02 September 2004

One hundred days of solitude

September 2, 2004
The Hindu

Opinion - Leader Page Articles

One hundred days of solitude

By Siddharth Varadarajan

If the BJP has not reconciled itself to being in the Opposition, the Congress too sometimes gives the impression of not reconciling itself to the fact that it is now in power.

THE BHARATIYA Janata Party has made life easy for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by refusing to play the role of the Opposition. But why is the United Progressive Alliance reluctant to play the role of Government?

One hundred days after our own momentous regime change and it is clear that the leaders of the BJP are still in that stressed-out, post-traumatic stage psychologists like to call `denial.' And who can blame them? So heady was the rush of adrenalin that came with power — with testing nuclear weapons, massing nearly a million troops on the Pakistan border for a year, planning not just a glorious future for the country but also rewriting its past, and having TV channels eager to report and interpret every nod of the head and inflection of the voice — that losing it all in such an unexpected manner must have been a terrible and cruel blow.

Those who, till yesterday, were swanning around the world have been reduced to releasing privately published works of fiction by unknown authors in nearly empty rooms at the Habitat Centre in New Delhi. The former Deputy Prime Minister no longer evokes awe, fear or distaste in those he meets — he just evokes the usual ennui and indifference that being in the presence of an `also ran' tend to generate. It is little consolation to say that such are the ups and downs of politics. Even lesser mortals would be unforgiving at this unexpected turn of events — and these are, after all, Great Men who had been chosen by Destiny to right 2,000 years of historic injustice. And the greater the men, the more virulent the pathology.

There is no other explanation for the apoplectic ineptitude that has characterised each one of the BJP's political initiatives so far. First, the "tainted" Ministers issue fell flat because of the erstwhile Vajpayee Government's own track record on this score. The party then tried to raise an even more absurd issue — an obscure research paper written by a senior bureaucrat while on a sabbatical in the United States which was "anti-national" because it spoke of American "facilitation" of the India-Pakistan peace process. This, too, fizzled out when it was realised that the bureaucrat had only put into words what had been the practice of the erstwhile Vajpayee Government. Then came the irrelevant controversy regarding V.D. Savarkar, the allegation about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's "rude" behaviour, and the issue of the non-bailable warrant from Karnataka against Uma Bharti for a 10-year-old case relating to inciting riots and attempt to murder.

This, apart from some meaningless carping about the budget, the World Trade Organisation meeting in Geneva and the mental state of the Arunachal Pradesh Governor, is the sum total of the Opposition's exertions in the past 100 days.

But if the BJP has not reconciled itself to being in the Opposition, the Congress too sometimes gives the impression of not reconciling itself to the fact that it is now in power. It has shown no urgency in tackling the fast snowballing crisis in Manipur, it has allowed the situation in Kashmir to deteriorate to such a point that the future of the dialogue process with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference is now in jeopardy, and it has demonstrated an unwise preference for symbolic and irrelevant skirmishes with the BJP and Hindutva over Savarkar and Uma Bharti without bothering to take legal and institutional steps that can actually tackle the menace of communal violence and hatred on the ground. In short, the Congress in power — at least when it comes to questions of great political import — seems to be behaving as if it is in the Opposition.

There is no other explanation for the political laziness with which it is responding to the ongoing crisis in Manipur. The day the body of Thangjam Manorama Devi was discovered by villagers — I repeat, discovered, rather than taken to a local morgue by the soldiers who claimed they had shot her while escaping — the Centre should have realised this was no encounter but a case of murder. Even in the fakest of fake encounters, such as the show that was enacted in Delhi's Ansal Plaza in 2002, the security forces do not abandon the bodies of their victims. They take the body in, conduct a post-mortem, file a case. But in Manipur, so pervasive is the impunity the security forces enjoy that the soldiers did not bother to do any of these.

If the Centre's political instincts were well honed, it would have immediately — within a day at the outside — apologised to the people of Manipur, arrested the soldiers who killed Manorama, put them on summary trial and handed down exemplary punishments. The veteran journalist, Inder Malhotra, has written recently of how Indira Gandhi, when she was Information and Broadcasting Minister, responded to the fast-spiralling anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s. Even as Lal Bahadur Shastri was dithering over whether there should be any truck with "anti-national" forces, Indira got on a plane to Madras and went straight down to meet the demonstrators. She had the politician's knack of knowing how to defuse a situation. It is a different matter that she lost those skills later in life and gave in to the comforting certitudes of the intelligence and bureaucratic establishment — that saw in every expression of public protest nothing other than the hand of a foreign country or an underground insurgency.

Dr. Singh is apparently being briefed twice a day on the situation in Manipur — and being served the same predictable fare — but I am willing to wager that none of the officials will have shown him a video disc from Manipur that was screened at the Press Club of India in the Capital last week. It shows Manipuri boys and girls — many of them from schools and colleges — being brutally beaten up by the security forces with lathis and rifle butts for the crime of waging what Gandhiji would have described as a satyagraha against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. In one scene, that most journalists found too painful to watch, a soldier screams hysterically at a group of students to lie face down on the ground. He then takes his rifle and fires a shot inches away from the head of one of the boys. In another place, soldiers line up a number of Manipuri youth and brutalise them by making them hit one another with lathis. Those who waver get a beating from the soldiers. Despite this appalling cruelty — which made me think immediately of Abu Ghraib — the people of Manipur continue their protests. It is unhealthy for the Centre to ignore the reality of what is happening there, to simply wish it away.

The Prime Minister may feel he has good reason for not lifting the AFSPA, or visiting Manipur himself, but is there any explanation for why no high-power envoy or committee has been despatched to give him some independent inputs? Home Minister Shivraj Patil will travel to Imphal later this week but, if reports are to be believed, all he is taking with him as a "concession" to public sentiment is a proposal to recruit "adventure-loving Manipuri youth" in the paramilitary Indian Reserve Battalion so that the Assam Rifles can gradually be drawn down.

Sadly, the UPA Government is being no more political when it comes to the other set of issues relating to communalism. The damage to our textbooks wrought by the previous Government is gradually being undone but there is a tendency to confine the ideological struggle against violence and communal division to merely the iconic. All the plaques honouring Savarkar can be removed but why is the Centre baulking at setting up a full-fledged judicial commission to probe the Godhra incident in which 58 Vishwa Hindu Parishad supporters were killed? Nothing has the capacity to puncture the Sangh Parivar balloon better than the truth about what happened at the Godhra railway station on the morning of February 27, 2002. The UPA Government has also shown no urgency in joining the National Human Rights Commission's plea before the Supreme Court for the investigation of all major Gujarat violence-related cases such as Godhra and Naroda Patiya to be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation. The former head of the intelligence department of the Gujarat police, R.B. Sreekumar, testified before the Nanavati Commission on Tuesday that senior BJP politicians told police officers not to act against the rioters. However, he declined to name the politicians for fear this would jeopardise the career of his fellow officers. Why can the Union Home and Law Ministries not, along with the blessings of the Supreme Court, devise a way of providing protection to Mr. Sreekumar and other whistle-blowers so that they actually name names?

It is concrete steps such as these that will help tackle the menace of violence. The UPA, if it is serious about implementing the mandate which has brought it to power, should not allow itself to be sidetracked by pointless controversies. The first 100 days may have not been used well but there is still time for the Government to make a dent.

The fact that Dr. Singh is not a politician is his greatest strength and also his greatest weakness. The public at large has tired of the neta, has come to dislike and loathe him as a breed. So for the UPA Government to have at its head a man who radiates both probity and intellect in abundance means the battle for public support is already half won. But it is the other half of the battle which has yet to be joined, let alone won, because it calls for the guile and cunning of a politician rather than for technocratic quick-fixes. When it comes to Manipur or other issues involving widespread public disaffection, the Prime Minister has to learn to put politics in command.

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