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Boo boo brigade

A senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party could only heap scorn on Mumbai’s swish set who ridiculed politicians after the November 26 terror attacks. “If socialites are to start debating national issues, maybe it’s time for politicians to walk the ramp,” he told some journalists, strictly off the record.

His party colleague, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, wasn’t as smart. Asked to react to candlelight demonstrations against politicians, he chose to air his views in front of a battery of television cameras and mikes. “Some women wearing lipstick and powder have taken to the streets of Mumbai and are abusing politicians spreading dissatisfaction against democracy. This is what terrorists are doing in Jammu and Kashmir.”

The resultant furore saw Naqvi apologising and two senior party leaders being deployed to distance the party from his remarks.

In the past month, several others joined the speak first, think later set. Maharashtra’s former deputy chief minister and Nationalist Congress Party leader R.R. Patil blithely referred to the terror attacks as “small incidents.” Kerala chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan was at his boorish best when he declared that even a dog would not have visited slain National Security Guards commando Sandeep Unnikrishnan’s house if he hadn’t been martyred.

But the prize for setting the dovecotes aflutter undoubtedly goes to minority affairs minister A.R. Antulay, with his allegations earlier this week about the killing of Mumbai Anti-Terror Squad chief Hemant Karkare.

It’s an illustrious club, featuring Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, Sushma Swaraj, Jaswant Singh, George Fernandes, Jairam Ramesh, Arjun Singh and Sheila Dikshit, among others. All of them have, at some point (and sometimes repeatedly), shot their mouths off, to the discomfiture of the party or the government.

Occasionally these lead to diplomatic contretemps. Ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit to Brazil in 2006 for an India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) summit meeting, Jairam Ramesh, then minister of state for commerce, called the trilateral development initiative “a little fictitious” in an interview to a Brazilian newspaper. A year later, Rahul Gandhi told an election rally in Uttar Pradesh that his family always achieved what it set out to do, “whether it was the country’s freedom, the division of Pakistan or taking the country into the twenty-first century.”

Not everybody is convinced that these are all unthinking boo boos. “Politicians rarely make gaffes,” says sociologist Dipankar Gupta. “Their comments may seem unwarranted and silly to others, but they are looking at the whole thing from the point of view of self interest.”

Often, he feels, it is an attempt to seize the limelight when one is feeling ignored. Ramesh, for example, was being kept in the background by his boss, commerce minister Kamal Nath. Antulay, once a powerful Congress leader, was out of the loop on many issues. Gupta believes Antulay was following a script, drawing attention to the fact that there may be many warming up to his brand of politics.

Human resource development minister Arjun Singh certainly appears to have mastered the art of making seemingly offhand squirm-inducing comments from time to time. As a member of P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government, he lamented the slow progress of investigation into Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination at a time when Rao was ignoring him and had decidedly cold vibes with Sonia Gandhi. Even now, his occasional reminders of Rahul Gandhi’s prime ministerial potential are attempts, feels Gupta, to neutralise any attempts to sideline him; doing so to a loyalist would be seen as extremely unfair.

Sometimes, though, the timing could go wrong. In May, Arjun Singh lamented the lack of democracy in the Congress party’s decision-making structure. Two days later, Sonia Gandhi pointedly ignored him when they shared the dais at a public function.

Not all bloopers are Machiavellian. They could be the result of political naivety, as different members of the Gandhi family have demonstrated. Rajiv Gandhi’s widow and son seem to have inherited the late former prime minister’s penchant for faux pas — the “naani yaad dila denge” admonishment to foreign powers and the “when a big tree falls the earth will shake” explanation for the 1984 riots being the most memorable ones. During a debate in Parliament, angered by a reference to the Emergency by then deputy prime minister L.K. Advani, Sonia Gandhi claimed some jailed leaders had written to Indira Gandhi asking to be released and that she had these letters at home. Weeks before his remarks on Pakistan, Rahul claimed the Babri Masjid would not have been demolished if the Gandhi family had been in power, criticising the deceased Rao, a Congress prime minister.

Gupta feels the Gandhi family lacks impartial advice. Coming from a background that is unchallenged, Rahul believes that if he feels strongly about something, he should just say it. “Another person in his place would say, ‘I feel strongly about this, but should I say it?’”

The I-believe-therefore-I-will-speak mantra seems to be followed by veteran George Fernandes as well. While defence minister in the NDA government, Fernandes, who makes no secret of his sympathy for Tibet, called China India’s enemy number one even as the government was trying to establish a new equation with that country.

Talking out of turn is not a recent phenomenon, but it seems to have been aggravated by the explosion of a highly competitive and invasive media. Microphones capture casual comments, making them difficult to deny, as Naqvi and Achuthanandan will admit. Delhi’s chief minister Sheila Dikshit certainly seems unaware that it doesn’t pay to think out aloud in front of television cameras. Her “women shouldn’t be adventurous” remark on television journalist Soumya Vishwanathan’s murder topped an earlier comment about accidents by the infamous Blueline buses (“I would rather walk than take a Blueline bus”).

The malady seems especially acute in the Congress and the BJP, where leaders at different levels have been allowed to articulate the party’s views on their own, despite both parties having media cells with designated spokespersons. The regimented character of the Left parties and the personality-driven structure of regional parties don’t allow for loose cannons. The problem got exacerbated in the BJP after the party tasted power at the Centre and the political stakes of individual leaders grew. The thumb rule in the Congress — don’t attack the top leaders — exists in the BJP too, but is not enforced rigorously, with former minister Murli Manohar Joshi raising questions about the party leadership issue at regular intervals and former UP chief minister Kalyan Singh and ex-ideologue K.N. Govindacharya taking potshots at Atal Behari Vajpayee when he was prime minister.

But politicians are seemingly forgiven for their gaffes — intentional or otherwise. Ramesh didn’t remain in the doghouse for long, despite a scathing attack on Sonia Gandhi’s leadership in an interview to Asiaweek in 2000. He managed to first make it to the erstwhile National Advisory Council and then the Rajya Sabha and a ministerial post. Nor did his comments on the IBSA come in the way of his being given additional charge of the power ministry. By then, he had also gratuitously suggested that tourism and culture minister Ambika Soni should have resigned following the controversy over a government affidavit on Ram Setu.

Often it becomes difficult to act against a leader, as the Congress is finding in the case of Antulay. Though the party is furious at his having given Pakistan a handle to dilute its own role in the Mumbai attacks, the flood of messages of support from Muslims has complicated matters, party sources say. When the BJP’s Sushma Swaraj linked the Bangalore and Ahmedabad blasts with the UPA winning the trust vote in Parliament, the party could do little more than distance itself from her remarks.

A senior BJP leader feels that large parties cannot manage with designated spokespersons alone and must be free to articulate the party’s position, as their voices carry greater weight. Controversies, says Naqvi, get created because leaders are misquoted.

A strong message from the top helps. Gandhi made it clear that no internal party dissensions on the Indo-US nuclear deal should be aired. That was largely followed. A clear demarcation of power and hierarchy enforces greater discipline among second rung leaders, admits a senior BJP leader.

Till that happens across parties, loose cannons will continue booming.

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