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Vajpayee: A man of moderation who raised India’s global stature

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Atal Behari Vajpayee

New Delhi, Aug 16: He was a man of moderation in a fraternity of jingoistic nationalists; a peace visionary in a region riven by religious animosity; and a man who believed in India’s destiny and was ready to fight for it.

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (93), who died on Thursday, will go down in history as a person who tried to end years of hostility with Pakistan and put development on the front burner of the country’s political agenda. He was also the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete a full five-year term.

Even though he lived the last 13 years of his life in virtual isolation, dogged by debilitating illnesses and bedridden, he has left an enduring legacy for the nation and the region where he was much loved and respected across the political spectrum and national boundaries, including in Pakistan.

In the tumultuous period he presided over the destiny of the world’s largest democracy, Vajpayee stunned the world by making India a declared nuclear state and then almost went to war with Pakistan before making peace with it in the most dramatic fashion. In the process, his popularity came to match that of Indira Gandhi, a woman he admired for her guts even as he hated her politics.

He also became the best-known national leader after Indira Gandhi and her father Jawaharlal Nehru.

After despairing for years that he would never become Prime Minister and was destined to remain an opposition leader all his life, he achieved his goal, but only for 13 days, from May 16-28, 1996, after his deputy, L.K. Advani, chose not to contest elections that year.

His second term came on March 19, 1998, and lasted 13 months, a period during which India stunned the world by undertaking a series of nuclear tests that invited global reproach and sanctions.

Although his tenure again proved short-lived, his and his government’s enhanced stature following the world-defying blasts enabled him to return as Prime Minister for the third time on October 13, 1999, a tenure that lasted a full five-year term.

When finally he stepped down in May 2004, after an election that he was given to believe he would win, it marked the end of a long and eventful political career spanning six decades.

Vajpayee had gone into these elections riding a personality cult that projected him as a man who had brought glory to the nation in unprecedented ways. The BJP’s election strategy rested on seeking a renewed mandate over three broad pillars of achievement that the government claimed — political stability in spite of the pulls and pressures of running a multi-party coalition; a “shining” economy that saw a dizzying 10.4 percent growth in the last quarter of the previous year; and peace with Pakistan that changed the way the two countries looked at each other for over 50 years.

The results of the elections could not have come as a greater shock to a man who was hailed for his achievements and who was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 influential men of the decade.

Success didn’t come easily to the charismatic politician, who was born on Christmas Day in 1924 in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, into a family of moderate means. His father was a school teacher and Vajpayee would later recall his early brush with poverty.

He did his Masters in Political Science, studying at the Victoria College in Gwalior and at the DAV College in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, where he first contested, and lost, elections. He began his professional career as a journalist, working with Rashtradharma, a Hindi monthly, Panchjanya, a Hindi weekly, and two Hindi dailies, Swadesh and Veer Arjun. By then he had firmly embraced the ideals of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

But even as he struggled to win electoral battles, his command over Hindi, the lingua franca of the North Indian masses, his conciliatory politics and his riveting oratory brought him into public limelight.

His first entry into Parliament was in 1962 through the Rajya Sabha, the upper house. It was only in 1971 that he won a Lok Sabha election. He was elected to the lower house seven times and to the Rajya Sabha twice.

Vajpayee spent months in prison when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency rule in June 1975 and put her political opponents in jail. When the Janata Party took office in 1977, dethroning the Congress for the first time, he became the foreign minister.

The lowest point in his career came when he lost the 1984 Lok Sabha polls, that too from his birthplace Gwalior, after Rajiv Gandhi won an overwhelming majority following his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination. And the BJP he led ended up with just two seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha, in what looked like the end of the road for the right-wing party. In no time, Vajpayee was replaced and “eclipsed” by his long-time friend L.K. Advani.

Although they were the best of friends publicly, Vajpayee never fully agreed with Advani’s and the assorted Hindu nationalist groups’ strident advocacy of Hindutva, an ideology ranged against the idea of secular India. Often described as the right man in the wrong party, there were also those who belittled him as a moderate “mask” to a hardline Hindu nationalist ideology. Often he found his convictions and value systems at odds with the party, but the bachelor-politician never went against it.

It was precisely this persona of Vajpayee — one merged in Hindutva ideology yet seemingly not wholly willing to bow to it — that won him admirers cutting across the political spectrum. It was this trait that made him the Prime Minister when the BJP’s allies concluded they needed a moderate to steer a hardliner, pro-Hindu party.

He brought into governance measures that created for India a distinct international status on the diplomatic and economic fronts. In his third prime ministerial stint, Vajpayee launched a widely acclaimed diplomatic initiative by starting a bus service between New Delhi and Pakistan’s Lahore city.

Its inaugural run in February 1999 carried Vajpayee and was welcomed on the border by his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif. It was suspended only after the 2001 terror attack on the Indian Parliament that nearly led to a war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

The freeze between the two countries, including an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation on the border for nearly a year, was finally cracked in the spring of 2003 when Vajpayee, while in Kashmir, extended a “hand of friendship” to Pakistan. That led to the historic summit in January 2004 with then President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad — a remarkable U-turn after the failed summit in Agra of 2001. Despite the two men being so far apart in every way, Musharraf developed a strong liking for the Indian leader.

His unfinished task, one that he would probably rue, would be the peace process with Pakistan that he had vowed to pursue to its logical conclusion and a resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

He was not known as “Atal-Ji”, a name that translates into firmness, for nothing. He could go against the grain of his party if he saw it deviate from its path. When Hindu hardliners celebrated the destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque at Ayodhya, he was full of personal remorse for the apocalyptic action and called it — in a landmark interview to IANS — the “worst miscalculation” and a “misadventure”. He even despaired that “moderates have no place — who is going to listen to the voice of sanity?”

In his full five-year term, he successively carried forward India’s economic reforms programme with initiatives to improve infrastructure, including flagging off a massive national highway project that has become associated with his vision, went for massive privatisation of unviable state undertakings despite opposition from even within his own party.

While his personal image remained unsullied despite his long innings in the murky politics of this country, his judgment was found wanting when his government was rocked by an arms bribery scandal that sought to expose alleged payoffs to some senior members of his cabinet. His failure to speak up when members of his party and its sister organisations, who are accused of killing more than 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat, was questioned by the liberal fraternity who wondered aloud about his secular proclamations. He wanted then Chief Minister — now Prime Minister, Narendra Modi — to take responsibility for the riots and quit but was prevailed upon by others not to press his decision.

A day before his party lost power, Vajpayee was quoted as saying in a television interview that if and when he stepped down he would like to devote his time to writing and poetry. But fate ruled otherwise. The man who once rued that “I have waited too long to be Prime Minister” found his last days in a world far removed from the adulation and attention — though across the nation people prayed for his well-being — surrounded only by care-givers and close family whom he even failed to recognise.

IANS

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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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