DIGVIJAY’S CYNICAL WRONG TURN

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Whatever one’s views about Julian Assange and the damage done to international diplomacy through his mega-anarchist notion of a boundary-less world, the Wikileaks disclosures have done one thing: they have broken the myth about the clue-less American diplomat.
Cables like the one about American diplomats being asked to spy on credit card numbers of fellow colleagues at the UN may have revealed the seamy underside of American diplomacy but for the most part the picture that emerges from the leaked diplomatic traffic is one that bursts the stereotype of the ignorant, arrogant American blustering around with little idea of local sensitivities.
The US State Department has certainly been given a bloody nose but most seasoned international observers agree that the language in the cables – such as the one about the Chechen President gifting gold bars at a drunken wedding celebration in Dagestan – largely show intelligent professionals doing what they are supposed to be doing: reporting on what is happening around them, striking deals and pursuing their national interest.
In the same vein, former US Ambassador Mulford’s reported December 2008 cable about Digvijay Singh and the Congress party’s “crass political opportunism” in flirting with what he called the “outlandish views” about a possible right-wing Hindu conspiracy to kill Hemant Karkare during the 26/11 attacks, is absolutely spot on.

As George Bush’s appointee in New Delhi, Mulford was always distrusted by some in the political establishment, especially by those on the Left. Ironically, his cables on then Minority Affairs Minister A R Antulay and Digvijay Singh’s attempts to politicise what was a national tragedy have leaked in a week when Digvijay Singh has again cynically reopened that can of worms.

Home Minister Chidambaram had categorically denied the allegations in Parliament but as Mulford noted at the time, “the entire episode demonstrates that the Congress Party will readily stoop to the old caste/religious-based politics if it feels it is in its interest”. That is the crux of the matter.

The Ambassador’s assessment would arguably hold true for any other political party in the country as well, but in this context, you don’t have to be a supporter of Hindutva politics to see this for what it is.

Digvijay Singh insists that in his latest comments this week, he was not talking about Karkare’s killing, simply about a conversation he had with the police officer earlier on that fateful day.

Even if that were so, why raise it now? Even his most ardent supporters will see a cynical whiff of politics rising out of this regurgitation of an old controversy. Is the Congress trying to divert attention from the scams that have paralysed its government?

Ironically, Digvijay Singh’s latest intervention also comes in a week when the Congress has just announced a pool of 18 leaders, who alone are authorised to speak for it on TV debates. The party is trying to control its messaging in the wake of the damage done by the telecom scam but Digvijay Singh has long been above the usual rules.

His proximity to the Gandhi family and his role as a confidante to the party’s heir apparent has often given him a leeway that others don’t have. He has, at times, acted as a weighty conduit to float trial balloons that others couldn’t.

At the height of the Naxal debate, for instance, Mr Singh wrote a signed newspaper article criticising Home Minister Chidambram’s tough-minded approach, even calling him rigid and intellectually arrogant.

It allowed the Congress to at once appear accommodating and to those voters in the tribal regions it thought were getting alienated while at the same time continuing with the militaristic approach that seemed suitable in Delhi.

The problem with this kind of politics of being ruling party and opposition rolled into one is that the time for it has passed. It might have been smart politics when the Opposition was a mess. Not now when the Parliament is log-jammed and government is embattled amidst a host of corruption scandals.

If the Congress wants to regain the initiative, it should be focusing on concerted action to remove the cloud of suspicion that hangs over the Manmohan Singh government, not a diversionary tactic that is calculated to open a new front and divert attention.

Digvijay Singh is a consummate politician who chooses his words carefully. The Raja of Raghogargh knows exactly what he is doing with this cynical manoeuvre over Karkare’s death. Such guerrilla tactics may even have limited tactical value in cynical political terms.

Strategically, though, it shows that instead of learning some lessons in humility in the past few days especially after its Bihar debacle the Congress is not above toying again with older, discredited forms of politics to get out of a tough spot. The faster it gets back to the key issues confronting it, the better.