Ask Him No Questions
Salman Khurshid’s press conference said more about our media than it did about our politicians.
If you wish to be a success in the world, promise everything, deliver nothing. – Napoleon Bonaparte.
Politicians world over have taken this Napoleonic dictum to heart. Perhaps Indian politicians more than most in a democratic context. How many times have we heard Manmohan Singh claim that there would be zero tolerance for corruption in his government? During the Lokpal debate, speaker after speaker swore allegiance to the “no-corruption” principle. The most effective among them occupies the highest position in the country now.
But has that brought about any change in the everyday political ambience in the country? I leave it to the readers to judge.
It would be more than apposite to recall Shankar Dayal Sharma, not regarded popularly among the most distinguished holders of the office of the President. His finest hour came when Sheila Kaul, one of the governors and a close relative of the Gandhi-Nehru family was accused of having indulged in corruption – nowhere near the magnitude of what we witness everyday in the contemporary context. For political reasons, the then-Prime Minister, PV Narasimha Rao, was reluctant to take any action. Sharma put his foot down and insisted that Kaul be dismissed as “Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion”. And that is what happened.
Is there a lesson in this for the politicians of today? Obviously not, if the “press-conference” held by the Law Minister Salman Khurshid is an indicator. Was it actually a “press-conference” at all? Half-way through, an observer could be forgiven for mistaking it for a pugilist slug-fest.
The esteemed Law Minister of this country has been accused by an established media house of among other things:
– Falsely claimed to have run distribution camps for the physically challenged on behalf of the Dr Zakir Hussain Trust which he heads and of which his wife, the former journalist Louise Fernandes, is the Project Director.
– Not submitted the utilisation certificates as required as the Trust was using government funds allocated to it.
– Presented a list of beneficiaries who were after investigation found to be fictitious.
– In support of application for funds from the government presented a sworn deposition from a government official which the supposed official refused to recognise as his (This official is now, I believe, officiating as the Registrar of Lucknow University).
– Again, in support of the same application presented an official letter by a senior bureaucrat supposedly dated 2 months after the said official had retired.
Quite a list indeed.
He commenced the “press-conference” by stating that he would not answer any questions posed by Arvind Kejriwal whom he described in offensively supercilious terms. Then he went on to state that he would confine himself to establishing that the camps were held and that he would not field any interrogatory on other matters. Those were the confines of the conference.
The renowned US attorney, Alan Dershowitz, describes the American expression “chutzpah” as the state when you murder your parents and plead clemency on grounds of being an orphan. Khurshid displayed classic chutzpah – a person accused of serious criminal misdemeanour attempting to decide which of the accusations he would answer with a degree of feigned ignorance and hurt. And the astounding fact was that none of the journalists actually objected to this. I am sure no politician in the United States or United Kingdom would have even dared to lay down such egregiously rotten terms.
As the “press-conference” progressed it became abundantly clear that Khurshid’s main purpose was not to clear the air, but to avoid uncomfortable questions by brazening it out and attempting to deflect the blame on to Aroon Purie, the head of the India Today group for “lack of journalistic ethics”. He stated that he would face any enquiry, but would like Aroon Purie to face an enquiry as well – a monstrously inept proposition if there was any.
In case Salman Khurshid has forgotten, Aroon Purie is not a public servant. He does not rely on public funds. If indeed, as alleged by him, that Purie has deviated from the journalistic code of ethics, there is always the Press Council he could have relied upon.
As if this Alice in Wonderland scenario was not enough, Khurshid dramatically declared that he would resign from the Cabinet if Purie resigned as the editor of India Today! Was he seriously suggesting that Purie, a journalist, had the same public culpability as the Law Minister of the nation? The suggestion was so surreal that I expected the media-persons to react. They did not.
Then he went on to produce a few pictures in which the alleged official who had denied the signature on the deposition, was present at a distribution camp. This again was a crude attempt to mislead the journalists and the viewers. The official had never denied his presence at the supposed camps of which the pictures were produced – he had simply said that the deposition was a crude forgery. And as it was under oath, it constituted “perjury”, which the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines as:
– the voluntary violation of an oath or vow either by swearing to what is untrue or by omission to do what has been promised under oath.
And this is a designated felony under most statutes carrying lengthy prison sentences. In other words, the Law Minister of a country was being accused of having committed a felony. And he did not wish this to be within the purview of this “press-conference”. His defense was again unconvincing and weak. He stated that the Trust had already asked for an enquiry into this matter as well as into the spurious letter supposedly written by an official post-retirement – and that he would not field any questions on these issues. It was only later I learned that Khurshid was playing games here as well – he had already been alerted by the India Today Group that they were aware of the forged deposition and the spurious letter a month prior to the supposed request by the minister’s spouse to the UP government to conduct an enquiry. In other words, the request to the UP government was just a clever or not so clever ploy.
Which raised more questions than it answered. Now that it has been established that the submitted deposition was spurious, would it not be appropriate for the Minister to demit office without delay to enable free and fair investigation? Shankar Dayal Sharma had demanded this from Sheila Kaul in the incident I had cited earlier. People may need to be reminded that the Law Minister has a say in the running of the CBI, the premier investigating agency of the country.
Then came the most disastrous performance of all. Khurshid when reminded that the perjury issue was central to the case against him suddenly became unacceptably obnoxious and bossy. He ordered the reporter to be evicted and threatened that he would never be allowed to attend another press conference.
I began to wonder if we were indeed living in a “banana republic” where politicians could dictate terms in this manner and get away with it. Not a single journalist protested against this, which I must admit distressed me. In any other democratic setup the journalists would have staged a walk-out and boycotted this arrogant politician until he apologised.
In the early Eighties, I recall the Defense Secretary of the UK, John Nott appeared on a one-on-one interview by Sir Robin Day – a very tough interviewer. He got annoyed at the very first question, switched off the microphone and walked out. That was the beginning of the end of Nott’s career, despite the fact that he apologised to Sir Robin the very next day. Do we have the intellectual and professional standing among the journalists to enforce this? I would like to believe that we do.
Khurshid is well within his rights to threaten libel, as he did several times. But the fact remains that he has been permanently tainted in the eyes of a discerning observer despite slogans of the cheerleaders he brought to this meet – and who exercised their vocal cords once we walked out after nearly 100 minutes.
To sum up, Khurshid lived up to the well-earned reputation of politicians in India. But did the journalists come out any better? The whole “press conference” was a dismal commentary on the state of journalism in India. I would like the journalist community at least to awaken themselves from a state of comfortable slumber and servitude to the politicians in India. That is a sine qua non for a democracy to remain healthy. And I would sincerely wish to believe that we have the capacity to do so.
As for the likes of my fellow Oxonian Khurshid, I am reminded of Henry Siedel Canby –
Arrogance, pedantry, and dogmatism; the occupational diseases of those
who spend their lives directing the intellects of the innocent!
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