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A direction-less government, flailing out against anyone

September 20, 2012 10:35 IST

If you judge the result, you must admit the UPA has scored some spectacular own goals, feels T V R Shenoy.

If the International Olympic Committee ever recognises scoring self-goals as an Olympic sport the United Progressive Alliance would be a shoo-in for the gold medal. And a second one for shooting the messenger. And while Indians may never win a medal for passing the baton in a relay there is nobody to beat the UPA's fleetness when it comes to passing the buck.

Had you heard of Simon Denyer before the Prime Minister's Office made him headline news? Could you have have identified Aseem Trivedi before the UPA government in Maharashtra charged him with sedition? It was the UPA's over-reaction that made them famous.

Yes, Simon Denyer's article in the Washington Post described Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as 'a dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat presiding over a deeply corrupt government.' But how was that any different in content or tone from words used by Indian journalists over the past two years or so? Come to that, it wasn't as if the Washington Post was the first foreign journal to speak in those terms of poor Dr Manmohan Singh.

Time dubbed our prime minister 'The Underachiever'. Britain's Independent wondered whether he was 'Sonia's Poodle' on its web site. The Financial Times labelled Dr Manmohan Singh as the 'head of a do-nothing government'. And as far back as April The Economist -- reporting on a meeting with Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari -- called the Indian prime minister a 'lame duck'.

The reaction to all of these was fairly muted, so you have to wonder why the UPA exploded after the Washington Post article. The Prime Minister's Office condemned the report as 'unethical and unprofessional'; it then claimed that Simon Denyer had apologised when he had merely said that he was sorry the newspaper's Web site was down. And the Washington Post put both Pankaj Pachauri's response and Simon Denyer's rejoinder on its site for everyone to read. (Pankaj Pachauri is the communications adviser to the Prime Minister's Office.)

Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni, not to be left behind, said the government would seek an apology from the editor and the publisher of the Washington Post for its 'yellow journalism'. The information and broadcasting minister was in Cuba in Fidel Castro's heyday and she was president of the Youth Congress during the Emergency; if those were her formative experiences in politics it is no surprise that she responds so vehemently to criticism.

There was a similar over-reaction to Aseem Trivedi's cartoons. The Kanpur-based cartoonist supports the Anna Hazare movement, and made some mocking sketches about corruption in high places. They would have passed by unnoticed were it not for Amit Arvind Katarnaware, a law student from Mumbai, who thought that one specific cartoon -- a satirical representation of the Ashoka pillar -- insulted a national symbol. Mr Katarnaware filed a complaint.

The UPA could have and should have let the courts dispose of the matter at their leisure. Instead, a case of sedition was filed against Aseem Trivedi, and a police team went from Mumbai to Kanpur to arrest the cartoonist. The result was that Aseem Trivedi became a hero overnight, and his hitherto little-known cartoons suddenly became famous.

Why is the UPA seemingly bent on pumping the oxygen of publicity to its critics? If you judge the result of an action by the results you must admit that the UPA has scored some spectacular own goals.

The response to the Washington Post article only served to inform India that a large section of the foreign media now believe that the Manmohan Singh government has lost its way -- with consequences to follow when it comes to foreigners investing in India.

Charging Aseem Trivedi with sedition simply buttresses the claims made by Arvind Kejriwal and the like that the Congress-led government will go to any length to suppress criticism, even if means slapping a patently absurd charge of sedition for cartoons mocking corruption.

There were several ways in which Dr Manmohan Singh and his party could have responded to criticism in the media, whether Indian or foreign. They could have tried to politely rebut the charges, offering their own interpretation of the facts. They could have ignored the matter altogether, gambling that every news story has a definite shelf life. Instead, they chose the worst possible response.

As for Aseem Trivedi, I understand that Amit Arvind Katarnaware filed his complaint as far back as December 2011. Why in the name of human rationality did the administration wait for eight months before thrusting the cartoonist into the national limelight?

In any case, why shoot the messenger? But the over-reaction in both cases is part of an emerging pattern. Following a mass exodus of citizens from the North-East from Bengaluru, Pune, Hyderabad, and Chennai, the Manmohan Singh ministry responded with threats to block social networks -- and it did, in fact, block the Twitter accounts of some journalists who had written about events in Assam.

The UPA could not prevent violence in Assam. The UPA could not prevent mischief-makers from spreading rumours about 'retaliation' against people from the North-East. So, it went ahead and tried to stop journalists from commenting on it. Does that make sense?

It is this very senselessness that is most disturbing. You get the impression of a direction-less government flailing out against anyone and everyone without ever thinking about the consequences of its actions.

Businessmen and economists are mourning India's current account and budget deficits. We can, with great difficulty, overcome those; can we also overcome a 'common sense deficit'?

For more columns by Mr T V R Shenoy, please click here

T V R Shenoy