of Mamata Banerjee.
But give the feisty Banerjee credit for daring; with just 19 MPs she has defeated the 206-MP strong Congress four times this year, and each time in a crucial game.
She tripped Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Bangladesh by refusing to part with the Teesta river waters. She lassoed him at home over foreign direct investment in retail and pensions. And she left UPA flat on its face on the Lokpal bill. She understands a basic rule, that the best strategy vis-Ã -vis Congress is to replicate how Congress treats its allies.
Congress does not consider an alliance to be a cooperative. It plays by what might be called the Frank Sinatra method: my way, or the highway. Suddenly, Mamata Banerjee is telling her senior partner that if it wants to stay in power, then it will be on her terms. She knows Congress culture intimately; after all, she has been there.
Mamata Banerjee may sometimes succumb to mistakes, but she does not believe in accidents. Her moves are deliberate. Her message for 2012 is obvious: her options are open.
She has no reason to be as docile as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, since she is not vulnerable on any corruption charge. She does not fear exposure because she has no great scam to hide from the CBI. She is not worried therefore about Delhi's blackmail. She doesn't know how to be meek; that particular gene was left out of her DNA.
Congress is used to lambs in its fold, even when sometimes it feels that there is a wolf lurking inside in sheep's clothing. As long as the wolf bleats, all is well. Suddenly, Congress is faced with the prospect, in the words of the Urdu poet, of watching the house go up in flames because of a domestic lamp. It will burn slowly, corner by corner.
Congress politics, therefore, will be centred in the first half of the new year on a single objective: how to find a hedge against Mamata Banerjee's 19 MPs. Congress does not necessarily want to replace Mamata; it only seeks to make her irrelevant. It wants honey without the sting. This is what makes Mulayam Singh Yadav so crucial to its prospects. In its ideal scenario, Mulayam would be the largest single party after the UP Assembly elections, but dependent on Congress MLAs for a majority. His MPs would be collateral hostage in Delhi, keeping Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi stable for two years until the 2014 general elections.
Here is the nuanced sub-plot, a drama within the drama. Why have Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul been silent while Mamata Banerjee sabotaged the prime minister's initiatives? Because, wittingly or not, she did Rahul Gandhi a service by weakening Dr Manmohan Singh.
It is not easy to dislodge a strong and loyal prime minister, which is what Dr Singh was in his first term. His helplessness on the night that Congress allowed the Lokpal bill to wither in fomented confusion, was visible to the country.
Live television coverage is far more dangerous to government than any hostile news anchor. It is still a whisper, but the question being raised in Delhi recalls what that great cricketer Vijay Merchant once said: you should retire when people still ask why, not when. In politics, a whisper can turn into a clamour very quickly. All it needs is circumstance, and a puppeteer behind the curtain.
There are enough reasons for the senior Congress notable to prefer anonymity; verbal interventions have to be timed, as well as graded. Congress has given permission to its Bengal unit to attack Mamata Banerjee with vitriol, but it is only Delhi's acid that can burn relationships. Messages are flying in both directions, but the moment has not yet come to switch off-record to on-record. Wait another 12 weeks or 16.
The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian , published from Delhi, India on Sunday , published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today .