Sunday, May 25, 2008

Every Disaster, a Photo-Opportunity

Arun Shourie

"The secret of success is sincerity," reads The Cynic's Lexicon, "Once you can fake that, you've got it made." How hard Sonia Gandhi is trying to reach success by that route!

A flood in Assam? Visit the area. Have yourself photographed. Pronounce: Government's relief measures are wholly inadequate. An earthquake in Kumaon? Visit the area. Have yourself photographed. Pronounce: Government's relief measures are wholly inadequate. Cyclone somewhere? Visit the area. Have yourself photographed. Pronounce: Government's relief measures are wholly inadequate. Fighting in Kargil? Visit hospitals at a safe distance. Have yourself photographed with injured soldiers. Pronounce...

Upon checking with persons conversant with the areas she has visited for the photography -- government officials in UP, student leaders in Assam, journalists -- I find that, the visit over, there has been no effort to even ascertain what eventually happened to the victims of the disaster, to say nothing of doing anything substantive for them.

Though conditioned to this pattern, I have been appalled by the depth to which she and her dependents -- Natwar Singh leading the lot -- have stooped on Kargil. For weeks and weeks, they have been casting doubt, casting aspersions, throwing dark hints: "We have questions to ask on Kargil." Why are you waiting? Ask them now. "We have forty two documents." Disclose them now. The people will see what equipment was being sought year after year after year -- for fifteen years -- by the defence forces, by agencies like RAW, and who denied it to them. People will see who sought kudos from international lobbies for their "path-breaking disarmament initiatives", for their "decisiveness" in cutting allocations for defence.

We have questions to ask, Sonia repeats -- rather, reads again from pages written by someone -- convene the Rajya Sabha, she demands. Talk of security is an "excuse" to "shut up the people", she declares. That "shut up" with appropriate emphasis -- the sound byte for the evening bulletin on Star News.

She is not a member of the Rajya Sabha. Whether the session is convened or not does not affect her ability to ask questions. There is one forum which would be ideal for her to ask the questions, the all-party meetings. These she scrupulously dodges. She has been invited to choose any joint-forum of her choice to debate every aspect of the Kargil matter with some representative of Government or the ruling party. There has been no response. Perhaps because responding to such invitations is beneath what her dependents have convinced her is her dignity!

On the other hand, the Leader of her party in the Rajya Sabha, Manmohan Singh, and its Chief Whip, Pranab Mukherjee, have attended the all-party meetings. What their questions are worth can be gleaned from the list they have themselves circulated to the press.

The Pakistani intrusion points to grave weaknesses in the system of gathering and interpreting intelligence data and arrangements for border surveillance, and that is a very serious lapse, they say. And so, "the Congress(I) wants an assurance from the Government that steps have been taken to plug the loopholes." The standard demand, if I may say so. It never fails to amaze me: on the one hand, critics of this kind assert that the assurances of the Government are worthless, and on the other the only thing they can think of demanding is another assurance from the same Government!

"The Congress(I) wants authoritative information on the present military situation...., and the Government's assessment of the unfinished task...", they say. Information -- even in regard to on-going operations -- is being given every single day by the concerned officials. The Chiefs of Staff themselves briefed all who were present at the all-party meeting. For one and a half hours. With maps, slides, and the rest. Not "authoritative" enough?

"The party wants a coherent policy statement on diplomatic initiatives, particularly the Government's assessment of the US's views on de-escalation," they demand. Unable to bring themselves to acknowledge the success that has attended the Government's efforts in presenting India's case the world over, this is all they can spot as missing: "a coherent statement"! And there is a word of advice also from their "experienced diplomats" about how the "coherent policy statement" should be drafted: rather than "unwarranted euphoria", these would-be back-seat drivers pontificate, the Government's assessments of its "success" should be based on "solid, hard-headed analysis". And, of course, they will decide whether the analysis is sufficiently "solid" and "hard-headed"! As solid and hard-headed as it was in referring the Kashmir issue to the UN? As it was in returning the territories and heights our forces secured in 1948, and again in 1965, and yet again in 1971? As it was in returning 93,000 prisoners, and in signing the Simla Agreement without getting Pakistan to agree to a solution on the Kashmir question? As it was in stoking Bhindranwale? As it was in first arming the LTTE? As it was in then sending the IPKF to finish the LTTE? As it was in ousting Farooq Abdullah's Government, and thereby leaving the field free for the Jamiat-e-Islami, and Pakistan? As it was in packing Bangladeshis on to voting lists in Assam for winning elections, and then killing over eight hundred boys and girls for doing no more than demanding a stop to this treachery?

Government spokesmen have been making contradictory statements in regard to the likely duration of the conflict, and on crossing the Line of Control, they say. "The Congress(I) has urged the Government to speak with greater consistency, restraint and clarity," they say. That is a good suggestion. It is the sort of suggestion which several of us in newspapers too have been making -- the papers have not needed a Rajya Sabha session to do so!

"The Army Chief, General V P Malik, has spoken of shortages of equipment," they observe, and demand, "What is the Government doing on this score?" I just do hope that the Government will in fact answer this question in detail: it must prepare a list of the equipment that the forces have sought -- year by year over the last fifteen years, and what which government did about each item.

The BJP's crude attempts to politicise the conflict, particularly its Kashmir Day advertisements are highly offensive and should be discouraged, they say. Fine. I am sure their advice applies all round.

"The Government should make credible arrangements to look after the families of those who have laid down their lives and for rehabilitation of those who have been disabled," they pronounce. Typically vacuous counsel. Urging the obvious for the sake of saying something. Commitment would have required that the party study what is being done, and advance specific suggestions about what more should be done.

Vacuous, but entirely in line with what the Congress has been doing on every issue of the kind. Each time L K Advani tried to alert the country to the designs of Pakistan, of the ISI in particular, Congress spokesmen cried that he was a war-monger, that he was vitiating the atmosphere of peace which the Prime Minister was trying to build. When the atomic tests were held, they first shouted, sub-continent put in jeopardy, tradition of Buddha and Ashoka abandoned, sub-continent plunged in arms race.... Their incisive expert on foreign policy, Natwar Singh was the lead-shouter then also. Within days, the thesis shifted: actually this is nothing but a continuation of what we had done under Indiraji, they declaimed. The next week, the thesis shifted again: the atomic tests are terrible, but it is a glorious achievement of our scientists! And that very week their Working Committee passed a resolution scolding the Government for not having gone in for "nuclear weaponisation"!

They continued to berate the Government: for spoiling relations with Pakistan one day, for causing India to be diplomatically isolated the next. But then suddenly the Lahore Resolution etc. came. At first they belittled the entire episode: Natwar leading the chorus as usual, with, as usual, the major pretensions of a minor feudal! But within days, the public response stopped them: and so in the Rajya Sabha, they joined everyone in welcoming what had been done. And now: "The PM went on a ride, he was taken for a ride" -- that little witticism produced after so much cogitation by Natwar Singh!

Whatever will do for the day, do! So today "We have questions to ask," "Convene the Rajya Sabha". The line has nothing to do with the war-effort: quite the contrary. As persons who have attended Rajya Sabha sessions can testify, another session will not yield a single operationally useful suggestion, what it will yield is another bout of shouting and mock-fury. The line is pushed on calculation -- the PR Advisors' calculation that putting out such vague hints, that making such demands can be triply useful: it can lead people to believe that the other fellow is responsible for what is happening and make him forget what you were doing all the while; it can lead people to believe that you have some secret knowledge; and at the same time it can enable you to snatch a halo of responsibility: see, we are so responsible, we are refraining from saying things that may demoralise the forces in this hour of trial. In fact, if anything will demoralise the forces it is the vague, dark hint -- one that cannot be nailed precisely because nothing definite has been said.

That the "questions" will be forgotten the moment the invaders have been ousted is evident from the record. Have you heard of the Jain Commission recently? Yet Sonia and her advisors brought down two governments because of what they said that report contained. Have you heard of Bhagwat or of Mohan Guruswamy recently? Yet they paralysed Parliament for weeks on end because of what they said were "serious questions" these two had raised.

But in this Sonia is truly following the Congress tradition. Have you heard recently of the "international conspiracy" to kill Mrs. Indira Gandhi? Of the Report of the Commission they themselves appointed to unearth the conspiracy -- that of Justice Thakkar? That conspiracy was played up too. Dark hints were put out about what they alleged the Thakkar Commission Report contained. The Report was kept from the courts. Even from the Supreme Court. Kehar Singh was hanged as a consequence... And the aura of martyrdom was created. When the Report was published, the people learnt that what the Congress and its leaders had been saying was the exact opposite of what the Judge had said -- he had concluded that the one angle which needed to be examined was whether an inside aide had a hand in the conspiracy... And the last act of Rajiv Gandhi before he demit office was to sign orders dropping all charges against those accused of that so-called larger conspiracy!

When assassinations can be put to use, why not floods and earthquakes? When the assassinations of one's own can be milked, why not the deaths of unknown soldiers on some distant front?

And every day, a spin to belittle every initiative. "Don't be taken in by these claims of Pakistan having been isolated diplomatically," sneered Natwar Singh at a television discussion the other day. "It is nothing of the kind. The P-5 are just waiting for the operation in Kosovo to be over. The UN General Assembly will begin in September. Pakistan will bring up the matter in the General Assembly, and..." Weeks have passed. The isolation of Pakistan is now even more visible. Natwar Singh has moved on. He is using his having held jobs to spin other nonsense. "Pakistan is interested in stretching the war to September, and...", he said this week. Last week the thesis was that the BJP is interested in stretching the war to September so as to postpone the elections. And the month before that the argument was that the elections must not be held early.... The heat of May and June, the monsoons...

India Connect
July 6, 1999

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