The chewing gum war

The chewing gum war

The bugging of pranab mukherjees office

There you are, quietly preparing the day’s propaganda sheet in yet another existentialist confrontation between George Bush and Saddam Hussein, or Barack Obama and Mullah Omar, or Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaram, and wham! From out of the night-blue a drone demolishes your ego so completely that you cannot recognise your self-esteem from the debris of your self-respect.

Spare a thought, friends, for the Congress spokespersons who were ordered last week to keep quiet at the peak of the raging civil war between the home minister and finance minister of India. There is little more devastating to the pride of a spokesperson than being told not to speak, particularly when heavy artillery and napalm are cascading through the battlefields of media.

The serious historian will, doubtless, record the range of emotions and arguments that have coursed through the War of the Chewing Gum. This is perhaps not the most serious conflict of 2011, but it is pepping up to become its most hilarious. There is enough bathos to daunt the muse of that poet-prince of satire, Alexander Pope. But jollity should not blind us to the serious questions that must be answered in the cause of national security as well as prestige. What, for instance, is Pakistan’s preeminent security establishment, ISI, thinking of Indian capabilities now that they are sure that the mightiest of all surveillance battles is being fought through that most useless invention in the history of mankind, that device of teenage mastication, chewing gum?

We belong to an age in which superpowers can pick, with heavyweight computers, any conversation that travels through the world’s airwaves, and then transcribe and decode it before breakfast. Even at the low end of the market, a ruthlessly chivalrous spy like James Bond would not be caught, dead or alive, with either chewing, or its first cousin bubble gum. That sleuths working on behalf of the home minister of rising India used this supremely silly blob of virtual rubber as a principal weapon is worrying confirmation that where security is concerned India is merely a fourth rate power.

Experts, either shocked or gleeful, have flooded the internet with deep-background analysis. It seems that there are two kinds of bugs. Permanent ones need to be planted inside walls, but that can only be done while the building is being constructed. Since the walls of India’s finance ministry were built before Lord Irwin became viceroy in 1930, that was clearly not a feasible option. Temporary, or opportunist, bugs can be scattered into the enemy quarters through the help of a fifth columnist, who then removes them after the requirement is over. Some clever chap thought little blobs of something that “looked like chewing gum” would suffice to deceive the finance minister of India and his most trusted civil servants.

The only thing more amusing than this Pink Panther-style spy story is the cover-up. The official line, now that government is being forced to clean up an embarrassing mess, is that nothing much happened. No one, however, is saying that nothing was attempted, even if the master sleuth of this particular operation was an outstanding bumble bee.

Maturity beyond question

Pranab Mukherjee has more experience in high office than most of the cabinet put together. He is not prone to seasonal hysteria. His maturity is beyond question; his supporters still cannot understand why he should do the bulk of the work but not be appointed prime minister. If he took as deliberate a step as placing his complaint on the record with a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he did so after the most careful consideration. He had his office swept by technologists hired by the Central Board of Direct Taxes, which reports to him, rather than the Intelligence Bureau, which reports to Chidambaram. His letter went ten months ago. It is unsurprising that the Prime Minister’s Office chose silence as its first and last line of defence. The Congress, when it was forced to utter a word or two, went into its default position, which is treating everything unpleasant as an RSS conspiracy. The one exception was senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh, who believes that a formal probe has become essential.

Digvijay Singh is right. This government is coming apart at the seams. Individual ambition is tearing apart the fabric of governance. The voter can see what Delhi can’t, that the emperors have no clothes.

There comes a point where a joke refuses to amuse. We are near that tipping point. Manmohan Singh, himself a bit ragged now, has one last visit left to the tailors: the Cabinet reshuffle he has long promised but never quite delivered. He can no longer afford to stitch a few buttons; he needs a whole new wardrobe -- and one which can survive the acidic wear and tear of whatever time is left in his political destiny.

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