P Chidambaram’s Speaking Truth to Power: Authoritarianism and Political Ethics

MK Raghavendra

The 2014 election to the Lok Sabha, which was fought on ‘no-holds-barred’ terms, not only altered the relationship between the government and the opposition in a fundamental way but implicated vocal portions of the electorate in a war among themselves. The media (notably television) was quick to see an opportunity in this and further deepened the hostility between the different sides though gladiatorial ‘debates’. As it stands today, these debates, which draw an enormous public, are largely shouting contests where spokespersons from opposing camps try to prevail over each other, even while adding nothing to whatever is already known - or surprising us by taking positions which might not have been predicted. The various sides represented on television are (largely) Hindutva and the BJP, the Congress Party and ‘secular politics’, the Muslim orthodoxy, the communists, the military and the government. These debates usually use spokespersons (like Ranjeep Surjewala from the Congress or Rakesh Sinha from the RSS), but sometimes a leader from one of the warring sides (like Ravishankar Prasad from the BJP or Kapil Sibal from the Congress) is positioned in a one-to-one with the host. P Chidambaram is a top leader from the Congress camp and an interface with him is usually announced days in advance.  Alongside such interfaces on television some leaders contribute newspaper columns and Speaking Truth to Power is the third collection of Chidambaram’s columns written for the Indian Express. Since leaders have to stand up for their own groups

there is a limit to the ‘truth’ they may purvey; the title of Chidambaram’s book hence uses the word ‘truth’ disingenuously.

Speaking Truth to Power presents us with a large number of facts duly bolstered by statistics to make out a case against the NDA government and Narendra Modi. But readers have become indifferent to such factual/ statistical data since each time a regime changes there are fresh facts available and new statistics. The government and opposition, regardless of the regime in power, talk as if about alternate realities. Rather than look at the political diatribe in the writing, therefore, it is more interesting to look at aspects of the man that emerge. P. Chidambaram is a familiar figure in the public space and most people may have privately hazarded guesses about the kind of picture he is likely to make. He is very well-educated (Harvard Business School) and highly articulate but constantly wears an irked smile, that of someone who will not suffer fools but who nonetheless finds himself surrounded by them. But when he arouses intellectual expectations through that smile, they are not always fulfilled and one often finds oneself waiting for more, after an exposition is completed. Among the personages who have endorsed the book (Pranab Mukherjee among them), more than one, while duly praising it, has seen disagreement with the author as a not unlikely outcome. P Chidambaram as political thinker is apparently not someone who has always carried others along.

Speaking Truth to Power begins with a piece dated 1st January 2017 which expresses wonder over whether 2017 will be a happy year: “As 2016 draws to a close, the whole country should be celebrating the state of the economy, but there is no joy anywhere. Why are the people sullen, dejected and apprehensive about the immediate future? The proximate cause is, undoubtedly, demonetisation… but there are deeper causes. The frowns on the faces of those in the government (and especially of those key officials who have chosen diplomatic silence!) tell a story that is very different from the boast of the ‘fastest growing large economy’.” It is not an easy matter to gauge from the faces of the passers-by on a street their feelings about the government in power – although demonetisation could have been an exceptional moment. But what I find significant here is that Chidambaram is writing for a public – even if it is an educated segment – and telling it how it is feeling, i.e.: ‘sullen’ and ‘dejected’. It is not only that there would be some joy somewhere but that politicians and statespersons rarely presume to know more about public feelings than the public itself. If they addressed the public on its ‘unhappiness’ the tone would more likely be: “I know you are feeling…,” the sense being that the public should be the primary judge of how it is feeling; the politician is only appealing to what is there.  

One does not catch the sense in his writing that Chidambaram is ever appealing to the wisdom of the public or to its experience, and it is as though he has decided for it what it should feel and how it should conduct itself. Here is how the second piece dated 31st December 2017 begins: “I think every country must reserve a day for laughter. A day may not be sufficient for India, but we could make a beginning.” Chidambaram is evidently preparing to mock the government on various issues and is proposing a ‘national laughter’ day to do so. It does not seem to be particularly shrewd strategy to me since what follows the first two sentences are only various news reports pertaining to happenings in government or in the Hindutva domain. One cannot deny that some of these items are ludicrous but a writer cannot begin a piece by commanding laughter from the reader; this carries echoes of the mad monarch from historical fiction who decrees that his subjects must spend the day laughing or next one weeping. 
People who have enjoyed a great deal of power appear to forget that most of what they have done remains in public memory and this is especially the case in the age of the internet when records of happenings are retained. ‘Speaking truth to power’ is an inappropriate title because it makes us picture a ragged philosopher (perhaps like Jesus) who speaks out before an embodiment of power (perhaps like Pontius Pilate) and it is difficult to see P Chidambaram as the ragged philosopher when he held control of the Home and Finance ministries and was one of the most powerful men in Indian politics.  Many of the issues raised by him are valid but the reader immediately recalls how he handled them himself. When he raises the issue of RBI’s autonomy, for instance, we recall the spat between him and RBI Governor Subba Rao, whom he was trying to browbeat.  When he raises the issue of Burhan Wani’s killing and human-rights abuses in Kashmir we recall the fake encounter killings of 2010 of civilians labelled ‘infiltrators'. When he talks about ‘Naxals’ we recollect that he wanted to use the air force against them. Even the thought of helicopter gunships set loose in Jharkand or Chattisgarh makes us wince.

The difficulty for the Congress Party may be that while it has more leaders with intellectual credentials than the right-wing political parties, most of them are ‘retired hurt’; people like Digvijay Singh or Mani Shankar Iyer cannot be trusted not to say the wrong things. It is to Chidambaram’s credit that he is a more disciplined soldier of the party, even if his name and career in politics have less than happy associations in public memory. But this means he is being made to put himself in an embarrassing position here. The writing could not have appeared without High Command clearance and he is not being shielded.  If the Congress is trying to assume a soft, humanistic, liberal posture why pick a known hawk to articulate it?

Leaders like P Chidambaram are people with immense personal stature and when they are made to pen columns or write books as propagandist exercises on behalf of their political parties they lower themselves, as they should not. Speaking Truth to Power, for instance, contains a political eulogy of Mrs Gandhi which is simply out of place in a book which has not abandoned claims to being political scholarship.  Mrs Gandhi may still be admired by sections of the public but these sections are not those Chidambaram is addressing. Here is another paragraph from the middle of the book about ideology: “Ideology is no longer captured by a single word like capitalism or communism. Every party has to craft its narrative taking into account changes in society and in people’s aspirations. Is not Hindutwa an ideology? Does not the BJP audaciously pitch the philosophy of Savarkar, Golwalkar and Deendayal Upadhyaya as a counter-narrative to the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Babasaheb Ambedkar?” A question here is whether Gandhi and Ambedkar represented a single ‘narrative’. It is a shameful untruth propagated post-Independence that brings Ambedkar and Gandhi under one banner.

P Chidambaram is not a mass leader and his personal tendencies are more aristocratic and elitist than democratic. I have already pointed out indications from his writing that he would like people – even his readers – to listen to him rather than exercise judgement. If it is an open secret that Narendra Modi is authoritarian and does not brook opposition, Chidambaram is apparently not less so.  The difference between the two leaders may rest in the fact that Chidambaram is not so much a natural leader as someone who can win the confidence of someone who commands a following. But it is perhaps also incumbent upon the cause he serves to keep its tallest leaders from exposing themselves (as he unwittingly does in Speaking Truth to Power) because the personal dignity of someone of his stature should not be compromised so casually in the narrow interests of party propaganda.

March 2018