How to Defend Like an Indian Neta


How to Defend Like an Indian Neta

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

To err is human, but covering your ass after making errors is political. In the course of acquiring power (while bravely dealing with the hassle of running the country, and looking after human rights and environmental safety), our ministers end up in the line of fire for most things that go wrong in India. Every time an incident makes national news, politicians emerge like Falguni Pathak each Navratri to offer an explanation, but more importantly, to wash their hands off all responsibility.

It is something of a fine art, this skill of the ministerial defence. And this week, it has been on exceptional display, in the stylings of Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria, and Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan. Watch and learn, mock parliament enthusiasts.

In Alwar, Rajasthan, Ummar Mohammad committed the grave crime of being Muslim in the proximity of cows. In a tragic replay of the Pehlu Khan case from earlier this year, Mohammad was lynched and murdered. Kataria’s response? “We don’t have enough manpower to control every situation in all cities…” Not an apology to the family, or even the announcement of an insultingly paltry compensation — just a, “What?! Don’t look at me!”

Meanwhile, Vardhan’s contribution to the category for Best Ministerial Defence came in response to the sound of all of Delhi coughing its lungs out. His answer to the concerns over the Delhi smog was to tell Dilliwalas: Don’t panic and carry a towel. He said, “To attribute any death to a cause like pollution may be too much.”

The aim of the ministerial defence is two-fold: managing expectations and mitigating blame

As we can see, our ministers have made screwing up and offering excuses as iconic a pair as rum and coke. You can deal in them separately, but they are best enjoyed together. The aim of the ministerial defence is two-fold: managing expectations and mitigating blame. First you mitigate blame by offering half-assed justifications (see: Gulab Chand Kataria). Then, sit back and watch people lower their expectations of your competence while shaking their heads.

It does not matter if you believe in your own defence; all that matters is if the public does. Take Dr Harsh Vardhan, who was calling pollution a silent killer just this February. That man and his qualifications as a medical professional are a different entity from the Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan. The doctor can’t be held responsible for the Mad Max scenario in the capital but the Environment Minister can, so why not defuse the scenario by pretending it doesn’t exist?

Vardhan and Kataria might have put the spotlight on ministerial defence, but it’s hardly a specialty of the ruling party. UPA or NDA, you can’t rise up the political ladder without honing your skillz. Never forget the NCP’s RR Patil’s “bade bade shehron mein, chhote chhote haadse hote rehte hain,” statement after 26/11, or the boilerplate misogyny served up by Samajwadi Party leaders like Abu Azmi or Mulayam Singh Yadav, when responding to allegations of sexual abuse and harassment. (TL;DR: Boys will be boys.)

What’s clear, the ministerial defence is a time-honoured tradition of independent India, much like black money and open defecation. And just like those two issues, it isn’t going anywhere, no matter which minister is apologising for it this time.