Two Of A Kind

Columnist Shekhar Hattangadi finds an uncanny commonality in the recent outbursts of an Australian ex-cricketer and an Indian politician.

To speak in haste, and then repent at leisure is a trait that has characterized mankind ever since Adam propositioned Eve. Oops! Better make that “humankind,” to be politically correct, and lest I go the way of Messrs Dean Jones and Natwar Singh.

Former Australian cricketer, now commentator, Dean Jones, dresses up as a teacher while doing a piece to the camera commenting on the Asia Cup cricket match between India and Sri Lanka at the rangri Stadium in Dambulla in 2004

What in the world do these two gentlemen have in common? Until last month, almost nothing other than the biological fact of gender. The first is a middle-aged cricketer-turned-television commentator from Australia, the other a senior citizen in the world of Indian politics and diplomacy. The two, I reckon, have never met. But on Aug. 8, their astrological stars found a common nemesis when both uttered words on live television, which, despite subsequent apologies, effectively pulled the plug on their respective careers.

Jones, during a live telecast of the second cricket test between South Africa and Sri Lanka in Colombo, saw bushy-bearded South African Hashim Amla take a catch to dismiss Sri Lankan batsman Kumara Sangakkara, and remarked: “The terrorist has got another wicket.” Six words that reverberated ominously through the corridors of world cricket. Deano, as Jones is affably called by colleagues and fans, had – perhaps unwittingly – hit racial amity for a huge symbolic six!

Embroiled in the Iraqi oil-for-food scam after a fact-finding report from Justice R.S. Pathak, Natwar Singh sought support from his Congress party colleagues and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. None was forthcoming. Much like a drowning man flapping his arms in manic desperation, Natwar went first for the prime minister, calling him “weak and indecisive” and threatening to highlight Manmohan’s name in the Guinness Book for being the first and only one of 11 Indian prime ministers who had to be nominated for the job as he “hasn’t even won a municipality election.” Pointing out haughtily that Manmohan came into public life “knowing nothing of foreign policy,” he insinuated that the prime minister had learnt international politics chela-like from Ustad Natwar. He then trained his guns on the federal cabinet. Without naming names, he said it contained “rapists and murderers.” 

Finally, it was Justice Pathak’s turn. “This man hung around me when I was in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet, wanting an appointment at the World Court,” said Natwar, his legendary scowl intact, adding, “head bowed and hands folded in abject gratitude. And this is how he would greet me after he got the appointment.”

Former Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh addresses media representatives outside Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s residence in New Delhi Dec.7, 2005 after resigning following charges that family and friends skimmed the UN oil-for-food scheme in Iraq

In the span of four searing television minutes, Natwar Singh had savagely attacked the two main constitutional pillars of India – its Executive (the prime minister and his cabinet) and its Judiciary (a retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) with words and gestures of utter ridicule, disdain and contempt.

A deeper look at the two outbursts reveals some interesting subtexts.

Those familiar with the 75-year-old veteran’s public life and career would remember Natwar Singh as a part of India’s political elite. Natwar Singh himself, I believe, would be quite offended if he were not described as an upper-crust member of the country’s ruling fraternity. His lifestyle, his haughty nose-in-the-air demeanour and his self-congratulatory biodata on the government’s website would convince the reader that when an ass gets a public lashing it evokes pity, but when it happens to a pompous ass the reactions are far less sympathetic.

What do you think Natwar calls himself? His New Delhi residence name-plate proclaims “Kunwar Natwar Singh” – a title smelling unmistakably of a feudal aristocracy that went out of vogue when princely titles were abolished. His “royal” connections include the fact that he married into the Patiala Maharaja’s family.

His biodata on the Ministry of External Affairs website flaunts his academic and literary pedigree. He has authored nine books and several dozen articles in reputed journals. By that yardstick, he deserves to be called “a man of letters” – and never mind that the phrase now has more to do with the three “letters of introduction” Natwar Singh wrote on behalf of his son Jagat’s cousin and assorted friends to Iraqi officials, on the basis of which the Iraqis sold them crude oil at a depleted price compared to the then international rates. This oil was then resold through an intermediary Swiss firm called Masefield AG, and the Natwar-backed boy brigade made a tidy killing.

What makes this crummy tale of kickbacks intriguing is that it occurred in 2001 when the Congress Party was not in power at the Center! Apparently, Natwar through his long-standing affiliation with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty (Indira Gandhi awarded him a Padma Bhushan in 1984) had enough residual goodwill with Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party to swing deals even from the sidelines.

Another website entry lists “Good conversation followed by prolonged periods of reflective silence” as one of Natwar’s special interests. His television outburst effectively wiped out whatever “good conversation” Natwar might have participated in during his lifetime. Though one must concede that he now has ample time for “prolonged periods of reflective silence” as he rides into the political sunset.

When the dust finally settles on the Natwar Singh episode, it will have left behind at least one political corpse and two conclusions. These have wider implications for the entire Indian polity and for the new dynamic of national governance through the medium of live television.
CONCLUSION ONE: The episode sounds the death-knell of a certain kind of old-world style of Indian politics.  It was a world of noblesse oblige where benevolent favors were tossed out by persons of high birth or rank, and the groveling beneficiaries were expected to remain perennially indebted. It was also a world of lifelong feudal protection for the loyal and faithful among the underlings.

South Africa batsman Hashim Amla celebrates his first test century against New Zealand at Newlands stadium in Cape Town, South Africa in April 2006

We know Justice Pathak as a legal luminary in his own right, but don’t we also know that top posts in international organizations are lobbied for through government functionaries? And so “Thakur” (so much more macho than the effete-sounding “Kunwar”) Natwar Singh probably thought nothing of demanding back his pound of flesh in the form of a clean chit from Pathak when the latter sat in judgment over Singh’s political future. The judge however was extremely judicious. He gave a clean chit to the Congress Party and blamed Natwar Singh for misusing his party position. But in what has served as an escape clause for Natwar, Pathak admitted he did not have enough evidence to indict Natwar or his son for financial wrongdoing. Poor Natwar has become a laughing stock as he parades this as proof of a clean chit, not knowing – or pretending not to know – that absence of conclusive evidence can never be truly construed as conclusive evidence of absence.

Conversely, Natwar Singh – self-proclaimed Congress Party servant and loyal courtier of the Nehru-Gandhi durbar – thought he was within his rights to seek protection in his hour of strife from party leader Sonia Gandhi. Hadn’t Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru openly expressed shock when his own son-in-law Feroze Gandhi had exposed the Mundhra scandal in the late 1950s by indicting a Nehru loyalist in the cabinet?

True, but this is another century and another generation. Sonia, her English still far better than her Hindi, clearly thinks “kickback” is a four-letter word. It would be politically suicidal for her to intervene in another kickback scandal, having seen her husband lose a national election on the Bofors taint. Little wonder then that she refused to stir while the yuppies in Congress – said to be cosy with the U.S.-World Bank-IMF lobby – masterminded the downfall of a family loyalist who claims he’s being targeted by the U.S.-backed Volcker Report for his opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal.

CONCLUSION TWO: The episode highlights the sea-change that television has wrought on Indian politics. In the old days when print was king, my hunch is Natwar would have gotten away. After all, even if he lost his mind temporarily and mis-spoke, the late-night deadline would ensure there was enough time to sober up and make a few key calls to newspaper biggies. But live television is ruthless. Be it a parliamentary session or a press conference, it governs the way we are governed. Natwar’s outburst came straight and raw into millions of homes, and its repeated telecasts must sound to him like nails pounding into an already sealed coffin.

Dean Jones is another victim of the live wire. Imagine the scenario of a newspaper report, and you can bet Deano’s copy would have been screened by several “gate-keepers” – from sports editor to proof reader – and the offending word blue-pencilled out.

But the Dean Jones episode has stirred up the pot with many ladles. First comes an inside story. Yes, he did say it, but only after he thought that both the audio and video were switched off during the commercial break between overs. That’s partially right. The audio and video for all transmissions were switched off,  except one, and that one happened to be the transmission to South Africa. The country Hashim Amla represents, and whose listeners first yelled wolf to the Jones remark.

Would all be well had Jones’s remark not gone on air? In other words, is it okay to call Amla a “terrorist” in situations that aren’t public? And here comes another inside story – that Amla’s South African team-mates have been known to call him precisely that, if only in jest. On the record, several team-mates denied this vehemently, saying they’d never use the word even as a jibe. Their word was accepted by the authorities, but the cricketing world at large knows better. In the South African team itself, why, one may ask, do “colored” players still eat at a table separate from the whites? 

It’s tempting to speculate on some other what-ifs.

What if the Jones remark had been completely off-air, but if one or more of his fellow-commentators had complained about it to ICC or Cricket South Africa or the management of Ten Sports, which aired it? Would Jones be sent back home on the next available flight?
What if Ten Sports – belonging to a United Arab Emirates-registered conglomerate – was owned by a non-Muslim? Would Jones have suffered a penalty as severe and swift? Curiously, the only commentator to have jumped to Jones’s defence (or close to it) is the former Indian wicket-keeper Saba Karim – a Muslim. He told a Mumbai newspaper: “We must always see in what context he has said it. Dean Jones is popular with so many cricketers, maybe it came out inadvertently. He must be given a chance to explain his stand.”

What if Jones had uttered the T-word in less combustible times? Would the reaction to Jones have been any less knee-jerk had Marco Materazzi not taunted Zinedine Zidane with the same word during the World Cup soccer final? Or any less racially-edged had the world not seen so many Islamic terrorist-detonated blasts since 9/11?

The debate is endless. It’s a matter of the psychological, ideological and socio-cultural baggage the sayer is carrying as much as the mental baggage the listener is filtering it through. Sportsmen are not the only ones to slip up. In June, U.S. President George W.Bush had a characteristically insensitive exchange with blind reporter Peter Wallsten of Los Angeles Times. Bollywood actress Rimi Sen told a website Rohit Shetty is such an “amazing” director that “he can make even a black African look pretty.” Feroz Khan was black-listed by the Pakistani Government for returning their hospitality with a bald statement about Pakistani Muslims killing each other in the name of Islam. And our otherwise tolerant South Indian friends protested vehemently against the Mehmood character in Padosan when the film was first released in India.

Hollywood star Mel Gibson abused “f…..g” Jews when pulled over for drunk driving. “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” he told a Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy who Gibson thought to be Jewish. Former sex symbol Bridgette Bardot was found guilty by a Paris court for commenting disparagingly on the growing number of Muslim immigrants in her native France and for hitting out at their religious practice of killing sheep during festivals.

Even comic-book characters aren’t spared the scrutiny. Students of international politics find in their reference list a 1971 publication by two Chilean Marxist scholars. Title? “How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic.” Contrast that with a more recent study from the University of Mississippi which concludes that the Scrooge McDuck stories are “essentially anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist.” Long live academic freedom!

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