Byline by M J Akbar: The valet knows it all
No man, it is well known, is a hero to his valet. Nor is he much good before his dentist. You become vulnerable, in other words, when you either reveal too much or too little. The valet sees you waddle and slop out of the bath, bellowing for attention; and it doesn't matter if you plug on a cigar, step into office and turn into a Winston Churchill. The dentist sees only one dimension, the wince and aborted shriek at the plunge of pain. A dentophobic patient could well become a battlefield hero when a higher calling makes pain irrelevant.
A press conference can become, at its worst, a root canal drilling by a posse. Most press conferences emerge out of compulsion, not desire. The big question has to be answered, however, by the patient rather than a dentist: what do you do about the decayed tooth? The easy answer is to dull the pain with palliatives and carry on.
Dr Manmohan Singh is no longer a Prime Minister led by his party. The switch came in his first term, when he forced his hesitant party to follow him on the Indo-US nuclear deal. He was ahead of the Congress even on Pakistan policy. This was confirmed in the general election when he got equal space on the hoardings. Obviously he consults his party president Mrs Sonia Gandhi on crucial issues, but their relationship is far more equal than it was when she named him the surprise Prime Minister of the decade.
But there is one political arena in which he has to bow before the party's decisions: survival of his government. It is the party which decides how far to strain the nerves that hold a disparate coalition together. The slightest disarray would unravel the government. The party cannot afford a midterm general election just in order to preserve Dr Singh's image of financial integrity.
Dr Singh understands politics, but cannot get himself to indulge in the political language needed to roll around a crisis caused by blatant and possibly unprecedented levels of corruption. His nature drags him perilously close to the epicentre, and facts can be injurious to the health of a Prime Minister since he has, of course, been forced to compromise. He used the term "coalition compulsions" but those compulsions are not about the individual who has been thrown into jail because of the telecom scandal, A. Raja.
Raja is the front office boy; the problem is the DMK. The DMK made telecom its private property long before Raja became Cabinet minister with the help of corporate honchos awaiting extraordinary pay-offs for their deals with him. The DMK has milked telecom with a consistency that must generate tears of envy from middlemen. Raja, at best, kept a percentage of the loot; most of the money was taken by the party and members of the Karunanidhi family. Raja is the sacrifice thrown by the patriarch to the mob. His allotted destiny is to be the fall guy and keep his mouth shut, mafia-style, or there will be consequences. The problem is not Raja the individual, but DMK the institution. That is the tension that will test Dr Manmohan Singh. Karunanidhi is being economical with the truth when he claims that he cannot remember receiving a handwritten letter from Ratan Tata praising Raja as the finest thing to happen to telecom since Alexandar Graham Bell. Nor are any disbursements made to the extended family without his permission.
The Congress has sent Raja to prison, ordered a CBI raid on Kalaignar TV [owned by the Karunanidhi clan] and hinted that Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi could be summoned for interrogation. It has also announced that it will ally with the DMK in the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. That does not seem like a powerful denunciation of corruption. But it is explicable in terms of political survival. If the Congress fought the elections alone it would end up in desolate territory akin to its Bihar results. The trade-off is flexibility in the campaign against corruption, but the Prime Minister used his press conference to suggest that he would be as hard as the law permitted. The CBI moved at his direction.
Key questions: how far can the CBI rush around without toppling the applecart? Those apples are high value. The CBI will hear names from those it is interrogating. It will act against the private sector with much display, but what about the politicians who live too close to the bone?
Is the answer to this paradox another paradox? The Congress would obviously like to repeat its alliance victory in Tamil Nadu, but could the way out lie in defeat? A re-elected DMK would blackmail the coalition at the Centre; a defeated DMK would be more compliant in Chennai and more obedient in Delhi.
Being a hero is not easy, particularly when your valet is on the take.