Who's Chicken, Mr. Sen?
A candid and hard-hitting open letter from a senior journalist to India's current Ambassador in Washington D.C. exposes the hypocrisy of our desi babudom.
Your Excellency, the Honorable Mr. Ronen Sen, Ambassador of India to the United States of America:
Phew! That was a mouthful. Sounds rather like a courtier heralding royalty into the big ceremonial durbar. But I know that nothing short of it will do for a person of your exalted rank and position. Of course, I have taken the liberty of abbreviating your first name. But even that bend in protocol is in deference to the official website of the Indian Embassy, although the CIA website (curious isn’t it, that that website comes up first when you search “Indian Ambassador to USA” on Google?) elaborately identifies you as Ranendra.
Sorry to report, however, that whether it’s Ranendra, Ronen, or the Americanized Ronnie, your name – as I write this on the evening of August 22 from my home in Mumbai – is plain mud here in India. The country’s financial markets and its investors, already skittish since the Indo-US N-deal crisis threatened to bring down the Manmohan Singh government, haven’t taken kindly to the fallout over your “headless chicken” remarks (see box). The local stock-exchange slumped more than 400 points, even as markets abroad recovered.
Both Houses of the Indian Parliament in New Delhi adjourned as the uproar over your remarks made it impossible for any business to be transacted in either House. The clamour for your recall is growing by the hour, and no one is buying your lame “clarification” that the remark was aimed at the media and not at the members of parliament. You fooled nobody, least of all the MPs who, while apparently attacking you for bad-mouthing journalists, are privately convinced it was their fraternity you were really needling. Even the good old Bengali bhadralok among our politicians are unwilling to pull punches for a Sen.
Sample this. Your foreign minister-boss Pranab Mukherjee denounced your statement as “totally unwarranted and unacceptable.” Another cabinet minister, Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi in charge of Information and Broadcasting, said: “If a diplomat called journalists headless chicken, then his brain is nothing but a vegetable.”
“If journalists are headless chicken, then MPs are boneless chicken and government’s got chikungunya,” fumed Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress, hreferring to the often-fatal infectious disease (not to be confused with bird-flu) that’s recently hit some Indian cities.
The final blow is awaited from the Parliament honcho, Somnath Chatterjee. With both Opposition and Left MPs in no mood to allow the House to function, the Lok Sabha Speaker assured MPs that he would take action. “I assure you, no one can go scot free,” he thundered. “Parliament of India is not powerless.”
That last sentence is not insignificant. It in fact holds the key to your not-so-mysterious explanation. It also probably explains why you found the media a convenient soft-target when the going got tough with the MPs. You would certainly have earned my admiration had you held your ground and spoken with the courage of your convictions. After all, you’d worked feverishly, deploying your expertise and experience in nuclear-security matters and your negotiating skills to cobble together the N-deal with your American counterparts. And now it finds itself mired in controversy, thanks to domestic political differences. An off-the-cuff emotional outburst against its critics could have been perceived in that generous light.
But you chickened out, resorting instead to a devious escape-route. It was an exercise in shameful duplicity. You figured out soon enough, didn’t you, that while stepping on the Parliament’s tail and taking on its constitutional clout could leave even a top-level diplomat vulnerable to career-threatening consequences, the media could do zilch against you in retaliation.
Those irksome desi scribes hardly mattered. The only Indian news correspondents you interact with anyway are those who depend on embassy press-releases for filing their dispatches. And who, you reckon, would dare risk their rozi-roti to stand up against this unprovoked slight.
Does this explain your contempt for your Indian “media friends,” Mr.Ambassador? But honestly, what did you expect the media to do when the deal sparked such adverse reactions? Weren’t the journalists just doing their jobs – like all honest-to-goodness professionals -when they reported the dissenting voices of MPs on the bilateral agreement and the resultant N-deal?
No one claims infallibility. Journalists are as prone to errors and worldly weaknesses as are your starchy babus and diplomats. If you’ve encountered a fair number of inept or even corrupt reporters, I have seen and known more than my rightful share of the dark underbelly of diplomacy. But in my travels across the globe, I can vouch for one thing: Whereas the Indian media, as a whole, are regarded as among the democratic world’s more vibrant, our diplomatic missions fall short. India ranks as one of the countries with the worst public-relations image overseas.
Take your own current posting, Mr. Sen. Despite its obvious links with international terrorist groups and the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, Pakistan consistently scores over India in the minds and hearts of Americans for their political sympathies – and no prizes for guessing whether your wining and dining of the mainstream media has worked. Leave aside the politicians who can be suspected of being influenced by real politik. Even the more independent-minded among American academics view India as the “bully” of the South Asian region and paradoxically, also as a “weak” state when it comes to thwarting terrorist attacks. At least part of the blame for this all-round PR disaster should lie at the door of our diplomatic missions.
As your own foreign-service career enters its last lap, we wish you the best. Lounging in an IFS-retiree colony somewhere on the outskirts of Delhi, you might want to forget the silly hullabaloo over decapitated fowl and think of its brighter side: No one has been able to bring the Left Front and the rightist Hindutva brigade together on any issue with a single – albeit ill-considered – statement. No mean feat this, even for a seasoned diplomat!