Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Calamities Come and Go, But Decision to Stay Remains

Arun Shourie
"Give me some time and we will get over all these troubles" that was the prime minister speaking during the Charar-e-Sharief debate in the Rajya Sabha.

But had he not had time since February when the mercenaries were spotted in the town? Indeed, having put the country through abject humiliation at Hazratbal in October 1993, had he not had a year and a half's time to prepare for the next siege? And in the Hazratbal case also, the first report about terrorists moving to usurp the place was given to the government in July.

The fact is that the prime minister does not plan to do anything with the time he gets -- it is just a figure of speech with him. "Leave it to me, I will make sure that not one guilty person gets away. I assure the House, from now on I will personally monitor the case on a daytoday basis" On the securities scam, Bofors, Ayodhya, the functioning of the Congress, the descent of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar into casteist gunda raj, the manner in which Channa Reddy was conducting himself, the way in which General K V Krishna Rao was not conducting himself, the paralysis in his own ministries, the running feud in the home ministry -- on everything he has stood up and chanted those words in the end.

The last time was when not having done anything to stop Chavan and Pilot from making a fool of the country, he took the Kashmir portfolio directly under his charge. The move was hailed: it is positive proof that he is serious about the matter now, we were told, you will see there will be decisive action now. In the months since he has had the portfolio, nothing has been done to organize even the department, let alone doing something about Kashmir. A single joint secretary is all that the government has working full time on the matter. And he, too, has not been attending office for sometime now as he has been down with typhoid.

Nevertheless, once again: "Leave it to me. Give me some time and we will get over all these troubles." But there are new traits, too, which have surfaced this time around. First, there is a new device: to claim that the particular thing was not done not out of neglect but because it was his policy not to do the thing!

For two and a half years the country has been without a defense minister. Suddenly the prime minister tells Jaswant Singh in the Lok Sabha that not having a defense minister has been a conscious decision of his. It is high time the defense portfolio was handled by the country's Prime Minister, he says. Is it because something is going on which is so secret that no one except he can be trusted with it? Is it that war is imminent? Is it his way of making sure that no Goldstar siphons off money in defense deals? No explanation, just "It is high time that... " Has he not constituted the Cabinet committee on political affairs too, asked my friend Jaswant Singh, because he has concluded that it is high time that the prime minister was his own CCPA?

It has been exactly the same with Charar-e-Sharief. Ever since the mercenaries and terrorists started congregating there in February, forces on the ground were waiting for a decision on what they should do. The mercenaries could have been easily plucked out when they were just a few. But no decision came. They brought in more of their associates. They transported arms and explosives and, as has now been seen, land mines in enormous quantities. The whole town knew of their buildup: witness the residents who left the town in their thousands. But no decision was taken. Eventually the army was asked to encircle the place. But that was all. They kept waiting for a decision as to what they should do. None came. In the event, they were reduced to being mere spectators, crows on a wall, till three hours after the mausoleum was burned down. "You can go in now." An exact replay of Ayodhya in that sense.

And whose responsibility was it to take that decision? Of the prime minister? That is Narasimha Rao. Of the defense minister? That is Narasimha Rao. Of the minister in charge of Kashmir affairs? That is Narasimha Rao. Of the minister in charge of RAW? That is Narasimha Rao. The minister in charge of IB? That, too, is Narasimha Rao. Of the only minister with whom Gen. Krishna Rao condescends to talk? But that, too, is Narasimha Rao.

And yet, he says that whatever has happened or not, whatever has been done or not is the responsibility of the state administration and the men on the spot.

It is this brazenness which is new, and of which I fear we shall see more in the coming months. "I am the Congress president and I shall decide what is to be done," he says, and that ends the matter. Development works are being speeded up in Kashmir, he says in the wake of the Charar being burned down. It is not just that that is a farce of a response, it is that it is a total falsehood. The entire local administration of the state has been on strike for more than two months now. They routinely refuse to carry out orders -- whether the order is to protect pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra or it is to update the electoral rolls and yet the prime minister says, "Development works are being speeded up."

In the case of Hazratbal it is the same. The government abjectly surrendered. But the prime minister refers to it as having been such a success that the government decided to repeat the strategy in Charar-e-Sharief! The result is that the town has been burned down, the mausoleum is gone, the main mercenaries have escaped, the people are outraged, and the prime minister is fine-tuning words: the occurrence is better described as a partial failure of policy, he says, not a complete failure.

Not just brazenness, with the old cunning there is a new obstinacy.

The prime minister is palming off responsibility not just verbally, but in a deep sense. To avoid taking a decision he let both sides in his own government have their say on TADA. As the side advocating its abolition was more vociferous, in the end he went along with them. And now others must get a substitute though the country must live with the consequences.

Yet no one can do anything about the matter. The adjournment motions in parliament on Charar-e-Sharief were symptomatic. They have come and gone. The government's ways will not change one bit as a consequence. Even the opposition seemed to be just going through the motions: when it came time to vote only 186 of its 240 members of parliament were present.

Indeed, the discussion became a diversion. The question suddenly became a matter of one party versus the rest of which side deployed the better debating tactics.

Our situation is the one depicted in the experiment. Let ten sturdy men stand one behind the other facing a wall.

At the head of the column put a weakling. Each man puts his hands to the shoulders of the man in front, the man in front puts his hands to the wall. Everyone pushes. The strength of the ten counts for nothing; the pressure on the wall will be no greater than that weakling in front can put on it.

That is our situation. Cabinet ministers grumble, Congress MPs visit each other's houses and lament, opposition leaders protest, editorial writers declaim, the people are indignant but nothing happens for the man in charge just looks the other way.

At the same time, the people, especially pressmen, should not forget their own contribution. They help create the atmosphere in which such failures are certain.

Just go back to the days immediately after the government let the terrorists free at Hazratbal.

How much play the press gave to the secessionists-sponsored demand that the army be removed from the vicinity of the shrine. It was replaced. The Border Security Force set up checkpoints well outside the shrine. The press played up the demand that even these be removed.

Charar-e-Sharief has been the same story. If persons going in and out are searched the howl goes up "innocents being harassed." When as a consequence they are not searched and the place becomes a stockade of mercenaries the howl goes up, "How did the army let so many land mines and the rest get through?"

Worse, there is a certain glee in purveying any and every allegation so long as it puts our men in the wrong. For five days some of our papers in Delhi kept repeating the allegation of some resident of the town that he had seen a helicopter (at dead of night) fly over the mausoleum and sprinkle powder over it; the place had then been shelled to set it on fire. This allegation was carried under four to eight column headlines on page one. And on the sixth day on an inside page one of those very papers reported that there was no evidence for the allegation at all that the houses bore no marks of mortar shelling or even bullets.

Officers and jawans who are there are not there for their pleasure. They are risking their lives, many of them are sacrificing their lives so that our country may survive. They are already handicapped by the absence of policy. This broadcasting of allegations and concoctions cannot but cripple them.

That much must be clear even to those who broadcast the fabrications. But a certain perversity has entered large sections of which these pressmen are representative. They will be satiated only when the country actually breaks. See, we told you, they will proclaim, it could not survive...

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