The Cheshire Cat in Alice's Wonderland had no face or body, but only a smile. Spokesmen in the olden days were like that. They had no face, and often no name either, but only a voice.
All political parties, ministries, companies and institutions had spokesmen, mostly senior functionaries of the organisation who were part of the decision-making upper crest. They knew the organisation's policy, because they had helped make that policy.
The politically tumultuous 1990s thus had veterans like V.N. Gadgil, Pranab Mukherjee, Margaret Alva, Najma Heptulla, Ambika Soni and Kapil Sibal speaking for the Congress. The BJP had the likes of K.L. Sharma, Govindacharya, Sushma Swaraj, and even Narendra Modi as spokespersons. The Janata parivar had the inimitable Jaipal Reddy as its permanent spokesman. Their English was provincial; their Hindi pan-Indian, their vision universal, and their statements measured.
From their long experience in government and politics they knew the various sensitivities that people and communities had. So careful were they in naming people and places that one foreign office spokesman, who combined diplomatic caution with British understatement, once described a VVIP visit to Pakistan as a “flight in the westerly direction”. That might have been taking caution behind a purdah, but that was how things were run in government and politics. If they erred, they erred on the side of extreme caution.
Not so in this television age of bytes, bites and barks. Motormouth news anchors want glib talkers in their studios, preferably ones with the right accent, and ones who can make quicker repartees than Winston Churchill.
Now two of the BJP's such spokespersons, Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal, have landed India and the Narendra Modi government in trouble. Their comments about the Prophet have so outraged the Muslim world that the Modi regime's Gulf diplomacy, carefully crafted over eight years, is at the risk of being sunk. Envoys are being summoned; expats threatened; exports blocked.
Indeed, the Arab world had always been kind to India since the days of Nehru, Shastri and Indira. So when Modi came to power riding on the crest of a majoritarian wave, many were worried how he would steer his diplomatic vessel through the choppy waters of the Persian Gulf. But Modi has since been working magic in the Arab world—prevailing on them into dumping terror-breeder Pakistan; persuading them to look the other way even as he openly engaged their worst enemy, Israel; using his good offices to make the Arabs talk to the Jews; engaging the Sunni Arabs even while maintaining India's age-old ties with the Shia Iran; and even getting Hindu temples built in Islamic sheikhdoms. In all, Modi has been projecting an India that is growing, powerful, peaceful, prosperous and modern, despite the shrill anti-Muslim cries that have been emanating from his domestic political backyard.
All that is in danger of being lost because of an intemperate remark. Calls for boycott of Indian goods are being heard, threatening to wreck the many trade deals that Modi has been crafting.
But let us not blame the two spokespersons alone. Inexperienced as they are, they got carried away by the rhetoric that has been emanating from a political constituency that is being fertilised with fake history, falsified ideas of moral rectitude, fanciful visitations of past glory, and fabricated notions of historical wrongs.
End this trend, prime minister! As the RSS chief said, let us not look for a shivling under every mosque.