Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My apprehensions on Kashmir and the poll outcome

It is now the case, in the political circles and in the media that democracy is once again on the rails in Jammu and Kashmir. Well. It is difficult to argue otherwise given the fact that the elections to the State assembly, held amidst apprehensions of separatist violence and in the context of a call by the various groups in the valley for poll boycott, witnessed considerably moderate polling.

The people, in their own way, went about casting their votes and threw up a hung assembly. And we now have Omar Farooq Abdullah as Chief Minister. But for a determined Sonia Gandhi and her party’s Government at the Centre, Jammu and Kashmir would have remained under Central rule for a few more months and that would have facilitated the Congress to continue pulling the strings in the valley from the back-door.

It is another matter that with the dependence of Omar Farooq on the Congress for survival as Chief Minister, the National Conference will have to accommodate the Congress party’s interests in the State. It is also a fact that Omar has given sufficient signals that he will, in doing so, limit himself to dealing with the Congress party in New Delhi and continue to hold the Congress leaders from Srinagar at arms length. It is also likely that the People’s Democratic Party, responsible for the elections now (since the party withdrew support to Ghulam Nabi Azad and thus pulled the Government down) will now make things difficult for Omar.

Be that as it may. There is now the central issue of how much democracy has been restored in the State. Recall the events in Srinagar and in Delhi some 22 years ago. In 1987, Omar Abdullah’s father, Farooq Abdullah, swallowed all his anti-Congress diatribes and entered into an alliance with Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress. It was still better than now because it was an alliance before the elections. And that led Mufti Mohammed Sayed, to walk out of the Congress, join V.P.Singh and much later found the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The PDP, we know, won a large number of seats and formed a Government with the Mufti being made the Chef Minister and supported by the Congress.

The National Conference-Congress alliance in 1987 and the elections then marked a watershed in the history of the crisis in Jammu and Kashmir. The NC-Congress victory was obtained by resort to unfair means both during the polling and at the time of the counting. The Muslim United Front, that consisted of a whole lot of young political activists such as Yaseen Malik and many such others were defeated in the polls by this unfair means and drove them to where they are now.

Anyone who has watched Kashmir in these years know that the present state of crisis has to do with the 1987 events. And that is where one finds this post-poll alliance between the Congress and the National Conference a cause for concern now. It is difficult, hence, to agree that democracy is now firmly on the rails now. The alliance between two parties that fought against each other and teamed up only now is not all that exciting and democratic so to say.
There is, then, the issue of the manner in which Omar Farooq Abdullah was chosen as Chief Minister. His father, Farooq Abdullah too was chosen the same way in the early eighties. In other words, Farooq Abdullah was nowhere among the people of Kashmir in 1982 when his father, Sheikh Abdullah anointed him the Chief Minister of the State. Sheikh Abdullah, indeed, was the leader of the people but his son was not. And Farooq Abdullah’s effete administration and his total lack of belonging led to the beginning of the alienation of the people from the democratic stream.

He allowed himself to be dismissed in 1983, played along with the opposition parties for a while and agreed to team up with the Congress, the party that was responsible for his dismissal in 1984, only in order to become Chief Minister in 1987. And the democratic people on the valley had to pay the price for all that. And once out of power, Farooq would fly off to London! Omar’s only claim to fame is that he is Farooq’s son and Sheikh Abdullah’s grand son. This does not qualify him to a position of power and that too as Chief Minister of a minority Government if democracy is to be the ruling doctrine.

Hence the apprehension; and Omar has only confirmed this fear when he said that he will deal with Rahul Gandhi from now. This certainly raises a lot of fear. I will be happy if my fears are proved to be unfounded!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Who are you to Question Me asks Brinda Karat to Karunanidhi...

The DMK chief, M.Karunanidhi wondered, recently, as to how the CPI(M) and the other Left parties could even think of an alliance with the AIADMK, whose leader J.Jayalalitha had supported the kar seva in Ayodhya in 1992. And the CPI(M)’s politburo member, Brinda Karat responded to that within no time: She pointed out that Karunanidhi and his party had been with the BJP even when the Gujarat riots had taken place and that the DMK leader, hence, had no locus standi to raise questions on the secular conviction of others!

Well. Both sides were right in the factual sense. It is a fact that Jayalalitha had supported the kar seva at Ayodhya in July 1992 (wen it was only a symbolic event) and subsequently in December 1992, she was with the various other BJP leaders at the National Integration Council meeting. And Karunanidhi, at that time, had expressed himself against the BJP and its Ayodhya campaign. This was notwithstanding the fact that the DMK was part of the National Front Government between December 1989 and September 1990, which depended on the BJP for its survival.

Jayalalitha, in fact, was consistent with her views on the Ayodhya issue for several years after the Babri Masjid was demolished. She went ahead with striking an electoral alliance with the BJP ahead of the 1998 general elections and her AIADMK helped the BJP win Lok Sabha seats from Tamil Nadu. The party also sustained the Atal Behari Vajpayee Government until April 1999 and also pulled it down then by withdrawing support. The DMK, all this while, was on the other side of the communal-secular divide.

And the CPI(M) as well as the other left parties were opposed to the AIADMK essentially because Jayalalitha went with the BJP. Things changed after April 1999. Murasoli Maran indicated that change on the floor of the Lok Sabha when the confidence vote in favour of Atal Behari Vajpayee and his Government was being debated. The vote was necessitated due to the AIADMK’s decision to withdraw support. Let me now quote Maran in the Lok Sabha in that instance: ``Now that the ghost has been exorcised from the NDA, we will have no hesitation joining the front’’!

The DMK’s alliance with the BJP lasted until November 2003. In other words, Brinda Karat was right; the DMK remained with the BJP, with Murasoli Maran and T.R.Baalu as Union Ministers unmindful of the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in the couple of months after February 2002. And the ties snapped only a few months before the May 2004 general elections.

But then, Brinda Karat simply forgot that her party and the DMK were on the same boat in May 2004 and along with the Congress. The CPI(M) then did not have any problems having an alliance with the DMK that was doing kar seva to the BJP even at the time of the Gujarat riots! And this happened in the name of secularism!

The point is about the culture of scuttling a public discussion and the arrogance that the leaders display when it comes to accounting for their acts. In other words, in a democracy, it is imperative for political parties to explain their position and show the courage to apologise for their faults. Instead, the culture now is to scuttle any debate by simply pointing fingers at the infirmities of the other.

The objective behind doing this is plain and simple: We are all guilty of infirmities. All of us are opportunists. And let us agree to hush things up and stay clear of pointing finger at each other. Well. The people certainly know that the parties, across the spectrum are guilty of crass opportunism. And they are also dealing with them with a certain kind of contempt. The problem, however, is that they are left without another alternative.

Take for instance the spectre of corruption. Political parties have ceased to raise that. The truth is that there seems to be a consensus. That we are all guilty of that and let us not point fingers at each other. This is also evident on the issue of governance. Parties have ceased to raise the issue of development and governance because they all belong to one category in this case too.

And we found this in the debate on terrorism too. Recall the sad spectre of the BJP blaming the Congress for the tragedy in Mumbai; and the Congress retorting by recalling the attack on Parliament or the exchange of under-trials for hostages in Kandahar.

It is simple to describe all this as the pot calling the kettle black. The difficulty, however, is to identify as to which is the pot and which is the kettle. And in a broader sense, this culture of running away from a debate and the lack of courage to own up past mistakes is inimical to democracy and the parties must realise that their own existence depends on the democratic edifice surviving. In other words, there is no place for political parties in an undemocratic structure.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Vishwanath Pratap Singh (born 25 June 1931 – died 27 November 2008) India’s eighth prime minister (2 December 1989 to 7 November 1990) was a complex and brilliant political personality who will be remembered for a variety of reasons.

Beginning his political life in Allahabad in Indira Gandhi’s Congress, he was among those whom Sanjay Gandhi promoted to positions of power. This die-hard Indira-Sanjay loyalist ended up heading a non-Congress government between 1989 and 1990. And when he died on 27 November2008, did not belong to any political party.

When V P Singh was sworn in as prime minister on 2 December 1989, he had
travelled a long distance from participating in Vinobha Bhave’s Bhoodan movement during the 1950s. He was among those who gave away their land to be distributed among the landless. There was still a lot of time before V P Singh landed up with the Congress Party. He remained in the Congress during the Emergency and after the party was vanquished in the general elections in 1977. His loyalty to Indira/Sanjay Gandhi earned him a berth, as a junior minister in the union government when the Congress returned to power in January 1980. V P Singh at the time did not conceal the fact that he owed his rise in the Congress to Sanjay Gandhi. He belonged to a generation in the party to whom Sanjay Gandhi was the icon and Indira Gandhi the supreme leader.

Later in June 1980, V P Singh was made chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP). In the two years (1980 -1982) that he was chief minister, there were no charges of corruption against him. In that sense, he was a contrast from the others who rose in the party and became chief ministers and cabinet ministers thanks to their loyalty to Sanjay Gandhi.

But V P Singh’s short term as UP chief minister was also marked by a complete failure insofar as the law and order situation was concerned. The Moradabad communal violence in August 1980 was a case in point. While instances of anti-Muslim violence were not new in UP, the Moradabad carnage was different. The perpetrators of the violence belonged to the Provincial Armed Constabulary.

Similarly, violence against the members of the Scheduled Castes by armed gangs of the upper castes became more frequent and massacres were reported from across the state. And after every massacre, V P Singh used to give himself a month’s time to apprehend the culprits. The police did act. Between November 1980 and January 1982, the police claimed to have gunned down as many as 325 “dacoits” in different incidents of encounters. In most of those incidents, the dead turned out to be innocent young men. V P Singh finally quit in June 1982, owning moral responsibility, after dalits were massacred in Dastampur (near Kanpur).

In late 1984, after the elections that were held soon after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, V P Singh was among the few Sanjay Gandhi loyalists to be included in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet and given charge of the powerful Finance Ministry. As finance minister, the budget for 1985-86 was indeed a decisive moment insofar as the transition from state socialism to the free market was concerned. As finance minister, V P Singh also meant business when it came to enforcing the law. Thanks to the frequent raids by the Enforcement Directorate, indirect-tax receipts touched new highs, customs revenue went up and so too excise revenue. V P Singh could have kept his job as finance minister if he had let up on his raids on businesses and businessmen for tax evasion. But lobbying against him saw Rajiv Gandhi shift him to the Ministry of Defence in 1987, though it is said that Rajiv Gandhi also suspected that his finance minister was building up an independent base in the Congress Party.

V P Singh could have remained defence minister had he ignored the telex message from India’s ambassador in Bonn that commissions were paid in the HDW submarine deal. (His enthusiasm to pursue the HDW deal and track down the commission trail (Rs 30 crore at that time) dissipated when he became prime minister in 1989.) His resignation was, sought for by the prime minister after he had ordered a departmental enquiry into the alleged payoffs in the HDW submarine deal. And the Bofors scam, in fact, was the central issue in the Allahabad by-elections of 1988 when V P Singh as head of the Jan Morcha made his name. V P Singh emerged as a knight in shining armour in the crusade against corruption.

As prime minister of the National Front government, V P Singh did show a lot of commitment to unravelling the truth in the Bofors scandal. And not as much insofar as the HDW deal was concerned where the needle of suspicion pointed to Arun Nehru, one of Singh’s fellow travellers from the Congress to the Janata Dal and a minister in V P Singh’s cabinet.

V P Singh, nevertheless, will be remembered most of all for the decision of is National Front (NF) government to implement parts of the Mandal Commission recommendations when he was prime minister. Even if the Janata Dal had promised to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission in its manifesto for the 1989 elections, it was not thought of until when the party and the government landed in a crisis caused by the dismissal of Devi Lal on 1 August 1990. Under pressure to reinvent the Janata Dal’s social identity, V P Singh pulled out the Mandal Commission report from the cupboard. Neither had the Janata Dal nor the National Front allies thought of the Mandal report until August 1990.

Similarly, it was not as if that the idea of reservation in jobs for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) was first thought of by the Mandal Commission. The principle was conceived and implemented by various state governments from1967 onwards and the commission report pertained only to central government jobs. But then, V P Singh was aware that the relevance of implementing the Mandal Commission report, at that time, was not merely in terms of reserving a few thousand jobs in the central government but one that would alter the political discourse of the country. His constant refrain was that the political discourse after Mandal had been changed forever.

One of the reasons for the rise of V P Singh during the 1980s may well have been the demise of almost all the veterans of the Janata Party. Charan Singh, JagjiwanRam and KarpooriThakur had passed away in the few months before the Janata Dal was conceived. With Morarji Desai having bid farewell to party politics, the only one to challenge V P Singh’s claim to be the leader of the opposition and therefore as a non-Congress prime minister was Chandrashekhar.

V P Singh could be called a pragmatist or a man without scruples. His willingness to put “pragmatism” above principles was evident, perhaps for the first time, when he decided to keep Arif Mohammed Khan out of the campaign in the Allahabad by-elections in June 1988. Arif Khan had at that time “enraged” the fundamentalists among the Muslim community for having opposed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 and had walked out of Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet. He was among those who constituted the core of the Jan Morcha from which V P Singh launched himself as a non-Congress leader. And yet, VPSingh was willing to keep Arif Khan out of the campaign in Allahabad and did not mind Syed Shahabuddin, then in the Janata Party and a vocal supporter of the 1986 Act, campaigning for him there.

V P Singh’s approach to politics as the art of the possible and his involvement in the intrigues behind the scene, in which he was a willing participant during the week between 26 November and 2 December 1989 all to become India’s eighth prime minister, were at that time not frowned on as opportunism.

In 1989, he played games to claim the job and steered a motley crowd consisting of Arun Nehru, Arif Mohammed Khan, Vidya Charan Shukla and Mufti Mohammed Sayeedtoeliminate Chandrashekharfrom the race. He was willing to indulge anyone and everyone including Devi Lal, another ex-Congressman and Haryana leader, to be chosen for the top political job.

V P Singh was obliged to Devi Lal for the prime minister’s job and hence allowed the Haryana patriarch (whom he had made deputy prime minister) to anoint his son O P Chautala as chief minister of Haryana. He remained a passive onlooker when Chautala crossed all limits by rigging and unleashing violence during a by-election in Mehem constituency in 1990. V P Singh acted only after Devi Lal released a letter purportedly written by him implicating Arun Nehru in the Bofors deal. The letter turned out to be forged and he recommended to the president R Venkataraman that the deputy prime minister be dismissed.

Similarly, V P Singh indulged Mufti Mohammed Sayeed too. It was the Mufti’s idea to appoint Jagmohan as governor of Jammu and Kashmir in late 1989. The end game was clear: To provoke Farooq Abdullah to protest and resign as chief minister. By appointing Jagmohan, V P Singh also pleased the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on whose support his NF government depended for survival. A day after Jagmohan was appointed governor, over 100 people were killed in an attack by security forces in Gawakadal. The NF government’s prime minister let things drift. He had Jagmohan removed only when pressure was brought on him after the indiscriminate firing by the police on 21 May 1990, at the mourners of Mirwaiz Maulavi Farooq killing at least 50 people. And even then he agreed to nominate Jagmohan to the Rajya Sabha. This was one of the many instances of his penchant to do the balancing act.

V P Singh was also guilty of accommodating some of those known to have been corrupt. An example was when he put Chimanbhai Patel in charge to steer the Janata Dal in Gujarat. He become the chief minister in March 1990. Patel, it may be noted, had to quit as chief minister in 1974 in the wake of the student movement in Gujarat and was perceived to have been among the most corrupt chief ministers at that time. And V P Singh did not protest against his return despite the fact that the Jan Morcha and the Janata Dal were born out of a campaign against corruption in high places.

If the long-standing Kashmir issue exploded during his tenure and if he did little to resolve the issue, his response to the Babri-Ram Janmabhoomi agitation was woefully inadequate. The minority NF government was dependent on the BJP for support and V P Singh never tried to take on the BJP on the growing violence of the agitation. Stung by Mandal, L K Advani, unleashed his rath yatra to regain ground. V P Singh allowed Advani’s yatra to travel across India before he finally had it stopped – through Lalu Yadav – in Bihar. That decision brought down the NF government, but it was a decision taken too late.

While V P Singh did cut his principles to suit political exigencies of the time, unlike most of his contemporaries and those who have come after him he was not a permanent aspirant for political office. He refused to be anointed once again as prime minister in May 1996 of yet another non-Congress government at the centre after the defeat of the Narasimha Rao government, V P Singh was convinced that the reality in May 1996 was very different from that in December 1989. By declining the job when it was offered to him on a platter by M Karunanidhi, Chandrababu Naidu, Deve Gowda, Biju Patnaik and other regional leaders, V P Singh had travelled a long way from 1989.

In 1996, however, Singh had the benefit of hindsight. He had realised, by that time, the perils of a balancing act that was necessary to head a coalition of disparate groups. He was also conscious of the fact that the Janata Dal, the party that was founded around his personality in October 1988, was now fragmented beyond repair. And he proved the sceptics wrong by simply refusing to even hear the various leaders who went to him offering the prime minister’s job. To be fair, long before the May 1996 general elections the former prime minister had maintained that he was not in the reckoning for any office. And he remained steadfast about that decision. This was V P Singh, an extraordinary politician who changed the nature of Indian politics permanently during his short stint as prime minister.

V P Singh came into the limelight as the darling of the middle class, but it turned against him for Mandal and never forgave him.

He was, therefore, never given the recognition for the many things he did as a politician, even if his prime ministership had nothing to distinguish itself beyond Mandal. His political behaviour was a bundle of contradictions and compromises, yet it cannot be said that what drove him was a permanent thirst for high office. V P Singh remained until the closing years of his life an astute observer of the political scene but he had no political base and died alone, if not in isolation, from cancer that dogged him for more than a decade.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

V.P.Singh (June 25, 1931-November 27, 2008) belonged to an era when those in public life were wiling to do anything to remain ministers. But then, he was an exception to that rule. Hence, when he died, on November 27, 2008, after battling cancer for over a decade, Singh did not belong to any party. Many politicos who owe their present positions in office to their association with V.P.Singh were not seen around when his body was consigned to flames on the banks of the Sangam at Allahabad.

The media, engaged with the tragic developments in Mumbai found it appropriate to report his death in just a few column centimeters. The visual media did not care to do that also. Well. The managers of the show in the production rooms of the various TV channels must have chosen to ignore the report of V.P.Singh’s death that day because they were all flooded with ``exclusive’’ footage on the terror in Mumbai. It is another story that even in doing that, they were more concerned with the Taj, Oberoi and the Trident hotels and the shootout at the Victoria Terminus waiting hall did not really excite them.

Well. V.P.Singh could not have chosen the time of his death. And in a sense, he was among those who believed that the desire to preserve one-self was inimical to the law of nature and dialectics.

A day after his return from London in 1993, Singh addressed a public meeting at the Vithalbhai Patel House lawns in New Delhi. He was still a MP then and the Janata Dal had not broken into so many pieces as it is today. There was tremendous pressure on him, that day, to take over as Janata Dal’s president. And it was also imminent that the party will not survive long if he did not agree to lead it. V.P.Singh, however, was firm that he was not game for it. The seed, he explained the crowd, shall not attempt to preserve itself. The plant can grow only when the seed allows itself to be destroyed and that is the law of the nature.

Likewise, he explained that his role was over with the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s report. The changes that it provoked in the body politic and the dynamics it generated in the political discourse demanded a new set of leaders who then will have to negotiate a new set of issues. V.P.Singh was aware of all that and he was categorical in rejecting all the pressure and the pleadings by the Janata Dal’s leaders that he become the party’s president.

Incidentally, the day before he addressed the public meeting, Singh had also shared with his close friends in the party as well as in the media the medical records that suggested that he was beginning to suffer from cancer. His kidneys had begun to malfunction by then and dialysis was the only way he could be kept going. And I remember having met with him in the week after his public address where he ruled himself out as president of his party. In that casual but long meeting we had, V.P.Singh explained that with his failing health, he will only lead the party and the nation into a disaster if he persisted in active politics.

His reasoning was as follows: A leader must have the physical strength to stay in touch with the ground reality directly. He must see and hear things himself. In the event a leader does not have the physical fitness to be on the move, day after day, and interact with the people directly, he will depend on inputs from a close band of followers. Such inputs will obviously reflect the predilections of the follower and not the reality. In other words, a leader shall not depend on a coterie for information. ``With the state of my health now, I will end up depending on a coterie and that will be disaster,’’ he said.

He stood steadfast on the decision that he was not after public office again. V.P.Singh chose the time to resign as MP. He refused to intervene in the Janata Dal’s affairs even when the party underwent a series of splits and simply went into hiding when pressure came to be mounted upon him to be the Prime Minister in May 1996. Those were days when the mobile phones had not become a part of the human body and civilisation! And when M.Karunanidhi, Chandrababu Naidu, Lalu Yadav, Deve Gowda and Ram Vilas Paswan landed at his 1, Teen Murti Marg residence late in the afternoon on that day in May 1996, to handover the Prime Minister’s job to him, they were told that V.P.Singh had gone out somewhere.

They all left after about an hour, waiting for him and decided on H.D.Deve Gowda as Prime Minister. V.P.Singh returned home only after all that was over. He was incommunicado all the while! Even his cynical friends were then convinced that he meant what he said at the public meeting at Vithalbhai Patel House lawns. That it was against the law of nature for one to try preserving himself.

But then, V.P.Singh did not lead the life of an ascetic. Even while he spent a lot of his time painting pictures, writing poetry and with his camera (all these were his passions), he did devote some of his time and the little energy that he had between two dialysis sessions to agitate for the people and their rights. He did lead protests by the farmers in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh against their land being taken away for the setting up of a SEZ by the Ambanis. He did follow the political discourse very closely. He did express his views. He believed in the fundamental principle that change was inevitable and that the common man was always the moving force behind any change.

All this is not to say that he was a man without blemishes. Like anyone in the public domain, V.P.Singh too was guilty of several commissions and omissions. He believed in politics as the art of the possible. This led him to compromise on a lot of principles. Some of them led the polity into a crisis. But his most significant contribution to the political discourse was Mandal. It altered the course of political India in such manner that was never imagined. And Singh will be remembered for that and as one of the few political leaders who were honest to the core.