Byline by M J Akbar: A Real Con Called Conspiracy Theory
If you forgot the source of a quotation in our parents' generation, you could safely attribute it to Winston Churchill. Churchill smoked Cuban cigars, drank champagne for breakfast, painted for pleasure and won wars for a living. He was the authentic hero of the age of imperialism in the English-speaking people. If you cannot recall a source now, the safest thing to do is to attribute it to Warren Buffett, who eats hamburgers, plays bridge, thinks up witticisms for a hobby and makes money for a living. He is the authentic hero of the age of capitalism in the dollar-speaking world.
It was Buffett, I think, who said that it is only when the tide runs out that you discover who has been swimming naked.
Well, with the next general elections only weeks away, the tide is running out on politicians who have dominated the last five years. To our increasing amusement, we are beginning to discover that there might be a whole nudist colony swimming in the political waters. Once upon a time, only the emperor had no clothes. But democracy is a more egalitarian business.
The position of chief nudist fluctuates, but at the moment there would be no questions asked if the award was handed to Abdul Rahman Antulay. Let me point out right away that Mr Antulay is far smarter than the emperor, who seems to have lost his wits after a child pointed out that he had lost his clothes. Mr Antulay has taken pre-emptive action to fool the child. If you throw dust in the eyes of the beholder, there is a good chance that your nudity will not be recognised. Mr Antulay has spent six of his eight decades in politics. You learn a great deal in the process.
One simple question will expose how nude Mr Antulay was under the enveloping tide: Can he name one single thing, anything at all, that he has done for minorities as the Union Minister for Minorities?
He could possibly reel off the number of occasions on which he has broken down and sobbed publicly, either in sympathy at their plight or in exasperation at his inability to persuade the system to deliver. The tears might even have been genuine. But they do not add up to re-election.
If the performance is poor in Delhi, it is pathetic in Maharashtra. An exceptionally good story in Mumbai Mirror revealed that the Congress-NCP Government had not spent a single rupee out of the Rs 167 crores allotted to the Minorities Development Department till 15 December. Not one rupee. It is sadder still that the more hysterical elements of the Urdu press, who spend yards of newsprint on conspiracy theories, simply ignore such a story. In fact, if you want a quick portrait of the Congress Government in Maharashtra then all you have to do is check out one statistic: only 34% of the State's annual budget of Rs 29,000 crores has been spent till the middle of December. And so Mr Antulay picked up conspiracy fluff floating down the media mainstream, which had found some anchorage on urban shores, in order to reinvent himself as a martyr for a "Muslim cause" — that Hemant Karkare had been "martyred" [some Urdu papers refer to him only as "Shaheed" Karkare] because he was on the point of discovering the truth about a "Hindu" hand behind the Malegaon bombings. Even as a theory it was extraordinary: it implied that some quick-thinking fellow police officer had misled Karkare into going to the exact spot where he would get killed, certain that the Pakistani terrorists would not be able to get anyone who went to Taj, Oberoi or Nariman House, but would certainly kill the officers who went towards the Chhatrapati Shivaji railway station.
All the clichés were trotted out: that Antulay feared no one but God [loud applause], that he did not care for office ["Take my resignation!"] et al. But the record shows that while it takes very little to persuade Antulay to offer to resign, it takes a great deal to force Antulay out of office. When the Babri mosque was demolished, and Mumbai suffered two months of riots, Antulay did not even offer to resign from Parliament. There were two reasons: one, three and a half years were left before the next general elections, not just three and a half months. Two, P.V. Narasimha Rao would have accepted the resignation immediately. Actually, even three and a half months are too long. When the Congress Government humiliated him through a statement in Parliament debunking the conspiracy line, all he did was to sheepishly agree and accept that there was no longer any need for an enquiry. Of course, the man who fears no one but God was permitted to keep his job, however marginal it might be.
Siddhartha Varadarajan, writing in the Hindu, had the finest conspiracy theory of the whole lot: that Antulay was a BJP plant in the Congress. It is certainly more logical than the suggestion that Mumbai police officers conspired with Pakistani terrorists to kill a top officer of their force. At a time of serious tension, all Antulay did was break the unity fashioned in Parliament. Just when it seemed that India was speaking in one voice, he split the Cabinet and handed Pakistan a public relations coup. His bid for pseudo-heroism has given Pakistan effective ammunition in the psychological skirmishing that has become a substitute for open warfare. Before asking India to unite, the Prime Minister might have asked his Cabinet to unite. His abject retreat will not change the Pakistani narrative. Islamabad will accuse Delhi of using pressure to ensure silence.
It is only appropriate, if one has begun with a quote, to end with a misquote. Churchill is, by my guess, the second most fecund source for anecdotes and bon mots in English; the most fertile is of course Shakespeare, who was also familiar with tides in the affairs of men. Shakespeare also understood the politics of power better than most, as his history plays indicate. But since he wrote of heroes, he did not investigate the clothing of politicians at ebb tide. Hence, a variation: "There is a tide in the affairs of men which, when taken at the ebb, leads on to misfortune".