One of the more interesting political novels of the 20th century is C.P. Snow's Corridors of Power. Its message is that most analysts think of statecraft as being governed either by a conspiracy of powerful interests, or by an over-determined structural logic based on necessity. On the contrary, politics is governed by the uncertain interactions of intellectually and morally flawed human beings, who are half the time just trying to figure out everyone else's intentions, including their own.
New Delhi is often rife with gossip, most of which is very difficult to make head or tail of. The United Progressive Alliance's first anniversary is, as always in Delhi, an occasion for speculation as much as reflection. But just listening to various people who claim to have access to the high and mighty is enough to send one into an intellectual vertigo. The occasion was a discussion of the report card, which the prime minister's office had ostensibly prepared on the various ministries, that sections of the press carried. The publication of this report was the occasion of much consternation. My interlocutors, whom, if I were a journalist, I would describe as 'highly placed sources' from different sections of the government had this to say about the report card.
One claimed that it was prepared by the PMO to hit back at recalcitrant ministers like Arjun Singh and Shivraj Patil. Another claimed that although the report was prepared by the PMO, it was leaked to the press by 10 Janpath, as a way of preparing the ground for a cabinet reshuffle and for easing out certain ministers. Yet another claimed that this was a routine and innocuous exercise, which the press, being the press, made much of. All versions seemed plausible. I asked these highly placed sources what they thought of the 'facts' being dished out by other equally highly placed sources. And the reply was nonchalant: 'You would expect them to say this, won't you' I have the real story.'
Of course, these stories were as much about these highly placed sources trying to make the point that they were supposedly within the loop, as they were about getting the truth out. I also had a spate of discussions on Nepal with a range of sources and again the same thing. Some suggested that the MEA had deliberately set out to embarrass the PM; others, equally well placed, suggested that the PM really had goofed up in his meeting with Gyanendra in Jakarta and all the talk about a recalcitrant MEA is beside the point. For almost every fact let out by a credible source, there was a rival fact let out by another equally credible source. And mind you, this was a conflict of facts, not interpretation. They purported to be reliable tellings of what so and so said to so and so. To straight-laced and na've academics all this was rather confusing. Won't it be easier to figure out the structural logic of the situation that would give a template to understand what was really going on' But then you quickly realize that in politics much of what we think of as reality is really hearsay, a world constructed out of 'he said' or 'she said.' I finally understood what the French philosopher, Jaques Derrida, meant by the phrase, 'the indeterminacy of the sign'. There was too much surplus meaning in each act or statement or even an innocuous meeting. One could conclude anything about 'intentions' from them.
Why does all this matter' First, and most simply, enormous amounts of energy are expended on this sort of stuff. People ranging from low-level political operatives to high-minded intelligence officers spend their time leaking facts that people can attach stories to; and then they spend even more time sorting them out. The press is largely dependent on benevolent, highly placed sources for the spin it gives to various events. And its opinions therefore bob up and down with every highly placed source. What of the final consumers of all this factmongering, the politicians who take decisions, carve their egos, determine their interests, form judgments of trust based on this talk' One assumes that they would have seen so much of it that they would have the capacity of separating the wheat from the chaff.
But this is where Snow's insight comes in. The central feature of political life is uncertainty; uncertainty breeds insecurity and the 'he said it' kind of information is used as a palliative for that insecurity. It gives the false comfort that one knows what possible rivals are thinking. But in a situation where every action or statement is poured over for its hidden meaning, it would take a rare self-possession not to be swayed by the talk of the town. But the talk of the town becomes its own object, acquires a life of its own and the substance quickly melts into air.
The real danger is that actions have to be taken, not based on substance, but out of a desire to defuse speculation and talk. The government recently took the rather petty minded decision to order an inquiry against Arun Shourie. This decision was wrong on many counts. Reports by the comptroller and auditor general do not all have to be accepted in toto. A distinction has to be drawn between procedural lapses (and it must be a fortunate decision-maker who does not run foul of this charge), and serious financial irregularities.
Whatever Shourie's ideological shortcomings, he is not a conniving manipulating politician who is likely to have profited from office. Yet, by targeting him and not real politicians about whom there is even more speculation, the government has confirmed a theory lots of people have: that the honest who take decisions are more likely to be vulnerable and made the target than the really malicious characters. The government is also setting itself up for a vicious politics of revenge that has debilitated the government for so long. The idea that every significant decision should now get clearance from the Central Vigilance Commission before it is implemented is a travesty of all the talk of administrative reform now underway.
Why did the PM agree to it' As always, I got three theories from different highly placed sources. The first, there was great pressure from the left. The second, the PM wanted to show rivals within the party that he could act tough. The third, the PM was personally upset by the opposition's attack on him in parliament, and even more hurt that apparently Arun Shourie had let it be known publicly that he thought that the PM would protect him. All the three theories are not incompatible and they can reinforce one another. But the differences between them do matter for those who wonder what this inquiry regime is about: ideological vendetta, personal hurt or internecine party conflict, or really an attempt to uncover serious wrong-doing. Yet what was striking was that no one seemed to care particularly whether this inquiry was justified. It appeared to be, in the end, about keeping up appearances, responding to what others were saying. Unlike my highly placed sources I have no way of knowing or would even claim to know what the 'real' story is.
The next time you see a story that speculates about the formation of the Third Front, the tension between Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, the rivalry between the MEA and the PMO, claims about so and so undermining such and such, just pause. Who really knows' The paradox of politics is that so much of it depends upon determining that most undecipherable of entities: other people's intentions. But the danger ' as Rousseau so well diagnosed ' is that in trying to figure out other people's intentions, one loses one's grip over one's own authentic purposes.