The profit and loss of noise

The profit and loss of noise

By M.J. Akbar | 12 December, 2010
Pranab Mukherjee at Parliament House (PTI)

It is entirely appropriate that the man in charge of India's volume control, Pranab Mukherjee, should have uttered what is unarguably the comment of the year: our democracy has become too noisy. Through a long career stretching from the 1960s, Pranabda [as he is fondly known] has always preferred the brain to the lung. Noise has been neither in his temperament nor his bhadralok-Brahmin culture. His metier is ministerial; he is a fish out of water when his party is in Opposition. He knows that government has a tremendous advantage in the parliamentary form of government, even more so than in the presidential form, but only if it knows the mechanism of power. He would be the first to appreciate that Opposition very often has no option except to play its first and last card, noise.

Noise has become a pejorative term, which is unfair. Noise does not have to be necessarily loud. Oratory is beautiful noise. Music is noise touched by magic. Politics rarely rises to oratory, and never to music, but every Opposition knows that while it cannot survive if it is not heard, it must trade with the voter in intelligible noise.

Rising decibel levels can be justified only if there is the logic of public interest at the core. The delicate twist that lifts Mukherjee's statement from the passé to the extraordinary is a descriptive qualification, "a bit too". Noise is essential to the system. Excess, however, grates. There is a clash of civilisations when the throat threatens to destroy the eardrum. Democracy works when all five sense are in harmony. Mukherjee's diagnosis was perfect, but his prescription was, shall we say, a bit ambiguous. He advised a bit of silence.

The virtues of silence can never be overstated. Silence breeds reflection and reflection encourages maturity. If that was Mukherjee's advice to Opposition, then it had some merit. But it is equally within the Opposition's rights to point out that government very often treats silence in precisely the same manner as an accused — as its first line of defence. In any criminal case, police have to give an accused the legal right of silence, so that he does not incriminate himself. Both Prakash Karat of the CPI(M) and Arun Jaitley of the BJP are asking Dr Manmohan Singh whether he rejects the idea of a JPC because he fears that if he speaks he will incriminate his government in a scandal that continues to have the most astonishing reverberations as layer after surprising layer peels off. We now learn that government tapped the middlewoman Niira Radia's phones because it believed that she was "indulging in anti-national activities". This takes the allegations against her beyond the edges of conventional corruption, and provides further justification to the Opposition demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe the most sensational scandal in two decades.

The virtues of silence can never be overstated. Silence breeds reflection and reflection encourages maturity. 

It is ironic that government was forced to state this in the Supreme Court because of a petition filed by Radia's chief financial mentor and public guardian, Ratan Tata, the industrialist who has helped Radia's company grow from nothing to Rs 300 crores in just nine years. Acting on poor legal advice, Tata went to court to blanket out information, condemning India as a banana republic along the way. No weapon has ricocheted back faster than the Ratan boomerang.

It may be relevant, therefore, to consider where Pranab Mukherjee asked for a bit of silence. He was speaking to industrialists. While it is axiomatic that there cannot be bribery without money, and where there is money there will be businessmen, the 2G show is slowly turning into theatre where the lead role in the first act has faded before the aggressive emergence of businessmen on the stage. Ratan Tata has been dominating headlines with a persistence uncharacteristic of his class. He has been interventionist rather than reticent, often storming into the debate despite overwhelming evidence of sleaze on the part of his protégé. It was only a matter of time before another businessman decided to label this as hypocrisy, which Rajeev Chandrashekhar did, albeit more politely. Tata's response was to claim personal virtue in the name of the Prime Minister, a double-edged tribute which Dr Singh might want to ignore; and accuse an Opposition party, BJP, of association in the exercise.

This might be the moment to point out that Niira Radia's telephones were tapped by the Manmohan Singh government, not the BJP. They were leaked by those today in ­power, not a BJP mole. If Ratan Tata finds his name in media stories on Indian scams, it is because the ­present ­government made the Radia tapes available to media. It is possible that the leaks had Home Minister P. Chidambaram's approval; ­after all, Home Secretary G.K. Pillai has, on record, promised much more.

Time to understand what Pranab Mukherjee implied: silence begins at home.


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