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Sounds of silence

The UPA's top leadership speaks only when pushed to the brink. This is making their politics look increasingly defensive and reactive, writes Barkha Dutt.

columns Updated: Sep 10, 2011 19:40 IST

I first learnt the exact meaning of the American slang 'shellacking' when an introspective, but still humorous, Barack Obama used it to describe his clobbering in the mid-term election results. It was a disarming moment to watch someone often heralded as being the most powerful man in the world go on television and make a self-referential joke about how "some elections nights are more fun than others."

But perhaps his most important statement that day was the admission that he and his administration had "lost track of the ways we connected with the folks who got us here in the first place." More than an index of humility, it spoke of Obama's willingness to be open, informal, concede mistakes and think aloud with his people. It was also a sign of how political cultures everywhere in the world are re-adapting themselves to a generation that demands direct contact and constant communication.

When I watch the 'shellacking' the UPA government is getting on an almost daily basis both inside and outside Parliament, it's befuddling that the top leadership in both the party and the government still seems to think that 'communication' is some new-age, airy-fairy concept that has no actual impact on the political process.

If anything, more than the constant crises it's the UPA's often delayed public response to them that regularly turns opportunity into defeat. A political style that remains entrenched in formality, opaqueness and large periods of silence surely cannot be the remedy for the government's present afflictions.

No one is asking for the flamboyance of a glib showman. On the contrary, as Bihar's understated chief minister Nitish Kumar becomes everyone's favourite politician it's clear that we prefer quiet performers to motor-mouth dramatists. In fact, we are comforted and re-assured by simplicity of style, perhaps because we can relate it to our own our middle-class moorings.

At the same time, bombarded as we are by information - on television, in newspapers, on our laptops and now even on our mobile phones - the relative silence of the establishment has a volume all of its own. And it often makes a potentially bad situation that much worse.

Take the recent uproar over a WikiLeaks cable that chronicles the conversation between an American diplomat and a political fixer described as an 'aide' to Congress politician Satish Sharma.

The cable quotes a conversation that indicates that the Congress was readying to pay bribes in exchange for support during a trust-vote in 2008. In itself this cable, like so many others on the site, is a reported conversation between two people and not concrete evidence per se. It does raise some serious questions but its facts have also been challenged by the key players mentioned in it.

Ajit Singh, whose MPs are charged with having been offered the Rs 10 crore each, for instance, points out that they didn't even vote on the side of the government. The cable refers to exactly this chicanery, argues the Opposition. But because public memory is still jogged by the shocking images of thick bundles of cash waved about on the floor of the House in 2008, the cable has resurrected an old, unresolved controversy. Add to that, the sense of a government that is heaving under the weight of daily scams and this WikiLeaks story swiftly acquired a traction it may not have got at another time.

And yet, as Parliament erupted into a predictable storm, the UPA lost precious time in evolving a cogent, unified response. The veteran Pranab Mukherjee did make a couple of angry interventions but for the most part the near-silence of the UPA and its delayed responses ceded almost the entire rhetorical space to the Opposition's aggressive assault.

Now remember, this was a trust vote necessitated by the Left's withdrawal of support over the Indo-US nuclear deal. The prime minister, as every knows now, had been ready to surrender his government rather than give up on the deal, forcing his party managers into frantic negotiations. The eventual results saw cross-voting on both sides and compelled the BJP into expelling eight of its MPs for not following the party whip.

Not just because he was the head of the government, but also because the nuclear deal was seen to be the PM's obsession, the Opposition demanded a statement from him. On the first day, however, the PM said absolutely nothing at all. He eventually did challenge the allegations in Parliament the next day and rubbished them as "unverified and unverifiable" conversations, rubbing in the Left's electoral performance in the elections that followed.

But because he spoke a full 24 hours after the Opposition had ruled the airwaves, it seemed as if he was reacting to them, rather than making an aggressive intervention on his own terms. This in fact has been the pattern over the last year. The Congress may have a valid argument in pointing to the number of ministers it has eventually taken action against for corruption charges. It may even have every right to demand that the BJP explain its double standard in Karnataka.

But because its top leaders remain ensconced in silence, reacting only when pushed to the brink, its politics seem increasingly defensive and reactive. Even if the government believes that it doesn't need to cater to the self-importance of the English media and that its real constituency is the rural masses, surely democratic principles demand that we hear more from the UPA's top leadership inside Parliament? And not just when there is a scam or a scandal.

Silence may be the most perfect expression of scorn as George Bernard Shaw famously said. But even if that is a good tactic in political warfare, the people expect differently.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal