One of my favourite lines of wisdom is that Confucian nugget: when the wise man points at the moon, the idiot looks at the finger. On Monday, Jedi Master Manmohan Singh went one step better: he showed the gathered media the finger, but the gobbly-wobblies who understand politics ended up howling at the moon.
Apart from throwing up unhinged metaphors, I believe I have been brought into this world in general and to this newspaper in particular to bring some healthy ignorance into the system. By ignorance I don’t mean the wide-eyed variety advertised by the likes of Telecon Minister A. Raja (“Oh, you mean that’s considered dodgy? Well, I’ll be damned!”). I’m talking about the ignorance, innocence if you will, that allows us make a molehill out of a molehill.
The proceedings on Monday’s press conference started on a straightforward note enough. As if explaining the New Keynesian Phillips Curve to AP J Abdul Kalam and other dorky kids, Singh replied to a question about the loss of government control over the economy by saying how he thought that the Indian economy has been faring very well thank you very much despite the triple-whammy of drought and floods and economic turmoil across the world. He expected inflation, he said in that voice hardwired to make an approaching tsunami sound like an order for a plate of sashimi, to come down to 5-6 per cent by December. A bureaucratic answer from a bureaucratic leader of a bureaucratic government of a country that, till now, gave bureaucracy a bad name.
Next was the question from an editor: “Hey softie! Why are we talking to Pakistan when they still haven’t stopped being, well, Pakistan?” OK, he didn’t actually ask that. His was one of those polite yet keen-to-the-questioner-only questions that wasn’t really looking for an answer. Here again, Singh, showing far less emotion than that ever shown by even one of Narasimha Rao’s late nostrils, responded by saying, “Pakistan is our neighbour.” (“Hmm, Pakistan is our neighbour. He may be on to something here.”) “India cannot realise its full developmental potential unless we have the best possible relations with our neighbours. And Pakistan is our biggest neighbour.”
Then there was a question about whether Singh thought his government had underestimated the Maoist menace. The good Sardar responded by saying that he has been banging on for some time now that it is the nation’s biggest security threat. Even bigger than the one involving greenhouse emissions and Celine Dion-loving Canadians high on human rights. The obvious counter-question would have been, “So then? Why can’t GoI have a consensus on an anti-Maoist strategy?” But I guess we’ll have to wait for another four years for someone to ask that question. Unless they put me on a plane with the PM on a foreign trip.
Other answers that were as flat as Bal Thackeray’s beer to questions that were as anodyne as a Miss World’s wish-list followed: on A. Raja (“investigations are on”), Telangana (“a committee is looking into it”), the execution of Afzal Guru (“the law of the land will take its course”)...
It was not until a question about the possibility of his retirement and the possible prime ministership of a member outside the Singh family was asked that reporters started scribbling away like mediums possessed by a malevolent spirit. As Singh dismissed any talk of retirement — “my job remains unfinished” — he added that he felt that “younger people” should take over. To another question that repeated the earlier one but with a totally new syntax, he said that Rahul Gandhi was very qualified to join “the Cabinet” and whenever the party and the Boy Wonder himself thought he was ready, he was willing to have him ride in his Batmobile.
So there it was. A pivotal event in the nation’s political calendar. We got to know the following: Manmohan Singh isn’t stepping down; Rahul Gandhi isn’t joining the government anytime soon; there is no “distrust or mistrust” between the PM and Sonia Gandhi, and that Singh won’t be doing the public speaking circuit after he retires.
But what a probing, hard-knuckled bunch those journos were. Pity we still don’t know what the PM’s favourite colour is, whether India has given up on Afghanistan, and whether he married outside his gotra.