Shoe on the other foot

July 01, 2015

India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, both BJP leaders, are accused of helping the former Indian Premier League commissioner Lalit Modi (seen in picture) with his travel and immigration documents in the UK respectively

The ongoing sordid tale of the links of senior BJP ministers with Lalit Modi, the former IPL chief and a man wanted by India, is stretching the credibility of the government. And the PM’s silence, a la his predecessor and the butt of his sarcasm, is not helping

About two years ago, even sceptics paused to appreciate the oratory of Narendra Modi who was then being projected as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate. In one such speech, Modi was describing how as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat he had a meeting with the then prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, where he suggested ways of exploiting solar energy close to the country’s western border. He also pointed out how he waited to see the response of Dr Singh. And in quite a dramatic manner Modi paused long enough to deliver the message. That of silence.

Sometime later during his campaign speeches, Modi went a step further to directly hit out at Dr Singh. He mocked him by calling him ‘Maunmohan Singh’ (Maun is Hindi for Silence). He had gone on to say: “Can I ask you all a question? Have these two people (the other being Congress president Sonia Gandhi) spoken over inflation. It is a big national issue. Is it not the responsibility of the prime minister to speak on this? They should have said that prices will come down someday.’’

It is worthwhile recalling these words of Modi because he seems to have acquired Dr Singh’s traits soon after taking over the reins of the country from him. In the last few weeks, silence from him on a critical issue has become jarring. It is true that Dr Singh by nature is a quiet

person. But, Modi is just the opposite of Dr Singh. Rightly or wrongly, he has taken decisions regardless of criticism or consequences. He was determined to cut corruption in reaching social welfare benefits to the poor and he unhesitatingly adopted the unique identification card project of the previous government to achieve his end.

In the last few weeks, however, such clarity in speech or in action is missing, more so, when the party is passing through a major crisis. His decision to protect External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, despite her improper conduct of asking a British Labour party leader to help the former Indian Premier League (IPL) commissioner Lalit Modi (not related to the Prime Minister) with his travel papers when Lalit has been wanted by the Indian Enforcement Directorate, was a swift one. The party leadership just brazenly decided that conflict of interest was also not an issue despite Swaraj’s husband and daughter giving legal advice to Lalit in cases being probed by her government.
But, the Lalit episode opened a can of worms for the BJP. It also singed the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje, who had gone to the extent of signing an affidavit to support the immigration application of Lalit to the British authorities. A sustained media exposure showed the contradictions in the statements of Raje as well as the family friendship being a business relationship, as well, with Lalit purchasing shares in a company belonging to Raje’s son at a phenomenal price. The issue was not so much about the deals as much as it was about the actions of those in power.

For a party whose strong point has been strategy, particularly in a challenging environment, the BJP has come across as a party which was confused. So much so that at one stage one of its spokespersons was virtually defending Lalit. Its spokespersons were constantly harping on how the Congress’ actions were more grave then theirs. What they forgot, rather preferred to do so, was that the Congress had never had any qualms about indulging in impropriety or any illegality. If things reached a point of hurting the image of the Gandhi family, the Congress would simply drop the minister, however, extraordinary may be the loyalty quotient.

But, that is not the basis on which the BJP came to power. It has always been a chest-beating claim of the BJP that it was different from the rest in the political spectrum. That is why the federal Home Minister, Rajnath Singh’s line that his was the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and not the UPA ministry where ministers resign, stands out. It meant that however improper or illegal or morally incorrect the actions of its ministers may be, his party would not ask its ministers to resign.

The primary reasons for this confusion lay in the limited political options that lay before the two most powerful men in the country, Modi and his close associate and party president Amit Shah. They, obviously, could not decide about Raje in the same manner they did about closing ranks behind Swaraj. It is well known that asking Raje to step down would be disastrous for the party. Without her, the party would not have come to power in the desert state. Not just that.

Raje’s removal would lead to more trouble in other party ruled states like Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh where the regional satraps have a hold of their own. None of them came to power because of Modi and, therefore, it would be more difficult to touch them. But, the result of all this dithering is bound to lie at the door of Modi. After all, he is the most powerful man in the party and the country. All this simply means that the credibility of the government is slowly getting eroded just as it had started for the previous Congress-led government.

Modi had, indeed, made this interesting comment a little more than two years ago: “The Congress government is full of pride. They don’t care about peoples’ feelings. They walk their own way and believe that the world is in their bag.’’ And, silence or inaction certainly did not pay the Congress any dividend.

Remembering the Emergency
Last week, India went back 40 years to see if those dark days of the ‘Emergency’ would come back to haunt it. For the uninitiated, Emergency is what India’s Iron Lady Indira Gandhi had imposed after a High Court judgment had unseated her from parliament because of electoral malpractices. If her loyalist personal assistant is to be believed, she took the extreme step to take away all the rights of citizens because of pressure from Siddhartha Shankar Ray who later on became the law minister. The Emergency (1975-77) has remained the darkest spot in the history of the world’s largest democracy.

The dirty stain has just refused to go even though Indira Gandhi herself apologised after surprising the world by ordering elections 21 months later. Those elections were a watershed in the country’s history and for the first time the monolithic Congress party, which ironically had fought for the country’s freedom, lost power. The Janata Party or the Peoples’ Party was made up of a set of parties ranging from the secular Socialists to the rightist to the communal. In fact, the BJP reinvented itself from the old Bharatiya Jana Sangh and was born out of this confederation.

The performance of that disastrous formation led to Indira Gandhi returning to power in 1980 because it was proved by then that the country could not be ruled by others. But, that phase in India’s political history also gave room for the evolution of the anti-Congress forces in the country in different ways. It led to the growth of regional satraps launching political outfits committed to secularism. But, it also marked the beginning of the support base of the Congress falling from a remarkable 50 per cent plus to less than 30 per cent in general elections.

The interesting aspect is that every time there was a spike in the Congress votes, whether it was after Indira Gandhi’s assassination or her son, Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the party’s share in the voting percentages has only reduced but has never reached the dizzying heights of that era.

That was what forced it to reach the point of forming coalition governments or taking the help of others since her assassination in 1984 and to its current state where it has been reduced to its lowest ever representation in parliament.
The four decade old phase will continue to haunt not only the political class but also those who suffered terribly because their human rights had been severely violated. That is also one of the reasons why democracy has become so vibrant in India and why people are so sensitive to any kind of threat to their constitutional rights.

Ideas can come from anyone. This is something that one boss had told this writer. And, it did come over the years. It was not necessarily a source holding a position in public life. Once even a temp housekeeping staff came up with some information that later turned out to be a big story which made the government also sit up and take notice of in the health sector.

So, when the idea came from a village head to click a selfie with his daughter to show the importance of a girl child, it should not have been surprising in this era. What was surprising was his location. He hailed from Haryana, a state which has one of the most skewed male-female sex ratios in the country. That the Prime Minister picked up the cue and made it a national phenomenon should, hopefully, bring some sense to those who discriminate against the girl child.