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Sen, sense and sensitivity

Was Ronen Sen accurate in what he said? Without doubt. Our feverish response to the N-deal does suggest a disquieting lack of self-confidence, insecurity and melodrama, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Aug 30, 2007 16:00 IST

Sixty years after Independence, after when we snapped our links with the British Raj, spare a thought for the complexities of the language we’ve continued with and steadily, if not proudly, mangled and mispronounced. But, to be honest, the blame is not ours. It lies squarely with the English language. There isn’t another that lends itself so deliciously to mis-spelling and faulty pronunciation.

Did you realise our MPs are so sensitive? That they’re such delicate creatures their amour propre can be hurt by the indiscrete comments of our ambassador in faraway Washington, a man most of them don’t know, many will not meet and perhaps consider themselves superior to? These poor little blooms, these gentle babes, these innocent angels are so offended they’ve held up the functioning of Parliament for at least two days, demanding justice — or do I mean revenge? And the cost to the nation? To you and me, who pay our taxes — and remember many of those who stand for elections don’t even have PAN numbers — is Rs 26,035 per minute. So one hour of wasted Parliament has cost us — us, not them — Rs 15,62,100. And if, altogether, they’ve held up proceedings for, say, 8 hours, the bill we have to foot — again us, not them — is

Rs 1,24,96,800. Well, was it worth it?

Let’s try and answer that question objectively. First, was Ronen Sen accurate in what he said? Without doubt. Whether he had MPs in mind, or journalists, or the rest of society, our feverish response to the Indo-US nuclear deal does suggest a disquieting lack of self-confidence, a disturbing insecurity, a depressing melodrama. Even if our concern is justified, in expressing it and canvassing support for it we’ve whipped ourselves into an appalling froth. We’ve made a spectacle of ourselves.

But was Mr Sen, India’s ambassador to the US, justified in saying this in a formal interview? Undoubtedly not. At the very least, he was ill-advised to comment on a debate that is due to take place in his own Parliament. To then do so from a particular standpoint, criticising those who disagree, was to take sides. And to have in the process expressed his personal opinion — which he has admitted to — whilst being interviewed as India’s ambassador, is not just negligent and careless, it’s irresponsible and bloody stupid.

Yet, that said and done, how grievous a lapse was this? Now this is where it becomes difficult or, at least, tricky. It was a silly mistake, no doubt, but made by a man who spoke too much, not by someone who had set out to offend. It was garrulity, or self-indulgence, even unjustified trust in his interlocutor. But it wasn’t a deliberate attack, it wasn’t insubordination, it wasn’t contempt of Parliament. In short, it was the sort of criticism — let’s say of one’s boss — that we all are prone to, hoping it won’t be passed on. But in this case it was.

So, how should Mr Sen be ‘punished’, assuming, of course, that punishment is due? If I was foreign minister I would have said he has behaved like a twit, he has been thoroughly embarrassed by it, and the ridicule he has brought on himself is punishment enough. No doubt Pranab Mukherjee would have acted similarly if circumstances in Parliament had permitted. But with the Left and BJP howling, actually baying, for blood I dare say the light touch was not an option.

But is the ambassador’s recall, whether that means the sack or a public admonition at the bar of the House, the only other alternative? Should a man who has served as India’s top representative in Berlin, Moscow and London before Washington, who has delivered through the nuclear deal the single greatest triumph of Indian foreign policy in the last two decades — if not longer — be subjected to humiliation simply because at an unguarded moment he spoke his mind and in the process spoke the truth? No, I say, no, no, no!

Let every MP who wants Ronen Sen’s head look himself squarely in the mirror and first ask three simple questions: Have I not similarly transgressed in my time? When I did, was I not forgiven? And if was, do I have the right to apply a different standard to this errant fool?

If these questions are asked the only truthful answers will be yes, yes and no. In which case this is as as much a test of our MPs as it is of Ronen Sen. Humiliate him if you want and prove you are despicable hypocrites. But remember that won’t surprise us, it will only confirm existing beliefs. Or excuse him — even if you can’t forgive — and show that human understanding and good judgment are a part of your makeup, even if they haven’t been recognised so far. Now that would be something new.

We, the people, are watching you!