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My five minutes of fame

To testify before the US Congress is to partake of a complex and chaotic Washington ritual, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Mar 22, 2008 03:05 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

US journalist Dana Milbank wrote a book Homo Politicus on “the strange and scary tribes” that run Washington DC. The capital of the sole superpower, he argued, was an anthropological case study with its own castes, mythology and rituals.

A well-known Washington ritual is the expert testimony before a congressional committee. On television, the ritual seems Socratic. Scholars speak solemnly before a panel. Cross-examination is accompanied by much head-nodding. One legislator always asks, “What are the implications for our great nation?”

All very civilised. The impression: this is the culmination of much intense and careful spadework. I thought so — until I was asked to testify last year.

I was in New York when I got a phone call from Kurt, a Republican congressional aide attached to the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee. He quizzed me on the Kyoto Protocol and India. I took the standard Delhi line: very unfair to ask a poor country to accept costly carbon emission curbs.

“There are people in the new Congress who believe the US will get countries to bilaterally cut carbon emissions as easy as pie. Would you like to testify before a congressional subcommittee?”

I said, Yes. I thought, Wow, my five minutes of fame.

“I’ll get back. The Other Side has to agree to your inclusion.”

A week later, he rang. “You’re on. We’re short on time. Can you come down tomorrow?”

Then followed a harried 10 hours. I researched and wrote out an official testimony. My fax became clogged with official forms from Washington. I tried to get my head around pages of dense regulations — most of which I seemed to be in violation of.

“Kurt, it says here, ‘Pursuant to Rule 4b(1) of the rules of the committee, I have to provide 150 copies of my written statement at least two working days in advance of my appearance.’ I can’t do that.”

“Ignore. But take the rule that you have to write using only WordPerfect seriously.”

I signed oaths that I was not a recipient of US government money, Uncle Sam did not contribute more than 10 per cent of the budget of the organisations I worked for, I was not a whole host of things I wasn’t even sure about.

I rang up an Indian diplomat in the middle of it all. “What is the Indian government’s position on climate change?” He mused: “Good question. I’ve always wondered myself.”

Late afternoon I got the green light. I booked a train berth — though the US Congress, I learnt, does not reimburse the experts it invites.

Gab on the Hill

The Capitol Building is imposing, but the home of the US Congress was designed for a small-to-middling nation, not a superpower. To accommodate today’s hordes of aides, lobbyists, journalists and hangers-on, the legislature is surrounded by office buildings. Congressmen shuttle between buildings on underground mini-trains. Lesser mortals have to walk the Capitol Hill lawns.

The morning sun was weak as I headed towards the Rayburn Building. Tubby policemen stood around with automatic rifles. There was a metal detector at the entrance, but no one asked who I was or why. Thousands of Homo Politici were milling around: besuited, black-tied, briefcase-toting. I was just another one of the species.

“We did a Google search on you, see if there was any dirt that someone could hit you with. Nothing controversial we could find, just straightforward journalist stuff.”

“Congressmen will walk in and out of the room. Pay no attention to them. Their aides will be taking notes. They’re the ones who count.”

“Give them one-liners. They’ll remember them.”

Old testament

A few minutes later, I was in the cavernous subcommittee room 2322. There were about two dozen congressmen seated on elevated benches. One was leaning on his chair, boots on his desk. The aides, most of whom looked like college kids, sat behind them. I shared a long table with two environmentalists, an MIT China expert and a Wall Street carbon trader. There were some mediamen sitting behind us. I was the last speaker.

The testimony and the subsequent back-and-forth meandered, with the legislators prone to asking strange non sequiturs. But the core issue was clear. The Democrats wanted the US to sharply cut carbon emissions. But they wanted China and India to do the same. What would make the Asians fall in line?

The greens were all for armtwisting. One testified the US should impose “carbon tariffs” on imports by countries that didn’t follow the West’s lead.

I realised my task was to sow some doubts among the Democratic legislators about the efficacy or even morality of such a policy.

When my turn came, I claimed that if carbon cuts were perceived to crimp rapid economic growth, it would be politically unsaleable in India. I rolled out stats: 750 million Indians live on two dollars a day, 50 per cent of parliamentarians lose their seats each election. I saw congressmen gasp. Many had vague notions of India being a nation of one-billion software programmers.

I found an old Indira Gandhi quote went down well: “The ultimate polluter is poverty.” A Republican congressman wrote it down, “I’m going to use that one.”

Noting that the West had spewed the vast bulk of carbon in mankind’s history, I turned to Kipling: “Black smoke is the white man’s burden.”

One Democrat was suitably deflated: “I don’t feel I’m wearing a totally moral white hat any more.” One worriedly asked, “Would India object if the US carried out its own carbon cuts?”

The Republicans were smiling like Cheshire cats. I had made their case: just because the US did it, it didn’t mean the developing world would be on board.

A few green journalists questioned me afterwards. One of them later wrote on the web that I had “cast a pall” on the proceedings. More like an injection of reality.

It was nearly noon when I walked back to the train station. The overweight policemen were sweating. The air was heavy, but I felt light-headed.