Politicians are usually very careful about what they say in public. They know it can be used against them. Consequently they have a knack of speaking at length but not saying very much. This is not eloquence but self-protection.
So it’s particularly surprising when one of them puts his foot firmly in his mouth and does so not once but repeatedly. When that individual happens to be the prime minister, a man who’s known for carefully thinking through what he says, you have to ask why he’s doing this?
On Sunday, Narendra Modi deliberately and maliciously misconstrued an innocent meeting at Mani Shankar Aiyar’s residence on December 6 and presented it as a conspiracy by Pakistan to interfere in the Gujarat polls. I was invited to that meeting — a one-hour discussion with Pakistan’s former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri followed by dinner — although, at the last moment, I was unable to make it. The other guests included former high commissioners to Pakistan, former foreign secretaries and foreign ministers, a former vice president and a former army chief and a few journalists.
The intention was to talk about the India-Pakistan situation, obviously with specific reference to Kashmir and terror. Kasuri is a confirmed and passionate dove devoted to improving relations and seeking creative solutions to our problems.
This transparent and irreproachable meeting was presented by the prime minister as “a secret meeting”. With heavy insinuation, he said: “Pakistan’s high commissioner, former foreign minister, India’s former vice-president and India’s former PM Manmohan Singh all met at Aiyar’s house for three hours and then, the next day, Mani Shankar calls Modi neech. This is a serious and sensitive issue… what is the reason for such a secret meeting amidst Gujarat elections?”
The prime minister then proceeded to draw two connections, one ludicrous and the other factually incorrect. First, he claimed “after the meeting, people of Gujarat, backward communities, poor people and Modi were insulted, don’t you think such events raise doubts here?” This was the ridiculous part.
Speaking at Sanand, he claimed the meeting was held a day after “a former chief of the Pakistan army”, Arshad Rafiq, had called for Ahmed Patel to be made chief minister of Gujarat. “Why is Pakistan’s senior retired army officer exercising his brain in the Gujarat elections?”, he asked. Rafiq, however, is not a former Pakistani army chief but just a former D.G. This was the inaccurate bit. It also has no connection with the meeting held at Aiyar’s house.
I wonder what the prime minister would have said if he was aware that Wednesday’s dinner was not the first such event hosted by Aiyar with Kasuri as chief guest? A similar dinner was held at the Taj Mahal Hotel’s Chambers in April and, even earlier, in 2015 when Kasuri’s book was published. In fact, both Mr and Mrs Kasuri were guests at Aiyar’s daughter’s wedding and he was a cabinet minister at the time.
Indeed, what might Modi have made of the fact — had he known of it — that the Pakistan high commissioner hosted a dinner on Sunday night, just hours after his angry allegations, for a similar selection of guests to meet Kasuri at the Taj Mahal Hotel’s House of Ming restaurant? This might have produced a flight of fancy akin to the very best of crime fiction!
The truth is the prime minister’s allegations and suspicions are not just malicious and delusional but utter nonsense. Whilst seeking to defame Aiyar and his guests he’s actually demeaned himself. This was not just undignified but unethical and, because Modi knows it’s a lie, also immoral.
So why did he do it? Normally Modi is meticulous about the accusations he raises and the innuendos he levels. Such juvenile and hallucinatory conspiracy theories are not his style. Does this suggest that fear and foreboding of the Gujarat outcome has put him in a funk? Is this electoral panic?
In fact, this wasn’t the first time the prime minister’s speeches have betrayed deep anxiety. At one of his early Gujarat rallies he accused the Gandhi family of revealing to the world what Morarji Desai used to drink. Earlier only a few knew what he was referring to but now his bizarre comments have informed lakhs more. Yet the truth is in an interview to Mark Tully Desai readily admitted he drank his own urine and even wrote a book on the subject.
It’s a relief the Gujarat campaign ends on Tuesday evening. India cannot afford for its PM to inflict further wilful damage on himself, unless he’s determined to pluck defeat from the jaws of presumed victory.