Byline by MJ Akbar:High-flying Rumours
Every lie must be denied; otherwise it becomes an attachment to the truth. I am not equally sure that rumours deserve similar attention, because a denial tends to live in the same haze as the rumour. The smoke-and-fire axiom begins to operate: could there be smoke without fire? Prime Ministers must be particularly careful about smoke.
What is a rumour? It is much more than repetition of a lie, for a lie rarely travels very far. A rumour finds legs only because it has the possibility of being true. The success of a lie depends on the credibility of the perpetrator. A rumour succeeds because of its persuasive ability, because those who hear it are amenable, consciously or subconsciously. Why are they amenable? Because there is sufficient circumstantial evidence to give credence to the rumour.
Could there be denial without some, however fleeting, truth in it?
Spread a rumour that Manmohan Singh has taken money in the growing Navy scandal, and no one will believe it. There is no evidence that in a lifetime of public service Manmohan Singh has taken an illegitimate rupee.
No one would have believed a rumour in July 2005 that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was about to resign. In July last year he was in full command of his Cabinet, and had the determination of a leader with an agenda, focused around what he believed would be a historic deal with the United States. The process began with an agreement signed by defence minister Pranab Mukherjee on 28 June last year, and gathered momentum during Dr Singh’s visit to the White House later last year.
Is it irony, or merely poetic justice, that Dr Manmohan Singh’s political credibility began to waver after President George Bush’s pseudo-historical visit to India, and his announcement that Washington was ready to go ahead with the nuclear deal? Euphoria, particularly of the premature kind, tends to breed errors, even among the most balanced of men. Dr Singh had a significant lapse of judgment when he dismissed opposition to the Bush visit as "communal". Suspicion about what was being cooked in the cavernous kitchens of Delhi and Washington was not a by-product of latent communalism. In any event, to call Marxists, who led the demonstrations against Bush, communal is apolitical if not absurd. The government quickly stopped parroting this line, but even this small self-inflicted wound created an opportunity. For the government was up against something far more potent than communalism: nationalism.
Suspicion became a worry when the terms of engagement were revealed. Dr Homi Sethna, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and a founding-father of India’s nuclear programme, read the details and said that what Dr Manmohan Singh was about to sign was worse than joining the NPT regime. No government in Delhi of any colour ever dared to compromise India’s independent nuclear assets by joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime. We are now on the verge of surrendering our independence, and all we can hear is the sound of silence. Dr A. Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, has outlined how precisely commitments made by Dr Singh to Parliament and the people have been blatantly undermined and notes that if the deal goes through in its present form, it will "compromise the sovereignty of this country for decades to come". He has exposed the very enormous financial price that India will have to pay as well: between Rs 300,000 to Rs 400,000 crores in nuclear reactors that will be totally dependent for their existence on a yearly audit of our policies by the US Congress. Dr P.K. Iyengar, another former chairman of the AEC, has called the deal "giving up sovereignty". These men have spent their lives translating an Indian vision, crafted by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, into reality. They do not have a political or personal agenda.
It is in the nature of coalition politics that the first people to exploit weakness or uncertainty at the centre are partners and allies: the Opposition, depressed and moribund, wakes up much later, if it wakes up at all. It is axiomatic that a politician will, at some point in his term of power, give priority to the politics of re-election over the demands of governance. This is accepted, and even acceptable towards the end of a term of power. But if there is the slightest doubt about how long a Prime Minister will stay in office, politicians will grab any chance to appease their constituencies instead of appeasing the Prime Minister.
Democratic politics is a terribly uncertain game at the best of times, and only the very complacent waste opportunities. Arjun Singh sent off the first, powerful, signal that the time for political expediency had arrived. He brought reservations back to the forefront of debate, for in conflict lay votes. It was known that the Prime Minister was unhappy, but his unhappiness made no difference. If a Prime Minister cannot assert his authority, authority simply latches on to anyone who will. Dr Ramadoss, nationally unknown but influential Tamil leader, who leads a small party of just six MPs, has bull-charged his way into centre space by converting his regional needs into a national dilemma. The Prime Minister cannot restrain his "Backward castes" activism, since the only way to do so is to either sack him or change his portfolio. Dr Singh can do neither. The senior party from Tamil Nadu, the DMK, is happy to go for the jugular on behalf of the workers of Neyveli, and once again the Prime Minister is helpless. In a fit of pique, Dr Singh responds by halting all disinvestments across the country. The trouble is, this hammer will not kill the fly.
Two years ago, when the world was young and every horizon just a footfall away, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised reform with a human face, a curious phrase, but one whose meaning was nevertheless clearer than its grammar. It meant that economic reforms would not be pushed through at the cost of the working class or the peasant. That policy has now been stood on its head. If this were by the collective will of the government, it would be understandable. But both the Prime Minister and the finance minister have become hostage to office, and the allies know it.
There is a perceptible sense of drift alternating with freeze, as the axle of power is challenged by the spokes: the wheel cannot turn in a predetermined direction. Dr Singh has made the nuclear deal with the United States his highest priority. There is something sincere about this, since a fulltime politician would have hedged his bets and left wiggle room for escape if the deal began to unravel. But sincerity is no substitute for being right. As details have begun to emerge, there is unease in the highest quarters of the Congress as well, because, if eminent Indians like Sethna, Gopalakrishnan and Iyengar are right, the Congress will pay a very heavy political price.
It was the accumulation of such internal tensions that gave wing to the rumour on Friday. The rumour was not total speculation, or the idea without precedent. It is not widely known that Dr Manmohan Singh once sent his resignation to P.V. Narasimha Rao. Rao ignored it. But this time Dr Singh is the Prime Minister.
Have you ever seen straws floating in the wind? They are like rumours: no one knows where they come from and where they are headed. But they do predict a storm.