Friday, January 4, 2013

Shoot the messenger, trample its rectitude

(First appeared in The Pioneer dated October 17, 2012)


Union Minister for Law and Justice Salman Khurshid must have deliberated long and hard with his associates over the strategy to adopt during the Press conference that he addressed on Sunday. As he saw it, his personal honour was at stake. We do not know what was agreed upon in those deliberations, but the country saw on that drab holiday afternoon a person shockingly different from that of his public image of a suave, sophisticated and urbane politician. Mr Khurshid was offensive, abrasive, insulting and often not in control of himself. Perhaps he had not meant the Press event to go the way it did; perhaps he was provoked by the doggedly aggressive questioning by reporters of an influential media group; or perhaps it was just that he had decided that the best form of defence is acerbic offence.
The deviation from his established image could have been justified in hindsight had it at least resulted in tangible benefits for the Minister. Sadly, for him, the Sunday episode ended in denting a persona which he had carefully cultivated over the years, and left him further exposed to charges of various wrongdoing.
It is undisputed that Mr Khurshid faced the media on that day with the express intention to dominate and control the proceedings. This is why he began the Press conference by laying down ‘rules’ of the ‘game’ and identifying the ‘core issues’ that deserved his attention. There is nothing wrong in his having done that — which politician does not want the wind to blow his way? Yet, he should have known that he would have to face hostile questions, especially from reporters of the media group which has run a robust campaign against the alleged irregularities in the functioning of a non-Government organisation that he and his wife manage.
The Minister blundered right at the start when he said that he had not wanted to invite the representatives of the ‘errant’ media group for the Press conference but agreed to do so after other media persons advised him against blocking a section of the Press out. He gave away not just his bias against but also dislike for sections of the media that dare to challenge him. He became an even more marked man for reporters of the media house concerned, who were present in full strength at the Press conference, waiting for their chance to pounce.
And Mr Khurshid continued to blunder after that. When the first question was shot at him by a representative of that very media house which he has come to despise, he offered an unconvincing reply. When the reporter persisted, the Minister lost his cool and shouted down the reporter. When asked whether he should quit to ensure a fair probe, he said he would gladly do so if the owner of the media house too resigned!
This may sound rhetorical, but it could well become the tag line of the other Ministers in the UPA Government and Congress leaders who face charges of impropriety. For them, the charges become unimportant; what is crucial is to destroy the credibility of those impertinent individuals and institutions who dare to make the accusations. The Congress has been trying its utmost to do that to the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India since the 2G Spectrum scam broke out. But, the more it has persisted in the futile task, the more shine the CAG has acquired. Another example is the manner in which the Congress members have made a mockery of the Public Accounts Committee that recently went into the report on the 2G Spectrum scam. But the PAC headed by a BJP Member of Parliament remains unsullied while the credibility of the Congress is in tatters.
Clearly rattled by the volley of questions and counter-responses by the media on that Sunday, Mr Khurshid turned not just nasty but also abusive. Displaying his elitist upbringing and the class discrimination that he appears to have nursed in his mind for years — it could not have suddenly exploded out of nowhere — the Minister mocked the persistent reporter and offered to repeat his response in Hindi in case the original English version had been lost on the latter. This was at best a cheap retort that did no good to the Minister’s image. Nor did the fact that he appealed (to no one in particular) to “shut” the reporter up, after the media hound failed to get the message. The Minister’s performance was a perfect example of how to bludgeon your own image.
Mr Khurshid’s arrogance can  be seen from the manner in which he has gone about addressing people who have questioned him and his dealings. In a recent interview, apparently referring to the likes of anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal, he said he would not bow down to “hoodlums in the streets”. Even at the Sunday Press conference, he said that he would not answer questions that had been raised by “people on the streets”. But he has to face the fact: While Mr Kejriwal may not necessarily be seen by many as a paragon of virtue, he now commands more credibility in the public eye than Mr Khurshid does — or for that matter many UPA Ministers do in the wake of the various massive scams that have taken a toll on the Manmohan Singh Government’s image. Moreover, Mr Khurshid forgets that it is the people on the streets who determine the political fortunes of this country.
The Minister himself is what he is because of the people on the streets. The questions that are being asked of Mr Khurshid are not being directed by Mr Kejriwal and company alone — nor just by a particular media group — but by voters across the nation as well. Then, why should he not answer them? Perhaps that’s because the ‘mango people’ living in this ‘banana republic’ cannot demand answers from those who have degrees from institutions like Oxford and are engaged in the ‘service of the nation’. Mr Khurshid can argue that he did offer a credible response at his Press conference to the issues which have been raised regarding the functioning of his NGO, Dr Zakir Hussain Memorial Trust. But that is far from the case. The Minister simply could not provide convincing replies on at least two — and the most contentious — matters: One, the Trust used a forged affidavit to receive clearances and thus more funds from the Government; and two, it made use of a letter supposedly written by a ‘Government official’ much after he had retired.
In a tacit admission that the letters the trust benefitted from may have been forgeries, Mr Khurshid has claimed that the matter must be probed by the Government. In other words, he appears to be saying: ‘My NGO may have used forged letters to its benefit, but since we haven’t forged them, why blame us!’ Coming as it does from a Law Minister, this is amusing stuff.

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