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Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The Gentle Colossus

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Atal Behari Vajpayee

In passing away of Atal Behari Vajpayee, India lost its one of the tallest leader and a statesman. He was a democrat and nationalist to the core apart from being an orator par excellence and a poet. Vajpayee was for BJP what Pandit Nehru was for the Indian National Congress. Vajpayee’s only sin was that he moulded the early BJP as a secular and a socialist legatee of the Janata party which came into existence in 1977 to oppose Mrs Indira Gandhi.

He had also opposed the Ram Mandir movement and it was Advani who was the RSS’s first choice for Prime Minister for the 1996 elections. But it was Advani who in November 1995 in Bombay announced Vajpayee as the prime ministerial candidate – to the astonishment of those present on the stage. It also took RSS by surprise but from then on, Vajpayee never turned back becoming Prime Minister in 1996, 1998, and in 1999 – while Advani withdrew to being his deputy.

The close friends and family members used to call him “Baap ji” and the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once addressed him as the “Bhishm Pitamah” of Indian politics. Vajpayee was a gentle colossus among the contemporary politicians and there were few among Indian leaders who attained the respect which he did. Journalists and newsmen all over the world do without salutations in addressing a politician but Vajpayee Ji was an exception and “Ji” became an integral part of his name.

“This young man would one day become the Prime Minister of India” said Pandit Nehru about Vajpayee. Nehru’s prophecy did come true decades later in 1996 when Vajpayee occupied the coveted post. Vajpayee was elected 11 times for Loksabha and twice for the Rajya Sabha and remained a Member of Parliament for 47 years.

In 1977, he became the External Affairs Minister under Morarji Desai and when he entered the office of Ministry of External Affairs in the South Block, he found the usual portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru missing from its spot in the ministerial chamber, removed in an excess of zeal by functionaries to please the new rulers. Though a lifelong critic of Congress, he wanted it back on its original spot. That was the persona of Vajpayee – a great heartedness as he embraced even those with whom he disagreed.

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Pro-India; anti-Indira: (From left) Jagjivan Ram, Morarji Desai, Ashok Mehta, Chandrasekhar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee | Pramod Pushkarna. “

According to a popular legend, once Henry Kissinger asked Chou-en-Lai in 1972 what he thought of the impact of French Revolution on Western civilization. Apparently, Chou thought about it for a minute and then turned to Kissinger and said: “It is too soon to tell.” Something like that could well be said about the legacy of Vajpayee, India’s first BJP Prime Minister and also the first non Congress leader to complete a full tenure.

He had the distinction of being the first head of nation to address the United Nations in Hindi. He ran a coalition Govt of 24 parties in one of the most chaotic times in the country and provided not just stable but very efficient governance. His coalition partners in ideology were as diverse as chalk and cheese but it was to his credit that he kept his flock together despite extreme provocations.

When Jayalalitha pulled the carpet under his feet, he refused to opt for the customary horse trading and lost the confidence motion by just 1 vote. He took integrity and probity to a level which was unheard of in the Indian politics. He was also the best performing parliamentarian for over 5 decades and was a true Bharat Ratna on all counts.

His stewardship of economic reform and his skilled management of unruly coalition made his 6 year tenure as a Prime Minister a memorable one. But more than these accomplishments, Vajpayee should be remembered for the way in which he achieved them. Judged on most parameters, Vajpayee was a great Prime Minister.

He continued the policies of economic liberalisation initiated by Narsimha Rao and as a result economy flourished during his reign. He took the historic trip to Lahore by Bus to break the ice with Pakistan but unfortunately it was followed by their usual betrayal in the form of Kargil war. His summit with President Musharraf at Agra also ended in a fiasco but Vajpayee improved India’s relations with US, Russia, China and most of other important nations.

He was a great consensus-builder and worked closely with the opposition, avoided political invectives and endeavoured to bring all Indians and not just Hindus to bring them together in harmony. After the Pokhran-II nuclear test of May 1998 and the victory in Kargil, India began to be taken seriously as an emerging Asian power. It was under Prime Minister Vajpayee that the old hyphenation of India-Pakistan ended and a new one like India-China emerged on the global scene.

Vajpayee’s legacy remains in doubt as people forget that for all his charisma, he began his career as a hard-core Sanghi and made his reputation in the great Hindi debates of the Sixties, demanding that all of India should embrace Hindi, his mother tongue.

Vajpayee only began to mellow in the Seventies when experience convinced him that there is no place for divisive politics in India. From then on, he lost interest in the agitation for Hindi language and more significantly also moved away from the hardliner Hindus-first politics of Jan Sangh. By doing this, he alienated most of his old colleagues and earned the ire of the RSS.

After the BJP was almost wiped out during Congress landslide victory of 1984, the RSS looked around for alternatives and it found one in Vajpayee’s old lieutenant LK Advani, who abandoned the liberal approach that he too had once espoused, and pushed the concept of RSS. Advani undertook a Rath yatra through most of North India in an effort to whip up the communal tensions and weaponise Hinduism.

Vajpayee had no option but to distance himself altogether from his protege Advani’s movement. But when the BJP seemed like it had a chance of finally coming to power, the RSS also conceded that it was only Vajpayee who could attract the potential allies.

We think of Vajpayee as a strong Prime minister but that was only because he always remained calm and composed and seldom let the tensions show. RSS continued to push its own agenda and was not happy with Vajpayee’s politics and propped up Advani as a rival power centre. The allies in coalition Govt were difficult to handle but somehow, Vajpayee made it all seem easy.

From then on, the BJP should have continued as a centre-right party as even Advani suddenly turned into a liberal and visited Pakistan to sing paeans in support of MA Jinnah. But that was not to be and the BJP went back to her Hindu-centric ideology that Advani had once espoused much to the delight of RSS. Only, this time around, the shift to a muscular Hindutva was so extreme that even a hardliner like Advani began to seem like a lily-livered secularist in comparison.

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Lal Krishan Advani lays a flower wreath at the mausoleum of Mohammed Ali Jinnah

From BJP’s point of view, Vajpayee’s greatest achievement was that he took a party that had once been a political pariah, brought it into the mainstream and acceptable to the electorates.

In many ways, it is as if the Vajpayee Prime minister ship with its consensus-building and taking everyone in confidence never happened. Sometimes it seems that the BJP moved directly from the destruction of the Babri Masjid to the dominance of the ideology that celebrated the demolition. So, it will be pertinent to say, Vajpayee was a great Prime Minister. But what will India remember as his legacy? As Chou-en-Lai might have said, “It’s too soon to tell”.

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Children of a lesser God

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Workers look inside a sewage treatment facility Sunday in a posh neighborhood in New Delhi. Five of their colleagues died of toxic gases that while cleaning facility’s tanks. (Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)

Anil, Vishal, Sarfaraz, Pankaj, Raja, Kiran Pal and Umesh……………..Who are these people? They were all young men with a dream and a family to look after but they are all dead. They were sanitation workers and went inside sewer to clean but never came back.

Last week in Delhi, a photograph of an 11-year-old child crying next to the body of his father went viral on the social media. The pictures, tweeted by a New Delhi-based journalist early this week, showed the child sobbing next to his father Anil at a local crematorium, who died while cleaning a sewer last week in New Delhi prompted social media users to raise nearly 55 lakh rupees to support the family.

To step into a manhole to clean the sewer lines in urban India is as dangerous as fighting insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir. In last eight years at least, the death toll among sewer workers has started to converge with that of security forces killed in the beleaguered state. Statistically speaking, it is safer to be a soldier in the army serving in Kashmir than a sewer worker in India.

The Supreme Court has passed strictures against both central and state governments for sending people into manholes without even basic protective gear, and ordered Rs10 lakh to be paid to the survivors of each of those who died in the line of duty. Unfortunately, we don’t recall even a single instance where this compensation was awarded to the family members of dead sewer worker.

Nobody gives a second thought to a man who dies while cleaning the gutter. The best he can hope is just a casual description in the city pages of newspapers unless his death has a horrendous novelty, like in a recent case in Delhi when Anil, a 37-year-old man died of asphyxiation while cleaning a Delhi Jal Board (DJB) sewer in west Delhi’s Dabri last week on Friday.

Police said that Anil, a labourer was lowered in a 20 foot deep sewer by a weak rope tied to his waist which snapped midway. It was a double tragedy for the family as Anil had lost his four-month-old son only six days back. A week back three labourers were asphyxiated while a fourth is battling for life after reportedly inhaling poisonous gases inside a manhole they were cleaning in Lajpat Nagar.

This incident occurred less than a month after four men died while cleaning a septic tank in Ghitorni, Delhi. Joginder (32), Annu (28) and a 25-year-old unidentified man, were declared brought dead at AIIMS. Like in other similar cases reported earlier, the men weren’t wearing protective gear when they entered the sewer line.

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Sewage and septic tank workers, NCR, Delhi

According to reports, in all the death cases of the sewer cleaners recorded so far, none of the workers were equipped with protective gears like masks or any other safety equipment. Inspite of manual scavenging being banned by law, it continues nevertheless. Last month, the Delhi Govt had decided to fully mechanize the cleaning of sewers and provision of life imprisonment was suggested for those who failed to adhere to these new rules.

It is shocking that these sewer workers are forced to operate without bunny suites, masks, and oxygen cylinders. In fact, it was shocking to learn that the workers drink liquor before venturing into these death chambers to numb their senses. It is estimated that almost 90% of the workers are hooked to liquor. Many die young and there are few among those employed with municipalities who live till the retirement age.

Mumbai’s municipal corporation does not have data specifically for sewer workers, but last year, they acknowledged the death of 1386 conservancy workers since 2009. Another report released by the National Commission for Safai Karamacharis, a government agency, said on an average, one manual scavenger has died every five days in India since January 1, 2017.The report also said that if the amount of Hydrogen Sulphide in sewer is high, the death will be instant.

Bezwada Wilson, an activist who launched “Safai Karmachari Andolan” – a campaign against manual scavenging in 1995, told the press that the government numbers are a fraction of the data about sewer deaths as over 300 people were killed in the sewers in 2017 itself. He further added that there is no effort from the government to end this inhuman practice, which primarily employs the lowest rungs of our society, belonging to Dalit caste.

It’s getting difficult for the community of sewer workers to survive because they are already marginalised. If a person calls a worker to clean his sewer, he can neither refuse to work nor can he ask for the safety equipments to enter in the manhole. Though, there is a law in place but nobody gets punished. Law can take place only if there is a political will but unfortunately that is missing. If we look at the budget allocation, it clearly shows that sanitation workers are not a priority for this government.

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Life after Parrikar’s Delhi airlift doesn’t look easy for Goa BJP

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Manhohar Parrikar

After nearly three decades of Manohar Parrikar’s complete dominance over the affairs of state BJP, the party is now looking at life in Goa without him, who is battling advanced pancreatic cancer and was airlifted to New Delhi’s prestigious AIIMS on Saturday.

With apparently chances of Parrikar’s return to active politics bleak, life doesn’t appear all that smooth for the Goa BJP leadership, at least for now, as it is already battling crises of lack of credible successors, skeptical alliance partners who have sniffed the weakness, and the possibility of an ugly succession battle for power in Parrikar’s absence.

For now, several core Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in Goa seem to be in favour of dissolution of the state assembly, instead of allowing leaders from other alliance parties to head the coalition.

Barely hours after Parrikar took off in a specially chartered flight to the national capital on the instructions of the BJP high command, alliance partners Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and the Goa Forward have already started scrapping publicly over sharing of power.

“The BJP should appoint the senior-most leader in-charge. Goa has already suffered because of lack of leadership. We need to fill that void,” state MGP chief Dipak Dhavalikar told reporters, throwing his party MLA, brother and Public Works Department Minister Sudin Dhavalikar’s hat in the ring for the post of officiating Chief Minister.

However, Goa Forward president and Town and Country Planning Minister Vijai Sardesai has already rejected the option to make Dhavalikar the Deputy Chief Minister, with an ailing Parrikar continuing in the top post.

Both parties had contested the 2017 Assembly poll on an anti-BJP plank but had later joined the BJP-led coalition government on the condition that only Parrikar should head the coalition.

Another proposition, which was discussed by Dhavalikar with the BJP leadership about merging his regional party MGP with the BJP, has seen stiff resistance from the cadres of both parties.

Last week, state Congress president Girish Chodankar in a letter to Goa Governor Mridula Sinha had asked her not to consider the possibility of dissolution of the state Assembly and invite the Congress, which has more MLAs than the BJP in the 40-member House, to form the government instead of dissolving the House.

Party leaders say, under the current scenario, the best option would be Union Minister of State for AYUSH and North Goa MP Shripad Naik, who is a popular leader of the OBC, a significant vote bank which is peeved at the “pro-Brahmin politics” orchestrated with Parrikar at the helm of state and party affairs.

“Shripad is widely acceptable, both as a person and a politician. His nature is to take everyone along,” a BJP leader said.

There are also talks within the party about a possible anti-incumbency factor working for Naik in the upcoming Lok Sabha election. Getting Naik, a three-time MP from North Goa, back into the state politics would serve well for the party instead.

Elder to Parrikar by three years, Naik, 65, is complete counterfoil to Parrikar’s personality. While Parrikar is a sharp, incisive and intimidating, Naik is warm, gentle and known for his warm camaraderie.

Naik, in a way, has also been at the receiving end of Parrikar’s style of functioning, which did not allow any second power centre in Goa to develop.

The other options being touted within the party are Speaker Pramod Sawant and state BJP president and Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Tendulkar. While Sawant’s candidature has been opposed by alliance partners, Tendulkar could emerge as the dark horse in the BJP’s quest for a homegrown CM.

(Mayabhushan Nagvenkar can be contacted at [email protected])

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Amit Shah’s 50-year dream: Whistling in the dark?

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Amit Shah

Bharatiya Janata Party : President Amit Shah’s boast at the national executive meeting about the party ruling for 50 years may have been in keeping with his usual aggressive, bombastic style, but it has been interpreted in two contradictory ways.

One was to see it as a sign of arrogance and the other was to discern in the seeming extravagant claim a hint of whistling in the dark to keep up the party morale. Both the surmises have an element of plausibility.

If the assertion underlines hauteur, the reason undoubtedly is the BJP’s belief that it faces no serious challenge at the moment. Notwithstanding the continuing unemployment, agrarian distress, high fuel prices, falling rupee, stagnant exports and the unease among the minorities and Dalits, the opposition has not been able to get its act together.

Because of this failure, there are now doubts about how it will fare in the forthcoming assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh since the BJP’s main opponent in these states, the Congress, which was earlier expected to have an easy run, has been unable to reach an understanding with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and is troubled by its familiar internal squabbling.

Besides, the question as to who will be the opposition’s prime ministerial face is yet to be settled while there has been no clearcut articulation of an economic blueprint. The BJP, on the other hand, is pursuing a well-defined path. Even as “vikas” (development) remains its catchphrase, it also cannily indulges in the ruses of what a dissident saffron intellectual and former BJP minister, Arun Shourie, has called a “one-trick pony”.

The “trick”, according to him, is to foment divisiveness which has been highlighted by the communal uncertainties posed by the National Register of Citizens, which the Assam Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, wants to be extended from his state to the entire country so that the “ghuspetiyas” (infiltrators or illegal immigrants) can be summarily evicted. “Chun chun ke nikaloonga”, as Amit Shah has thundered.

The BJP’s confidence apparently stems from the belief that while the promise of development will keep the youth and the middle class on its side — as has been confirmed by the Delhi University Students Union election results where the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), won three of the top four seats — the party’s nationalist plank targeting “ghuspetiyas” and the so-called urban Naxalites will keep the opposition off balance.

It is obvious that the opposition has found no effective answers to the allegations of being soft on illegal aliens and Maoist sympathisers and has to depend on the judiciary to keep any excesses of the ruling party in check as in the matter of lynchings.

How indifferent the BJP is towards such outrages or the disquiet expressed by the “secular” intelligentsia about its rule was evident from the seeming satisfaction which Amit Shah derived from the fact that the party keeps on winning despite the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq, allegedly for eating beef, or the “award wapsi” of the urban elite.

It is not surprising that he believes that a combination of the promise of economic growth and a depiction of the opposition as unpatriotic will keep the “lion” safe from the “wild dogs”, to quote the similes used by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat while addressing the World Hindu Congress in Chicago to describe the Sangh Parivar and its opponents.

On its part, the RSS has been engaged in broadening its appeal by calling the non-saffronites to its conclaves. It goes without saying that a possible mainstreaming of the avowedly pro-Hindu organisation will help the BJP to shake off to some extent the taint in the eyes of its opponents of its association with the RSS and thereby help in the fulfilment of the dream of ruling India for half a century.

It cannot be gainsaid that at the moment, much is going for the party. It has a Prime Minister whose popular appeal is testified by virtually all the opinion polls despite the government’s palpable inadequacies. The party also has a chief whose micromanagement of the organization has turned it into a formidable election-winning outfit.

In addition, its publicity is boosted not only by its members in the government and the party, but also by an army of trolls who lose no opportunity to pounce on the BJP’s critics with venomous abuses. Not to be left behind in supporting the ruling dispensation are some ‘nationalist’ television channels whose commitment to neutrality is conspicuous by its absence.

With so much in the BJP’s favour, its 50-year project may not seem all that far-fetched — except that the Indian voter remains famously inscrutable. Considering that the BJP secured no more than 31 per cent of the votes at the height of its popularity in 2014, it is obvious that a large percentage of the population do not think much of the party.

It may be this inconvenient fact which made Amit Shah whistle in the dark.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])

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