Speaking in tongues

Am I the only one who is getting a touch tired bored with Jaswant Singh’s recent epiphany?

Advani was present when the decision to free Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and Maulana Masood Azhar was taken. Advani master-minded the July 22, 2008 episode where during the crucial vote of confidence in Parliament, a bunch of BJP MPs flashed wads of cash around and accused the Congress of bribery and worse. Advani ordered the BSF into Bangladesh while India was fighting the Kargil war. And so on, in an endless stream of ‘revelations’ that are keeping the more apoplectic of our TV anchors happily occupied.

Advani was being an idiot not thinking clearly when, in My Country, My Life, he succumbed to the Parivar’s penchant for rewriting history and attempted to whitewash his own role in the December 24, 1999 hijacking of IA Flight 814 and the subsequent release of Zargar, Sheikh and Azhar.

He could so easily have explained the decision in this fashion: The Cabinet committee considered the situation and, keeping in mind the potential loss of 160-plus Indian lives, collectively decided to free the three terrorists.

End of story. Sure, the Congress would during the election cycle continue to hammer away at the BJP and at Advani for that incident — but much of it was due to the fact that the BJP unwisely [‘unwisely’ given that its tenure in office saw several major terrorist attacks, none of which were handled with remarkable elan] decided to make the 2009 election about ‘soft on terror versus hard on terror’; in other words, to make political capital out of 26/11.

In a misguided attempt to try and dissociate himself from that collective decision by saying that he was neither in the know of, nor party to, the decision to free the hostages, Advani went way out on a limb. This is the man who was number two in the Vajpayee cabinet; the man who held the Home portfolio. The Kandahar hijack was among other things a clear security threat to India and its interests — so how tenable was it that the man in charge of internal security was completely out of the loop while lesser ministers were intimately involved in the decision-making?

In trying to burnish his tough-on-terror image, all Advani really managed to do was to project the image that he was a bit of a dummy in the Cabinet, excluded from the really tough decision making. Like I said, in choosing  to distance himself from Kandahar, LKA was being an idiot not thinking clearly.

What I don’t get though is, why is Jaswant suddenly the hero? Why is he not getting his fair share of hard questions [Oh I know — if you ask him hard questions, he will get miffed and won’t talk to you and then your stream of ‘revelations’ will die up, and what’s a 24 hour news channel to do when that happens]?

“I tried to cover it. I treated it as part of my continuing sense of commitment and loyalty,” was Jaswant Singh’s comment that also suggested that his sentiments had not been reciprocated by Advani. Jaswant Singh said he did not regret doing so as that was the step he had taken during the election campaign. “How should I put it? I was very conservative with the truth,” he said.

Thus spake Jaswant. ‘Conservative with the truth’?! Only he could have come up with a phrase that — here we get into Humpty Dumpty territory again — means the exact opposite of what he intends to imply. And only we would allow him to get away with it.

In his book Engaging India, his good friend Strobe Talbott has some insight into Jaswant’s modus operandi. A clip, from page 103:

He was a master of public statements that made up in panache what they lacked in content and sometimes even in discernible meaning. Two of my favorites were “The totally moral has become the realistically moral” and “if strategic deterrence is not on the negotiating table, how can you have a missile-development program on the table?”

The journalists duly scribbled down these oracular utterances, never asking for clarification or amplification, and then reported them to their readers as though they provided insight into what was going on in the talks.

Indeed. In recent times, Donald Rumsfeld has been enshrined as the modern master of the use of words to obscure meaning and, in some cases, to substitute for meaning. Remember Rumsfeld’s justly famous riff on the knowns and unknowns?

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Or his equally famous number on evidence?

“There’s another way to phrase that and that is that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. It is basically saying the same thing in a different way. Simply because you do not have evidence that something does exist does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist.”

I would submit — and Talbott clearly believes as I do — that Jaswant belongs in that league. From the archives, here’s one of my all time favorites [When I first read this line some eight years ago, I filed it away with the care you would give to a particularly interesting and exotic puzzle, because I saw considerable medicinal value in Jaswant’s statement. They say mind games help ward off Parkinson’s; on prevention-better-than-cure lines, I’d recommend that once a week you read the clip below, and try to figure out what the man is saying. It won’t become clearer, but hey, maybe it will help with the Parkinson’s thing. Also, keep in mind that this is not extempore — the clip is from a carefully prepared text written by the master himself]:

We wished to talk. But in the process of talking, and it is the impression of anybody that India agreed to talk because it was out of any weakness, India agreed to talk, it was out of any fatigue, we agreed to talk, as has been suggested by somebody, because of the call- to my mind, it is completely an unsustainable call – that the Jihadis have now pressurized on India that we are ready to have a talk.

So much for his obfuscatory utterances. Jaswant’s revelations in recent times can in precis form be rendered as below:

1. He knew Advani was bluffing when as part of his ‘tough on terror’ image-building exercise he said he was completely in the dark on Kandahar. Worse — when then NSA Brajesh Mishra first called Advani’s bluff, Jaswant didn’t just chose to stay silent — he actively defended Advani by being ‘conservative with the truth’.

2. Jaswant, as then Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, stayed silent when proceedings in Parliament were cynically stage-managed by his party leader who, for political reasons, chose to create a tamasha out of a crucial debate.

3. Jaswant, as a man who has held high constitutional office as Defense and Foreign minister chose to ignore, even hide, what he believes is a crucial lapse in national security at the time of the Kargil war.

Today he says:

“I tried to cover it. I treated it as part of my continuing sense of commitment and loyalty”

Commitment and loyalty to whom/to what? All of this happened when Jaswant was a minister; when he had sworn a solemn oath to put the country and its interests first. Now he says he was motivated by a far narrower, more self-serving notion of commitment and loyalty.

So, again, I wonder: Why does Jaswant today get a free pass? Why is he the hero in the passion play currently unfolding? Why is he not being grilled on his own sins of omission and commission?

This is a demonstration of sycophancy. Misuse of the party. It’s sickening.

That’s Jaswant on Advani’s use of the party machinery to promote his book. And his own actions, in being ‘conservative with the truth’ as long as he had a stake in Advani’s, and the party’s, prospects were… what?

7 thoughts on “Speaking in tongues

  1. As much as I despise Rumsfeld and everything he stands for, I’m afraid I have to take exception with what you said about his “famous” quotes. He actually gets more flak on these than he deserves (and not enough for other things, but that’s another issue). (And I apologize if this is a bit lengthy)

    1) When I heard the first quote, I had the same reaction that everyone else did. But it turns out that he verbalized a pretty common sentiment that every project manager already knows. Every project manager knows what he knows (the known known) (he has anticipated certain events in the project timeline that will happen. e.g. an editor knows that articles need to be submitted to the printer by a certain time to make it in the early morning edition of a newspaper). A project manager also knows what he doesn’t know (the known unknown). These are the uncertainties that the manager can’t directly control, but which he knows about, and can anticipate and plan for (e.g. a reporter is working on a hot story, and might not submit it in time. The editor knows this might happen and can mitigate the risk by giving additional resources or extending the deadline). But the project manager’s worst nightmare is an event that will pop up as a risk down the line, but which he has no idea about during his planning (e.g. the reporter working on the hot story gets hit by a bus). This is the unknown unknown. There’s no way the editor could have planned for it, because he had no idea it was ever going to happen. All he can do is react to it after the fact.

    2) The second one seems even less controversial to me, though it is also poorly worded. He basically says that you can’t prove a negative. Here’s an example. There is currently no evidence that unicorns exist. None have ever been found, and there are currently no fossil records of them. But that does NOT conclusively prove that they do not exist. All it means is that we have found no evidence to prove their existence, so we assume (until proven wrong) that they do not exist. Rummy’s saying the same thing above. Just because there’s no evidence proving something happened doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

    Overall, as far as these two quotes go, his only offense was that he used exceptionally poor phrasing to express sentiments that actually do make sense. Unfortunately, people got too wrapped up in the semantics to listen to what he was actually saying. I hate Rumsfeld as much as the next liberal, but if we’re going to crucify him, let’s do it for the right reasons. 🙂

    • Chirag, that is *precisely* the point with both Rummy and Jaswant. Somewhere deep inside, the sentiments make sense, at least from their pov, but that is a bit like saying Sir Humphrey’s circumlocution makes sense. Yes it does, but my objection here is with the use of words as smokescreen to camouflage thought. 🙂

      • Somehow, in Rummy’s case, I don’t think he was being deliberately obfuscatory (unlike Jaswant). He was (perhaps subconsciously) dismissing annoying complaints by trying to make an overly intelligent statement.

        • I felt almost exactly the same as commenter above.
          It was intuitively very clear to me what Rumsfeld was saying, in both quotes above. Hope this doesnt mean I am a neocon 🙂

          Ramming planes into buildings was until it happened, an unknown unknown. Hiding bombs in shoes was possibly an unknown unknown until attempted (this is weaker, could be anticipated but comes close). Mixing safe-in-isolation liquids together on a flight to produce an explosive cocktail, another unknown unknown.

          If anybody in charge of securing a nation against determined terrorist attack doesnt talk about unknown unknowns, esp after a couple such examples, to my mind, *that* would be nutty.

          I remember at least one of the send-up parties, for the “unknown unknowns” and the folks doing that, politically and ideologically opposed to Rumsfeld, only managed to score a self-goal IMO.


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  3. Jaswant is not on the coals because of the TRPs he is providing. If given time and in case of Jaswant becomes a prominent player in Indian politics, he will definitely put on coals. Right now, his career as a serious politician seems finished and he is at best a nuisance/embarrassment for Advani.

    I completely agree that Jaswant did what he did because it served its interest. He is a hero for some fraction of Anti-advani camp in BJP. For general populace, he is more of an interesting character who broke ranks due to XYZ reasons (XYZ could be anything from being ignored for LoP position to promoting his book).

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