People usually speak the truth when they think they're talking in private. But people equally brag about their achievements, connections, capabilities and the information they're allegedly privy to when they talk 'off the record'. So even if the only dirty weekend you've ever had was when you went to Benaras last Holi with an incontinent aunt, you could lie and tell a very select, tight-lipped bunch about your breakfast in bed in Ooty with that pretty colleague, while everyone, your wife included, knew you to be at a company offsite in Manesar.
The problem starts when what is for private consumption becomes public knowledge. Whether it's truth-telling or baseless bragging, revelations seeping into the public domain can be such a nightmare. Ask the unholy congress of a spotless leader and a legion of spots buzzing all around him.
The steady drip of WikiLeaks that started appearing in the venerable Hindu from last week turned into a mad gush when on Thursday we were told that the Congress had paid MPs of the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) bribes in July 2008 in exchange for their votes in the confidence vote in Parliament a few days later.
Well, the leaked cable sent by US charge d'affaires Steven White to Washington didn't actually say that. What it did was that Nachiketa Kapur, a very dodgy flunky to Congressman Satish Sharma - remember Sharma, the guy who drove Rahul Gandhi to Amethi when the latter filed his nomination in 2004? - showed a US embassy staff member "two chests containing cash and said that around rupees 50-60 crore... was lying around the house for use as pay-offs". In the same cable, White writes about the embassy's political counsellor being told by Sharma that he and other Congressmen were "working hard" to ensure the government won the July 22, 2008, confidence vote. An unnamed Congressman is quoted telling the same American that Union minister Kamal Nath was doing more than his bit to "pay for votes".
Considering that Steven White had no motive to cook up such information - unlike the BJP MPs who waved about wads in Parliament and didn't join eight of their party colleagues who switched sides during the confidence vote - I believe the contents of the WikiLeaked cable. But it doesn't matter what I or White or Arun Jaitley or Julian Assange or Hillary Clinton believe. What matters is to figure out whether Sharma and his flunky were telling the truth to reassure the Americans that the best thing to happen in India-US ties since Norman Borlaug brought the Green Revolution to town was not going to be derailed. Or were the two simply lying to reassure the well-connected Yankees in Manmohan's court?
Along with the Hindu, the BJP and the Left clearly believe that White's cable provides accurate information: not only that Nachiketa Kapur had told the American that four RLD MPs had already been bribed R10 crore each in exchange for their votes (they didn't support the UPA, but that hardly proves they weren't offered or refused the money), but that what he said was actually true. I, on the other hand, tend to believe with a more wide-eyed, tight-bladdered innocence that all parliamentarians are by nature incorruptible, and that Messrs Kapur and Sharma were just cooking up 'facts' about their own closeness to power and influence over parliamentary democracy. I believe the current term for such behaviour is called 'stringing along'.
Kapur has, since the WikiLeak leaked, denied ever having shown any US embassy man trunkloads of cash. And the embassy man who reported to White that he saw the wads is probably in a Washington gym right now burning all that excess under-chin fat he picked up in kakori kabab-friendly Delhi. Sharma has, on his part, denied that the Congress has ever bought a vote. Whether he was referring to the government's 2008 confidence vote over the nuclear deal in the 14th Lok Sabha, or to the 1993 no-confidence vote in the 10th Lok Sabha that led to Sharma and 20 others being accused of bribing Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs to vote for the government, I can't tell.
But the ease with which everyone has started to believe that money was paid to make Manmohan 'Singh is King' Singh flash a V sign and a smile in July 2008 shows how morally precarious the UPA is now. Another rumour and this government can kiss Caesar's wife goodbye.