Democracy at the pawnshop

March 19, 2019


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent on Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent on Delhi.

WHEN the WikiLeaks papers were published some years ago, senior US officials urged the exposed governments to take evasive action. What could anybody do? There was turbulence across the world, though India took the revelations mostly below the radar, and the matter was more or less forgotten. Also, not everything was published, given the self-censorship the corporate media exercises selectively.

Next month, and in May, India is going to have its crucial general elections, possibly the most critical ever. It is an election in which the opposition should have no choice but to do everything to save India’s democracy from a fatal fall and also to save themselves from their impending dismemberment.

The Assange revelations, though not too recent remain relevant, and they curiously offer a glimpse of how the stage may be set for both sides, away from public scrutiny. The cables importantly give a flavour of things that people are not generally told.

For all the hue and cry in the name of the Hindu rashtra and how it is facing perilous times at the hands of Pakistan, China et al, the WikiLeaks cables offer a minor assurance that Hindutva is a means to grab power and not an objective per se. The Congress picked on the cables of a briefing US officials got from BJP’s Arun Jaitley in May 2005, when prime minister Manmohan Singh was in the saddle and he was in opposition. Jaitley denied the validity of the cables, but the accusations have persisted. What did they say?

The diplomatic cables give an insight into the doublespeak with which India’s politicians address their constituencies.

“Pressed on the question of Hindutva, Jaitley argued that Hindu nationalism ‘will always be a talking point’ for the BJP. However, he characterised this as an opportunistic issue,” the cable said, and added: “In India’s northeast, for instance, Hindutva plays well because of public anxiety about illegal migration of Muslims from Bangladesh. With the recent improvement of Indo-Pak relations, [Jaitley] added, Hindu nationalism is now less resonant in New Delhi, but that could change with another cross-border terrorist attack, for instance on the Indian parliament.” That is what Jaitley was quoted as saying to officials from the US embassy.

Whatever else the diplomatic cables may be worth, they do give an insight into the doublespeak with which India’s politicians address their constituencies. They tell the people one thing, and they tell the US government (in this case) quite another.

The cable quotes Jaitley as warning the US that the Modi controversy angered the BJP’s rank and file, who see his visa revocation as a personal attack on a leader of the party that began the transformation of US-India relations.

People have grovelled before Rahul Gandhi, pleading with him to take the lead in uniting the opposition. Petitions implored the opposition parties also to suspend their narrow interests just this time to protect India from an imminent fascist takeover. But this has not so far induced the desired humility in all concerned. On the other hand, the BJP is hoping to convert its stepped up military stand-off with Pakistan to woo votes in the name of national interest. It will not succeed if the opposition will not allow it, of course.

It is an old story, but Rahul Gandhi told former US ambassador Timothy Roemer that the threat India faces from Hindu extremism is greater than any challenge posed by radical Indian Muslims. It was a justified assessment to make, but why did he share it with a foreign envoy and not with his cadre, leave alone the people? To be fair, Gandhi has been calling out the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as a challenge. But why does that have to come at the cost of a palpable distancing from Muslims? Have Sampurnanand, Govind Ballabh Pant, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Purushottam Das Tandon finally supplanted Nehru in the Congress? So much ritual? So much religious symbolism? So much cow urine?

Another cable notes that Rahul Gandhi was an elusive customer for Americans, but of late had met the ambassador or officials several times in succession. It is anybody’s duty if they are political leaders to keep in touch with different embassies for a fair idea of what may be afoot.

However, there is reference to Rahul Gandhi’s aversion to caste-based parties in the cables. Is that why he will not have a formal alliance with the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh? Why not speak up publicly so that everyone knows the score? And what wrong did Arvind Kejriwal do other than to ask for a seat more than the Congress was willing to give in Delhi?

All this has generated a sneaking doubt that the Congress leadership is wary of leaders who may be vocally anti-corporate. Yes, Rahul Gandhi has been crying hoarse about corruption and crony capitalism. However, it may not be a coincidence that Navjot Singh Sidhu and Mani Shankar Aiyar who advocate friendship with Pakistan are also staunchly anti-corporate people. There seems to be a fallacy that Mani Shankar Aiyar was sidelined for using words for Prime Minister Modi that were interpreted as casteist. The actual reason for showing him the door may lie in the US cables.

“The UPA’s Jan 28 cabinet shuffle signifies a determination to ensure that US/ India relations continue to move ahead rapidly, and strengthens the cadre of modernising reformers at the top of the GOI [Government of India],” wrote ambassador David Mulford on Jan 30, 2008. He then exults: “Removing contentious and outspoken Iran pipeline advocate Mani Shankar Aiyar from the Petroleum portfolio, the UPA replaced him with the pro-US Murli Deora, who was one of several figures inducted with long-standing ties to the Indo/ US Parliamentary Forum (IUPF) and the Embassy. The UPA also inducted a large number of serving MPs, including seven from the IUPF who have publicly associated themselves with our strategic partnership.” As Aiyar would perhaps remark, Indian democracy is being taken to the pawnshop.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent on Delhi.

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2019