His voice’s master

His voice’s master

By M.J. Akbar | 21 November, 2010

Thought for the week: if accent-fraud were a criminal offence, how many serving members of the ruling establishment would be guilty? To speak English well in a country which has inherited it as a service-language is commendable. To speak it badly is perfectly understandable, since it is a foreign tongue. But to speak it in a pseudo-imitation of a style that even an abashed BBC has quietly abandoned is unforgiveable. You could not have got Solicitor-General Gopal Subramaniam's haw-haw syllables from central casting, but that may be only a minor sin in his latest curriculum vitae.

Perhaps a pseudo-argument comes more easily to those who acquire a pseudo-accent; it is possible that he believes that unctuous loyalty to his client — in this case Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — combined with sonorous homage to the goddess of truth, are sufficient substitutes for fact. He chose to tell the Supreme Court, and then the people of India through television, that he had gone through every relevant file and could say with authority that the Prime Minister had replied to every query by the persistent Dr Subramanian Swamy on the 2G spectrum scam. Before the end of the day the Prime Minster had accepted that the second highest lawyer in government had lied to the Court and the people, and changed his lawyer to the highest in the land, Goolam Vahanvati. The response of lawyers, including political ones, employed on behalf of the Prime Minister shifted to evasion.

Whenever crisis induces a government knee to jerk, the first tendency is to jab in the direction of media. The messenger is so often the first victim. And so an upwardly mobile minister like Kapil Sibal advises media not to "pillory" the Prime Minister. But the Prime Minister is not under strain because of television or newspapers. His credentials are in doubt because of the remarkable diligence displayed by integrity-activists like Prashant Bhushan and judges of the Supreme Court who felt compelled to ask him why he had not bothered to respond adequately to a scam spreading in public view. This was not a sudden, one-off, grab-and-run operation. It was a carefully and intelligently laid out scheme by the DMK, which insisted on the telecom portfolio because it knew the rewards that lay in the allotment of licences. The Prime Minister is in trouble because the DMK took care to keep him informed through letter about how precisely it was going to subvert systems and determine pricing without consultation or due process, and received his acquiescence through acknowledgement of its letters. The crucial letter was sent not by A. Raja, but by Dayanidhi Maran, in February 2006. Maran could not have been more explicit: he wanted pricing, the key that opened the treasure house, out of government purview. This was the price of power, and Dr Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi paid it.

If you want to understand the political twist in this tale, look for the answer to only one question: who leaked the Maran letter to a television channel? Maran himself could not have done so, since he is not suicidal. Equally, those on the PM's side can be ruled out, for the same reason. The BJP or other Opposition parties did not have a copy, and if they had one, they would have held a press conference, not handed it over to just one trusted correspondent. The leak came from someone in government who wanted to weaken Dr Singh. Why? Obviously because he believes that a weakened Prime Minister has become vulnerable, there might be a vacancy at the top soon, Rahul Gandhi is not ready to take the job, and therefore he could become the next PM.

Prime Ministers and their press advisors should actually stop worrying about journalists and start worrying about that anonymous tribe which turns out jokey SMS-es. The PM may have maintained his studied silence but the mobile companies who had benefited from DMK largesse did not. The joke about the 2G spectrum that turned viral was marvellous: "PM breaks his silence. The only 2G I know is SoniaG and RahulG." Ridicule is far more devastating than criticism.

As it so happens, SoniaG and RahulG did, in different ways, offer their support to Dr Singh. Mrs Sonia Gandhi chose to deliver a small sermon with no names mentioned, as if the crime had been committed by the US Congress rather than the Indian National Congress. But the great damage was done not by what the Opposition said, but by what the PM did not say: his silence. The law acknowledges that silence is the best defence when words might become self-incrimination. But the law of public life is not equally generous to silence.

What is the tensile strength of silence? Lawyers can afford to manipulate their narrative as easily as they stretch their accent. Dr Singh used to have an authentic voice, which is why Indians trusted him. He lost that voice during the worst crisis of his long life.


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