First an ugly war of words, muck-raking and finger-wagging and then chai pe charcha. Somebody in the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is suspected to have written the script of the latest Manmohan SinghNarendra Modi encounter of the third kind.

Consider the farce before a harried Singh met Modi after a verbal sally. In the morning, Manmohan broke his maun and launched an acerbic attack on Modi. After years of silence, he abandoned his philosophy of hazaron sawalon se achche hai khamoshi, and not only defended himself but also accused Modi of running a divisive government that was undermining his government’s economic and social initiatives.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with former PM Manmohan Singh. Image: PIBPrime Minister Narendra Modi with former PM Manmohan Singh. Image: PIB

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with former PM Manmohan Singh. Image: PIB

In response, the BJP called him a liar; Amit Shah labeled Singh a puppet, Sambit Patra accused him of ‘looting and destroying’ the country and many other crimes a self-respecting man would have found difficult not to resist and rebut.

The prospects looked mouth-watering. A MMS-NMS (Narendra Modi Sarkar) war is a rare event in politics. For ages, Singh has quietly endured the BJP’s attacks, kept his lips sealed even when he has had to face the ignominy of being grilled by cops and named as an accused by the CBI. So, when he finally opened his mouth, it seemed all that magma stored inside Singh was about to erupt.

But, in the end, the only thing that boiled between Modi and Singh was just a cup of tea. Even a Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and John Cena ‘bout’ couldn’t have been fixed with more precision.

The more you think about it, the more farcical it sounds. Both Modi and Singh were scheduled to meet on Wednesday evening, the rendezvous was talked about on Tuesday, sealed the next day—if you believe the version put out by Singh’s office— and yet they engaged in uncharacteristic sabre-rattling before the scheduled moment of privacy. Could Machiavelli have thought of a brand of politics where a guest and his host ridicule each other in public before meeting in private for tea?

Generally, politicians fight and then meet to bury their differences. Sometimes, they get together—as Shivaji and Afzal Khan did—to backstab each other under the pretext of sorting out differences. But, in this case, Singh and Modi changed the political paradigm; their encounter was of the third kind—they fought after agreeing to talk. Or was it that they fought because they were going to talk?

What’s going on? Madhu Kishwar, former friend turned foe, found it strange that former foes are turning friends. “Thought wheeling dealing was Jaitley’s domain,” she tweeted. Conspiracy-theory fans like Kishwar watching the fixed-match are allowed their confusion also because nobody knows who invited who, or why.

According to the Telegraph, the PMO was keen on conveying the impression that Singh had sought an appointment. ‘Rarely found wanting in communication skills, unlike Manmohan and his PMO, the Modi establishment became tongue-tied. A PMO source said: “The instruction from the Prime Minister is clear that it should be projected as a courtesy call and nothing more should be added.” The source then suggested Manmohan had asked for time from Modi today. Asked by this newspaper again when Manmohan had sought the appointment, the source replied: “Today only”.’

Some have latched on to this theory by suggesting that Singh went to meet the PM to discuss allegations of his involvement in the 2G scam and of being a pliant puppet of the Gandhis. Believers of the Singh-blinked-first school suggest the Modi-Singh meeting is another masterstroke by Modi. ‘He is trying to corner the Gandhis by taking the former PM into confidence,’ the BJP spin doctors suggest.

Prime facie, this argument appears rubbish. One, Singh’s office has countered this theory officially by putting on record that he was invited by Modi. If this weren’t true, Shah & Co wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to call Singh a liar a second time in 24 hours. Also, Singh has suggested that he advised Modi to not focus on the past but on governance. It is unlikely that Singh would have been audacious enough to mildly reprimand Modi if he had “sought an appointment” to plead his own case or clear the air on various issues. No, Singh is not the kind of man who can talk tough while pleading mercy.

Since nobody is entitled to facts but only opinion, here is mine: Singh would have indeed been invited by Modi for his opinion on some important issue. The meeting would have passed off as a routine interaction—though former PMs rarely call upon the incumbent, it is generally the other way round—had not Pradeep Baijal’s allegations of Singh’s role in the 2G surfaced around the same time.

Had Singh gone on to meet Modi in the backdrop of the allegations, it could have been seen as an attempt to soften the PMO, give a clarification. So, just before the meeting, Singh launched an uncharacteristic assault on Modi to convey that he is still a critic and rival, a former PM with a chest puffed up with pride and not a supplicant on his knees. Perhaps, the PM too played along graciously.

No, they didn’t meet because they were fighting. They fought because they were meeting.

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Modi-Manmohan charcha: It was the fight that was staged, not the meeting