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The Wiki effect on governance? Democracy in the pawnshop

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi
Published : Mar 20, 2019, 12:48 am IST
Updated : Mar 20, 2019, 12:48 am IST

The Congress picked on the cables of a briefing US officials got from BJP’s Arun Jaitley in May 2005.

Arun Jaitley (Photo: PTI)
 Arun Jaitley (Photo: PTI)

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. 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. Mr Jaitley denied the validity of the cables, but the accusations have persisted. What did they say? “Pressed on the question of Hindutva, Mr 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, [Mr 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 Mr 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 quite another.

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. It is an old story, but Mr 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, Mr Gandhi has been calling out the BJP and the RSS 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 Mr Gandhi was an elusive customer for Americans, but of late met the ambassador or officials several times. There is reference to Mr 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, Mr 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 Mr Aiyar was sidelined for using words for Prime Minister Narendra 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 Mr Aiyar would perhaps remark, Indian democracy is being taken to the pawnshop.

Tags: wikileaks, arun jaitley