Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Two Questions Recent Crises Throw at us

Arun Shourie
"A thousand Pakistani militants have entered the Baramula and Poonch sectors of Kashmir" -- that was the lead story on the 9 pm news bulletin of a leading TV channel on 27 July. I was properly alarmed. Pakistan had been soundly thrashed on the ground, its government was still trying to explain the retreat to the Pakistani public, the country had been roundly censured by the US, by the UK, by foreign ministers gathered at Singapore. And yet it had so swiftly resumed pushing terrorists into India.

And so I was even more surprised when the next morning not one paper carried anything about fresh infiltration. But it might have been a scoop of the TV channel, I thought. And was therefore triply surprised to see that the TV channel itself had no follow-up on the story the next day. The story vanished as swiftly as the terrorists.

But in such matters it is the single shot that serves the purpose: "Once again, while this Government is busy celebrating victory, the Pakistanis have come in," "Kargil is no victory, see the terrorists have spread even farther," viewers would have concluded from that broadcast. Now, if you go on repeating it, someone is bound to ask what the source for the story is, someone else is bound to start following it up, and discover the truth. As elections approach, such stories will multiply. The President has written a letter to the Prime Minister about the telecom policy, ran the lead story of "one of the world's greatest papers" the other day. There had been no letter. "Vajpayee and Advani at logger-heads" -- an item which had become a staple of some papers, and journalists has resurfaced as a regular feature again, as has its companion, "RSS unhappy with..."

For years now, Delhi reporting in The Hindu has been in a class by itself: its correspondent does not report what has been said at the press conference; the correspondent gives her opinion on what the person should have said and, in her reckoning, didn't, she lists the questions which were asked, and, as for the answers which were given, she merely adds, "To none of these questions did the BJP spokesman have a convincing answer"! That is a news report! A breakthrough: day after day, report only the questions which are asked, indeed the questions you and one other correspondent ask, omit the answers as you have decided that they are not "convincing"!

It isn't just the political parties that are running for elections. A TV channel and some papers are too!

With these "natural allies" being so enthusiastic, the Congress and our Comrades are able to deploy their customary devices all the more easily. Their sparkling logic for one! Pokharan-II? The credit goes to our scientists, they say. Agni-II? The credit goes to our scientists, they say. The victory in Kargil? The credit goes to our Army, they say. The inability of Military Intelligence and RAW to detect the infiltration into Kargil? The responsibility is that of the Government! In any case, what worked was American pressure, not anything this Government did, they declare. Would Pakistan have succumbed to any pressure had it not been for the fact that it was being driven out from peak after peak? "But the Government has given the Americans the opportunity to mediate, to meddle," they declare. Clinton is saying the USA has no mediatory role, the American spokesman, Karl Inderfuth has said this time and again, the US Government has conveyed the same message through diplomatic channels on several times -- but we should believe Natwar Singh!

And the other favoured device: sow a doubt, and run! Bhagwat, Mohan Guruswamy? Recall what a din they raised? The Defence Ministry put out an entire compendium of facts on Bhagwat and his allegations. Ever heard them mention the matter recently? Guruswamy? "Scam, scam," they shouted. Their leader, Dr. Manmohan Singh, had to acknowledge in Parliament that they had no information on the "serious questions" Guruswamy had raised beyond the articles he had written. But Guruswamy had said more than once in his articles that he was leveling no charge of corruption against anyone! Have you heard any of them raise the matter since?

Even more telling is the case of "atrocities against Christians". What a din was raised. Most of the incidents had not taken place at all. Of the three that had, persons were arrested in regard to two -- the rape of the nuns in Jhabua, the incidents in Gujarat. Have you heard any of them demand that the trials of those arrested proceed swiftly? In regard to the third, the murder of Staines and his sons, the Wadhwa Commission submitted its report several weeks ago. Have you heard any of them demand that it be released, or make even a pro-forma, nominal effort to have the Government act on its recommendations?

That was the sum total of their war-effort during the Kargil operation: ask questions, sow doubts. My favourite of that series was one by their Inquisitor-in-Chief, the head of their mental activity on foreign policy, Mr. Natwar Singh. Mr. Jaswant Singh, the Minister for External Affairs, had gone to Europe. He was meeting one representative of the P-5 after another. His meetings were being reported in newspapers. That they had telling effect has become more than evident. What was the Congress expert on foreign policy -- of the "inhein chullu bhar pani mein doob marna chahiye" fame -- saying? We have their house-journal, the National Herald to help us: "The Union Minister for External Affairs has not yet returned to India," the paper's issue of 29 May reported Natwar Singh as declaiming. "May be, he has been asked to stay abroad by the Prime Minister. Why is he taking so much time? All these questions are to be answered by the Government. The people have a right to know..."

A din having been raised, doubts having been created, the purpose of our friends having been served, they have forgotten each of the matters! And in this they are true to pattern. Remember the Thakkar Commission they had set up to unravel the "wider conspiracy" behind the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi? Ever heard any of them mention it after, their lies about it having been nailed, they were compelled to place it in Parliament? Remember the Jain Commission set up to unravel the "wider conspiracy" behind the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi? Remember how they pulled down two governments, and plunged the country into uncertainty using that report, -- to say nothing of how they buffeted one of their own governments, that of Mr Narasimha Rao, using that Commission? Remember how they paralysed Parliament on the charge that the Action Taken Report on that Commission's findings was designed to shield some of those responsible? Ever heard any of them so much as mention the matter recently?

The penchant of the Congress for falsehood remains unimpaired -- that is an important fact that we should remember as elections near. It has been compounded, I would say. For the Congress has been taken over by high-school debaters, it seems. A smart one-liner, a sly phrase, a seemingly penetrating question for the day -- the Party seems so satisfied with these. And so oblivious of the consequences: you would have to watch Pakistan TV for just two-three days to learn what comfort Sonia Gandhi's falsehoods on Kargil have been to the Pakistanis.

When this is their facility with untruth when they are out of power, what will they not do should they gain control of the State apparatus?

Event after event during the last year has been a reminder of the perilous times through which we are passing. The economic breakdown in South East, sanctions, the invasion in Kargil... In a word, in addition to our long-standing problems, here is a new danger: a squall can hit us suddenly from any side.

On the other side is what is by now a central feature of our system of governance. We style ourselves as a Parliamentary form of government, as a Cabinet form of government. Such characterizations are only partially correct. A Prime Ministerial form of government -- that is much nearer reality. The Prime Minister is not what the outdated phrase suggests, the first among equals. He is the one person who matters. His instincts, his nature, the kinds of persons he is comfortable with -- these determine policy and performance much more than almost any other feature. Mrs. Indira Gandhi's instinct -- for timing, as well as for not tolerating an assault on the country -- that determined more than anything else what the country did to Pakistan in 1971, her instinct for self-preservation more than anything else caused the Emergency in 1975. In the face of the collapse of what was then, in effect, our patron State, the Soviet Union, it was Mr Narasimha Rao's adroitness more than anything else which ensured that our foreign policy landed on its feet. Similarly, it was his nature -- of benign neglect -- which ensured that institutions which were fortunate to have good persons heading them at the time -- the Supreme Court under Justice Venkatachalliah -- were restored. The same facet of his nature ensured that several ministries stagnated.

In Kargil too, the instinct and long experience in public affairs of Mr Vajpayee have made all the difference. The pincer that caught Pakistan in the end -- that our response was massive, and simultaneously so restrained, so carefully calibrated -- has everything to do with those two personal traits of the Prime Minister: his instinct and his experience.

Another circumstance, all too visible in the case of the Congress, compounds the apprehension. Even when the cabinet and party are robust it is the nature and inclination of the one who is Prime Minister which determines the outcome more than almost anything else. Now that the Congress is reduced to a sack of domesticated "jee memsahib"s this becomes all the more certain. Among the developments which have struck me since I got to sit in Parliament, this has been one of the most disheartening ones: to see persons for whom I had developed great regard become so totally servile, to see them agitate, to see them take positions which are so plainly alien to their nature has at times well-nigh broken my heart. What this internalised servility spells for the future is evident. Recall June 1975. The prime impulse for imposing the Emergency was of course Mrs Gandhi's scale of values -- her continuance in office ranked higher in that scale than law and institutions. But what made the Emergency inevitable, what made it to so easy to throw a lakh and half people into jail was the servility to which the Congress had already been reduced: what with the then Congress President being so proud of his enunciation, "India is Indira, Indira is India," how could there spring any corrective from within? But that was twenty five years ago. Since then the Congress has become infinitely less of an organization. So, should the party be catapulted to power, Sonia's instinct -- the greed for the Prime Ministership that led her to lie to the President and the press, the imperious streak, "Those who do not agree with me should leave the party here and now" -- her ignorance will act completely unimpeded on the country and its future.

Thus, perilous times on the one hand, and, on the other, the fact that in our system of governance everything depends on the person of the Prime Minister. That is the central question that the crises of these months -- the South East Asian economic collapse, sanctions, Kargil -- pose for the electorate. In such a time, is the country to be put in the hands of a person about whom it knows nothing?

About whose views on no matter does it know anything -- save her anxiety to become the Prime Minister?

Is the country to be placed in the hands of a person about whom, as she merely reads speeches written by someone else, no one knows whether she even has a view on any matter -- save that one exception of becoming the Prime Minister?

About whose associates, the persons she trusts, the ones she listens to, even the ones who write her speeches the country knows nothing?

Is the country to be put in the hands of a person who has absolutely no experience of any governmental office?

Is the country to be put in the hands of a person who is so much at ease with falsehood -- "I have the support of 272 M P's" "The President has asked me to continue my efforts to form an alternative government," to say nothing of what Mr. P. A. Sangma has since revealed -- that the Congress Working Committee had not authorized her to stake a claim to be the Prime Minister at all, that all it had authorized her to do was to see whether an alternative government, one not necessarily headed by her, could be formed.

The other point is as important. Even the most astute Prime Minister can do little if he does not have sufficient numerical strength in the Lok Sabha. It was a stroke of luck for the country that the war broke out after the Lok Sabha had been dissolved, and hence Mr. Vajpayee and his team were able to craft a coherent and massive response. Had the Lok Sabha been in session, he and the Government would daily have been baited and jostled in Parliament. The war effort would certainly have been impaired. Short of insulating the conduct of governance better from our legislators, the crises teach us that we must give sufficient numbers to the government we vote into office.

And in today's context the key to that is to rise above caste.

India Connect
August 2, 1999

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