You know the easiest way to dodge a bullet? Say the following magic words: “It’s not about me, it’s about the institution.”
When on Wednesday Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met the five newspaper editors, it was very clear that it wasn’t his idea that he should be hanging out with the journalists. Not, as many of our tribe would like to think, because he was scared witless as he looked in from behind the conference room door at 7, Race Course Road, at the editors tapping on their pens impatiently. He wasn’t keen on meeting members of the media like the last time in February because he knew, more than anyone else, that there was nothing to actually talk about.
It wasn’t as if he was going to be asked why his boss, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, was even less chatty with the people of this country via the media (as opposed to sticking to the scripted monologues at public rallies) than he was. It wasn’t as if he would be fielding the question, “What is your response to the National Human Rights Commission fact-finding team’s report that Uttar Pradesh policemen had not committed rape during the farmers’ agitation at Bhatta-Parsaul in May as had been claimed by Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi?”
He even knew that no one would ask him whether he expects DMK jailbirds A Raja or Kanimozhi — having very little ‘coalition compulsions’ left any more — could turn approver and disclose some facts about the possible involvement of more members of his government in the 2G scam. No question either about that big boil on the State’s flabby bottom: land acquisition and the rising din over it.
Singh agreed to sit for the planchette with the five gentlemen because he, unlike anyone else in government or in the Congress party, could be trusted by the people of India who have been brimming with questions — inchoate or not — for some time now. At a time when the UPA government has much, much to answer for, only the prime minister could be bundled out to face a well-mannered mob.
The prime minister has many flaws, but lying well is not one of them. In the Mahabharata, a plan is hatched to kill the invincible Dronacharya. Krishna orders Bheem to slay the Kauravas’ elephant named Ashwathama, which also happens to be the name of Drona’s beloved son. After the elephant is killed, word goes out to Dronacharya that his son has been killed. But not believing in rumours and knowing that there is only one honest man who will not lie, he asks Yudhisthir whether the rumour is true. When Yudhisthir responds by telling the unbelieving father about his son’s death, “Ashwathama hatha (Ashwathama is dead),” adding as a murmur and therefore avoiding a full lie, “kunjaraha (the elephant)”. Drona hears only the first part ‘confirming’ his son’s death and is all too ready to die.
The PM was asked on Wednesday his opinion on a subject crucial to our understanding of how serious the UPA is about doing penance for letting a flotilla of corruption to collect under its nose. The Yudhisthir of our times replied, “I have no hesitation in bringing myself under the purview of the lokpal,” then adding, “But many of my Cabinet colleagues feel that bringing the institution of PM under it will create instability.” It’s another matter that Singh’s natural speaking style is sotto voce.
So we have the honest but self-admittedly human prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and the sacred abstraction called the Institution Of the Prime Minister (IOPM). Some of Singh’s Cabinet colleagues have even conducted hypothetical ‘war game’ scenarios to keep the IOPM out of a genuinely independent ombudsman’s purview. What if there’s a 26/11-style terrorist attack and a PM is being investigated for corruption? How will he focus on defending the nation? What if a swarm of locusts ravage the countryside while the PM is worried about clearing his name? Prime ministers can’t be expected to be walking and chewing ‘adhesives’ at the same time, can they?
If self-righteous hypocrisy had a size, it would have been as big as an elephant on the fields of Kurukshetra.