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Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

There?s a simple maxim the PM and the PMO should remember: when you make a mistake, admit to it, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Dec 17, 2006 00:29 IST
Sunday Sentiments | Karan Thapar
Sunday Sentiments | Karan Thapar

There’s a simple maxim the PM and the PMO should remember: when you make a mistake, admit to it. If you do, the brouhaha will blow over swiftly. If you don’t, someone somewhere will see it as his business to rub your nose in it. Alas, that’s what happened to Dr Manmohan Singh last week.

It all began with the PM’s opening address to the National Development Council. This is what he said: “I believe our collective priorities are clear: agriculture, irrigation and water resources, health, education, critical investment in rural infrastructure and the essential public investment needs of general infrastructure, along with programmes for the upliftment of SC/STs, Other Backward Classes, minorities and women and children. The component plans for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes will need to be revitalised. We will have to devise innovative plans to ensure that minorities, particularly the Muslim minority, are empowered to share equitably in the fruits of development. They must have the first claim on resources.”

The question is who did he have in mind when he said “they must have the first claim on resources”? Clearly it was someone from an earlier sentence. But which one? If you turn to the immediately preceding sentence, that would mean the “minorities, particularly the Muslim minority.” If you go to the one before that, it would be “Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes”. Go one further and the answer is “SC/STs, Other Backward Classes, minorities and women and children”.

So now the issue is how far back did the PM mean to go? If all the way, would he not have said something like ‘all of the above’ or ‘all of these’? Otherwise the pronoun “they” is misleading. Worse, if the Prime Minister’s intended meaning has to be extracted by syntactical exegesis this also becomes a poorly written speech.

Not surprisingly, almost every newspaper concluded that the PM was talking about minorities and, in particular, Muslims. So too did several of his ministers. This is what AR Antulay said: “I agree with him completely because (the) Sachar Committee with its report has held a mirror to India”. And thus spake Kapil Sibal: “If you think doing something for the people who are at the bottom of the ladder is appeasement, then yes I would like to do all I can.”

The next day, the PMO issued a statement calling this “a deliberate and mischievous misinterpretation”. But could it be either? If everyone came to the same conclusion was it deliberate or obvious? And are we all mischievous? Or was the PM’s mistaken pronoun the real problem?

In fact, far from resolving the matter, the PMO statement only succeeded in fuelling the controversy. A simple squall now turned into a veritable storm — between the Opposition and the government but also between the press and the PMO.

The problem is that the PMO explanation doesn’t bail the PM out. It claims when Dr Singh said “they must have the first claim on resources” he meant “SC/STs, Other Backward Classes, minorities and women and children”. In that case, the only category left out is upper caste men. OBC, SC and ST men are presumably covered by reference to their caste. Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Parsi and Buddhist males by the fact they’re minorities. Only Brahmins and Kshatriyas are excluded. But is that either fitting or fair?

According to the 61st round of the National Sample Survey Organisation (2004-05), 21.5 per cent of India is upper caste. If you remove women and children some 10 per cent are upper caste males. It thus follows the PM’s use of the word “they” covers 90 per cent of India. In which case, what’s the significance of saying this preponderant majority should have “first claim on resources”? That’s bound to be true of every country, regardless of its population mix or geographical location.

The real issue is why does the PM believe that 10 per cent should be treated as second-class citizens? I would dearly like to know. Of course, if he ever explains he will only dig himself deeper into this mess. For there’s no way his answer could be acceptable, leave aside legitimate.

Now do you see why it’s easier to admit one’s made a mistake? Of course, the alternative is the Humpty Dumpty approach. When Alice quarrelled with his use of language, this is what he said: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean”.

First Published: Dec 17, 2006 00:29 IST