The Babel syndrome

The Babel syndrome

Over the past weeks, India’s venerable Congress party would appear to have generously assigned varying amounts (or degrees) of free will to its ministers and representatives. Nothing else can explain the spate of statements by various members of the party, even some ministers, that goes against the party’s position and definitely does not reflect the government’s either. That’s a significant and radical departure from the norm—the Congress usually behaves like a well-managed IT services firm: The promoters and the top managers say exactly the same thing (or choose not to comment on exactly the same things).

But back to the Congress now. When the controversy over his association with the Kochi Indian Premier League franchise was at its peak, Shashi Tharoor’s first statement in Parliament was made in his capacity as a member of Parliament, not a minister, an attempt by the Congress to insulate itself from the mess. A few days before that, the party had been forced to clarify that Digvijay Singh’s criticism of his fellow Congressman P. Chidambaram was done in his personal capacity.

Over the past two days, the Congress has been doing more such clarifying. It first had to explain that environment minister Jairam Ramesh’s criticism of the home ministry did not reflect the party’s position. Then, it had to distance itself from Congress member of Parliament Naveen Jindal’s statement supporting khap panchayats—local administrative bodies—which have a fairly narrow definition of who can marry whom, and aren’t above meting out their own version of justice, often barbaric, to people who flout these rules.

We are not sure how we fell about this phenomenon. At one level, it makes for good press. At another, it is good that the party is allowing its ministers and members to air their views freely. Yet, the trend is unique, not just in India, but even in most other parts of the world administered by a democratically elected government.

The rule—unwritten but still faithfully followed—is that members of a party mouth the party-line in public, and that ministers or members do not criticize (again, in public) other ministers. When this rule is broken, it sends out the message that all isn’t well with the party in power and that there’s a threat of the Centre not holding. India can ill afford that.

Is the United Progressive Alliance government approaching the zone of incoherence? Tell us at