Is it my imagination or does the UPA government, packed with ministers who could easily run a world class accounting firm or canteen, seem nervous? In the latest episode of ‘Saas bhi kabhi 2G’, we saw two of the greatest ministers India has ever produced (What? What did I say wrong?) squabbling in public.
We were last told, rather convincingly, that there was no finger-pointing. Pranab Mukherjee, chugging on his imaginary pipe, clarified on Thursday that “apart from the factual background, the paper [on 2G spectrum allocation] contains certain inferences and interpretations which do not reflect my view.” Pranab-da in his grey Nehru jacket, flanked by P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid all in Congress White and looking like repo guys after a job well done, was repeating what friendly prompters had said earlier when the finance minister was in America: that the document was a background paper prepared after interactions between officials of the PMO, the finance ministry, the telecom ministry and the cabinet secretariat and that it was not a sinister note from the then finance minister Chidambaram’s table nudging the then telecom minister A Raja to stick to a dodgy policy.
When asked in New York about the knife-fight, Pranab-da could well have said what he said a few days later with taller Congress leaders standing behind him. But instead, he told curious journalists that he couldn’t comment until he spoke to the law and home ministers, adding that he was “not here to satisfy your infinite inquisitiveness”.
One of the jobs of being a politician is indeed to feed, if not to satisfy, “infinite inquisitiveness”. The few days between Pranab-da not saying anything on the matter and him saying that the note was just a standard bureaucratic note in which he had no interest except to take note of were enough to give the impression that the government was stalling to extricate itself from an embarrassing situation. The sticky situation, of course, was the perception that he had charged his “esteemed colleague” (later to be suspiciously over-described as “a pillar of strength for the party and the government”) Chidambaram of doing, what in common parlance is now called, ‘a Narendra Modi’ — not stopping something that was his job to stop. ‘Collective responsibility’, something rare in party politics, was finally pulled out of the closet as a face-saver leading to a kind of enforced camaraderie being displayed between the home minister and finance minister last witnessed when the unhitched sidecar of the motorcycle carrying Jai came together to rejoin Veeru in Sholay.
For Sonia Gandhi to play Don Corleone in the ‘patch-up’ between her two most trusted lieutenants must have been tough, especially with journalists outside with stopwatches timing the separate meetings she had with Chidambaram and Mukherjee. Chidambaram’s meeting with her lasted 15 minutes; Mukherjee’s 40 minutes. Did Mukherjee’s spending more than twice the amount of time at the principal’s office mean that he was being favoured over his classmate? Or did it mean that Chidambaram was spared the rod and let off quickly? 10J time allocation suddenly became more important than 2G spectrum allocation. If the rumours of Chidambaram offering to resign were followed by the rumours of Mukherjee offering to resign, it was all part of the playground fight for parity.
In all this, the BJP once again made a molehill out of a mountain. When Ravi Shankar Prasad told us that “the country will not believe this completely untenable clarification of Pranab Mukherjee, which is more the result of an ego battle of the ministers than a quest for public property,” he missed the point. Pranab-da’s clarification is all too believable. What’s weird was seeing the government getting into damage control mode without any damage visible. The damage control was the damage. And it has now got us looking at something we had earlier not bothered to look at: the PMO.