THEY all speak the same language — English — but strangely when the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues talk, they convey different things to different people at the same time.
That’s such an irony. After a long, long, time, we see ordinary citizens talking in one voice and saying “ Come on, it’s time we gave the Pakis a bloody nose”. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who told an election meeting in Srinagar just a month before the Mumbai attacks that “ while we cannot change borders, we can make them irrelevant” must no doubt be regretting his words, since the average Indian would volunteer to work for free if the CPWD were to undertake construction of a Great Wall of India, not to rival China’s, but to keep the thugs from Pakistan out. In his many pronouncements since those three fateful days, not once has Manmohan even mentioned Pakistan. The lack of clarity is contagious. External affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee warns one day that “ our patience is wearing thin” but the next morning says “ we expect good sense to prevail in Pakistan”. A. K. Antony, who all his life has battled crisis by offering to resign tells the armed forces one day to “ be ready for challenges” and follows it up two days later saying “ India is not contemplating warlike measures against Pakistan”. We have an Army chief who believes the real enemies strut around not across the border but in North and South Blocks. So he seems more keen to fight to the babus over salary structure and parity with the IAS. Ironically, in Pakistan, where a change of government is normally a consequence of coup, assassination or death by hanging, everyone from the President to the Prime Minister and army chief downwards are talking in one voice and saying that the Mumbai terrorists were not Pakistanis, that if India attacks, retaliation will be swift and debilitating. Mian Nawaz Sharif was briefly the lone voice of dissent, when he said that Kasab, the only surviving terrorist is indeed a Pakistani. But even he was quick to join the chorus and I can only presume that sometime before he changed his mind, he must have got a call from the ISI chief’s boss, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
Maybe we are paying the price for being a democracy and leaders are expected to talk and act in a responsible manner. Indeed, they must. But is too much to expect a few dozen ministers to at least say things that reflect the collective mind of the cabinet and the will of the people of India? One explanation for this state of affairs, a bit uncharitable perhaps, comes from a bureaucrat friend who thinks the government is hoping the current standoff will give gains similar to what Atal Bihari Vajpayee earned in 1999 after Kargil. But that is to overlook the fact that the former prime minister Singh: Mistimed anger? depended solely on the Indian armed forces to deliver. This government on the other hand is running to Washington, London, Riyadh and beyond to bail itself out. South Block’s latest strategy involves putting pressure on the US, Saudi Arabia and other countries to cajole Pakistan into handing back Maulana Masood Azhar. Yes, the same fellow who was traded in exchange for the safe return of passengers on IC 814.
They can then approach the next elections with the boast “ See we got him back”. If my bureaucrat friend’s instincts are right, only one conclusion can be drawn: the UPA wants a political solution that will help tide over until the next elections. The terror problem can wait. Priyanka Gandhi was absolutely right when she said the other day that her grandmother would have handled this “ differently”.