Which was the swivel moment when the Indian-born British citizen shook off his psychological shackles and came into his own? There will probably be as many answers as there are success stories. My personal favourite is the year in which an enterprising Sikh businessman bought out a distillery producing the most sustained, and possibly sustaining, export of the British peoples, Scotch whisky. The breakthrough was not in the financial transaction. Money is the easy part. The revolutionary switch in the balance of power was made when this NRI entrepreneur renamed the Scotch and called it “Kuch Nahi”.
You read that correctly. I have neither the imagination nor the gall to make up such a story. I met this enterprising businessman once, nearly a decade ago. When I asked him how he proposed to sell a Scotch with a Hindi appellation meaning “Nothing”, he replied with a persuasive, calm conviction that it was the perfect label for his target market of fellow Hindi-speaking Indians. It provided an infallible alibi for anyone snorkelling “Kuch Nahi” at a pub. When the imbiber reached home and his wife asked what he had been up to, he could say with a perfectly straight face, “Kuch Nahi”. He could never be accused of telling a lie.
“Kuch Nahi” should be nominated the official drink of the present Union Government. Each time anyone in the “Kuch Nahi Sarkar” is asked what he has been up to, you get the same innocent answer: “Kuch nahi”. Never was a more implausible response offered with such a plausible face.
The Hindu and Business Line exposed the fact that ISRO had made 90 percent of the spectrum capacity of two satellites, worth an estimated Rs 2 lakh crore, freely available to a private company in January 2005, and top ISRO officials turned up to explain that nothing had actually happened. The Prime Minister’s Office piled in to add that since no decision had been taken to allocate this space segment, the question of any revenue loss did not arise. Then they announced that they had cancelled the contract concluded between the ISRO and Devas Multimedia Private Limited on January 28, 2005. Since ordinary mortals like you and I would not be able to distinguish an S-Band spectrum from its first cousin in Z-band, or its granduncle in A-and, all we can ask are some simple housewifely questions: If nothing untoward had happened, then why cancel the contract? Second, what was Devas doing during the six years between the signing of the contract and its cancellation? Surely private sector companies do not sign such huge financial deals in order to lose money, or dawdle.
Contract cancellation is the equivalent of washing your mouth after a heavy night to substantiate that you drank “Kuch Nahi”.
Maybe the Maharashtra chief minister’s office is jinxed. Sit there for a bit and a corruption charge or two begins to bang heavily on the door. Witness Vilasrao Deshmukh and Ashok Chavan. Prithviraj Chauhan had a perfectly blameless reputation for the five-plus years he was minister of state for space under the prime minister in Delhi. The moment he went to Mumbai, up came ISRO: Chavan was the point-man for such decisions.
The foremost “Kuch Nahi” minister of this government is surely former-and-future lawyer Kapil Sibal. Months after India had become convinced that there was “Kuch Hai” in the original Raja spectrum scam (amounting to a mere Rs 1.76 lakh crore, according to CAG, as distinct from circa Rs 2 lakh crore in the ISRO deal), Sibal tried to change the national perception with one dramatic press conference. He took an hour or more to say there was “Absolutely kuch nahi” in the Raja case. While the voter cowered under massive legal artillery bombardment, the Government cheered with so much enthusiasm it must have brought a smile on the depressed visage of Raja and elated the heart of his mentor, K. Karunanidhi.
The next thing we know, Sibal’s government arrested “Kuch Nahi” Raja on corruption charges and permitted the CBI to take him into custody for interrogation. A corporate honcho who jumped from millionaire to billionaire on the spectrum canvas soon followed him inside. That’s a heavy price to pay for “kuch nahi”. It isn’t the usual problem of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing in this Government; the right hand does not know what the right hand is doing, as one acute observer remarked.
Humour within public discourse can be bright, torrid or laboured; the sheer scale and depth of contemporary corruption has given it a bitter, corrosive, dangerous edge. “Kuch Nahi” is no longer a pleasant palliative in a pub. It is black humour, perfectly suited to the age of black money.
The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.