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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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Montreal Protocol on ozone protection survives a hiccup

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Ozone layer depletion

If you Google “Edmund Hillary” you will get seven million references to his summitting Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1952. But when you Google “George Mallory”, who made a gallant effort 30 years before that but who disappeared on the treacherous slopes, you get nearly 17 million references. It is still a mystery if George Mallory died on the way to summit or while descending after scaling it.

The world is more excited about failures and the mysteries that surround them. It takes more interest in investigating failures than successes. The investigation gets sensational when the post-success enquiry doubts the success itself. No wonder that Sherlock Holmes is more popular than Shakespeare.

A similar mystery-drama is now being played out at United Nations on the Montreal Protocol on the Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

Crafted in 1987, the Montreal Protocol has proved to be different because it has successfully delivered — and delivered in time. In 2010, as stipulated in the rules of this universally-ratified environmental treaty, all the production of chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs, the main ozone depleting substance (ODS), was halted in all the producing countries, including India and China. Today, 99 percent of all ODS, including those other than CFCs, have been phased out in developed and developing countries as per the unanimously agreed time-table.

A UN scientific assessment panel confirmed in its 2018 report that concentration of all ODS in the atmosphere was declining as a result of the Montreal Protocol being implemented. Further, it revealed that the ozone layer — the earth’s life shield — was well on the recovery path.

The singular success of the Montreal Protocol is considered an example of what humanity can achieve to reverse environmental degradation.

And then came a jolt.

A paper published in the prestigious science journal Nature, on May 17, 2018, stated that the concentration of CFC-11, one of the two most abundant ozone-depleting ODS, controlled by the Montreal Protocol, “have unexpectedly stopped its decline and in fact increased in recent years despite a global ban on production in 2010”.

So why was this happening? The best scientific brains as well as brash media and brandishing NGOs started brimming with probable answers.

Though production of CFC 11 had stopped in 2010, its stocks from legally produced quantities before January 1, 2010 — the date of global phase out of CFC 11 — continue to emit in the atmosphere, as was expected. The legal stocks in turn can come from two sub-sources: First, the storages of the CFC 11, if those existed, and second, the equipment and the products that contained CFC11 — air-conditioning in commercial buildings and the insulating foams that are blown with CFC11. At its peak, about 350,000 metric tonnes of CFC11 were produced globally per year for such and other minor uses.

The Nature report clearly indicated that first beep of slowing down the decline, in reality, came in 2012. But scientists, overtaken by the successful worldwide closure of CFC 11 production, took some time to ensure that the slowdown was real and not a mistake in measurement. But then, after a longer investigation using updated models, they confirmed the slowdown and said it corresponded to about 13,000 tonnes of CFC 11 being added per year to the huge atmospheric cauldron. That is considered too large an amount to have come from stocks or “banks” — as termed in the Montreal Protocol’s parleys. So, the answer by rule of elimination, pointed towards the new production facility, illegally run somewhere.

Where exactly this production is based has become the subject of international curiosity and is reverberating in the global meetings of the Montreal Protocol.

One more critical dimension to the scientific finding has triggered heightened excitement among the media and NGOs. It is the result of yet another modelling exercise carried out by the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It said that the illegal production may be based in East Asia, hinting at China.

While the NGOs and the media, obsessed by the desire to be visible, went high octane and even visited China for their own investigations, other East Asian producers could be South and North Korea and Japan.

In the Meeting of all the Parties to the Montreal Protocol that concluded earlier this month in Quito, Ecuador, the countries showed restraint and took a unanimous and exemplary decision that calls on the international scientific and technical community to engage in rigorous scrutiny — including review of assumptions and models used so far. This decision, importantly, does not mention China or even East Asia as the region for probable illegal activity.

The meeting, however, clearly belonged to Chinese delegation, which demonstrated a brave and balanced approach when all fingers were pointed at it. Overcoming the classical temptation of choosing to be in “denial mode”, China gave details of a nation-wide investigation that it has carried out involving more than 1,000 enterprises since the publication in Nature and the punitive surveillance the country has conducted in unearthing the concealed illegal production and consumption of CFC 11.

Openly sharing the anxiety surrounding the issue, China admitted to identifying locations of illegal production of CFC 11, though much smaller than what Nature stated. That hinted at the possibility of illegal production at additional places. Aiming to further strengthen its compliance measures, China invited international experts to a proposed seminar next year to exchange information on capacity-building for strict compliance. The Chinese delegation also keenly supported the decision for further study and scrutiny.

The Quito meeting finally turned out to be the exemplary international show of what is expected from the collective wisdom of the nations when faced with unexpected emergence of an aberration that poses a threat to the acclaimed success of the Montreal Protocol.

(Rajendra Shende is Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre and a former UNEP Director. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected] )

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Phool Waalon Ki Sair: An offering of communal unity at altar of secular India

The roots of the festival go back to the reign of one of the last Mughal emperors and Bahadur Shah Zafar’s father, Akbar Shah II, who was buried next to the dargah.

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Jawaharlal Nehru

When Syed Fariddudin Qutbi, the “khadim” (attendant) of the shrine of 13th century sufi saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki in Meharauli, stepped out after offering a floral “chhatra” (a flower-embellished umberella) at the ancient Yogmaya temple located at a stone’s throw from the dargah, all he had to say was that in the small temple sanctum sanctorum suffused with a strong incense and jasmine fragrance, he felt the same tranquility and a “magnificent, invisible power” he feels at the dargah.

Part of the annual cultural festival “Phool Walon Ki Sair” (Festival of Flower Sellers), an initiative that promotes communal harmony and positive cultural exchanges since early the 1800s, many like Qutbi go beyond the bounds of religious identity, and encourage members of other communities to offer flowers and “pankhas” (fans) at places of worship that are considered not “their own”.

Image result for Phool Waalon Ki Sair Akbar Shah II

Picture Credit : Wikipedia

The roots of the festival go back to the reign of one of the last Mughal emperors and Bahadur Shah Zafar’s father, Akbar Shah II, who was buried next to the dargah.

Legend has it that when his son Mirza Jahangir was imprisoned on the orders of the British, Akbar Shah’s wife vowed that she would offer a blanket at the sufi saint’s dargah upon his release. As fate had it, Shah’s son was released and the blanket was offered. Upon imperial orders, floral offerings were also made at goddess Yogmaya’s temple, which sparked public enthusiasm, causing it to become an annual tradition.

The festival was stopped in the 1940s when the British started their polarising efforts in line with their “divide-and-rule policy” that led to deep rifts between India’s two major religious communities, Mirza Mohtaram Bakht, secretary of the Anjuman Sair-e-Gul Faroshan, the organisers of the fair, told IANS.

He said the festival was revived in 1961-62 by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It has, since then, been a regular occurrence and brings together hundreds of Delhi residents each year, Bakht said.

In today’s deeply polarised milieu where hate crimes against specific communities are just as rampant as the venom spewed against them on social media, the assimilating significance of the week-long festival takes a new turn.

“When our Hindu brothers offer a blanket of flowers at the dargah, members of the Muslim community take a step back and let them take the lead. Similarly, Muslim people are encouraged to offer a floral ‘chhatra’ to Devi Yogmaya. It’s a communion of hearts, and that can only happen if there’s ‘pakeezgi’ in people’s souls,” Qutbi told IANS, adding that he recommends extremists of all religions to at least experience other cultures once.

Rajnish Jindal, another resident of Mehrauli, who has been visiting the festival for 15 years, said that it was a matter of developing comfort with all religions and people from all walks of life.

“You go into a gurdwara, you find peace and comfort, that’s your ‘mahzab’ (faith); same is with a mosque or a temple or a church. It should be a matter of personal belief,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the path of “Phool Walon Ki Sair”, is often laden with thorns and threats.

“People say ‘tum karke toh dikhao, hum dekhte hai tum kaise karte ho’ (We’ll see how you do it); not everyone wants a secular nation that celebrates all its religions. It often happens covertly; 11th-hour permissions, indifference and excuses create hurdles for us, even if there is no direct visible opposition.

“We, however, give it back with our enthusiasm. Truth is always victorious. They can’t stop our caravan,” Bakht, a former geologist and a “proud Delhi-wallah”, said.

Kite flying competitions, processions, wrestling bouts, kabbadi and shehnai recitals mark the first four days of the seven-day festival, with offerings in the dargah and the temple earmarked for the fifth and sixth days.

This year, Delhi’s Lieutenant-Governor Anil Baijal offered the floral blanket at the dargah on Thursday, and Delhi government’s transport minister Kailash Gahlot offered a floral “chhatra” on Friday, along with members of both communities.

“Phool Walon Ki Sair” closed on Saturday with tableaus from over 11 states and a night-long qawwali singing programme.

(The weekly feature series is part of a positive-journalism project of IANS and the Frank Islam Foundation. Siddhi Jain can be contacted at [email protected] )

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Was it necessary to kill Avni?

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Tigress Avni or T1
Nagpur: The carcass of tigress Avni or T1 arrives for an autopsy at Gorewada Rescue Centre in Nagpur on Nov 3, 2018. Avni or T1, who is believed to be responsible for killing and devouring 13 humans in the Pandharkawada- Ralegaon forests of Yavatmal district in eastern Maharashtra over the last two years. In September this year, the Supreme Court had said Avni or T1, as she is called, could be shot at sight, which prompted a flurry of online petitions seeking pardon for the tigress. (Photo: IANS)

In November 2012, a tigress and her two cubs began a journey from their home in the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, Uttar Pradesh. She had somewhat uncharacteristically left the forest. Over the next two years, this tigress is recorded to have travelled 260 km — from the Amariya region in Pilibhit, along the Devha river, criss-crossing through the densely-populated village areas of Gularia Bithra, Khali Nawada, Bishanpur, Surajpur, Bhadsara, Dhaki, all the way up to Kanpur, where she was finally sighted in February 2014. A close-knit team comprising officials of the state’s Forest Department and tiger conservators of WWF-India were on the trail of this feline family.

The sketchy story from their sightings, pug mark tracking and camera-trap images unraveled that she was accompanied by her cubs for part of the journey, negotiating past villages, through sugarcane fields and grassy landscapes. On several occasions, she would enter the forest for short durations, only to return to her new habitat. The team speculated whether she had moved out of the forest to protect her cubs from aggressive males. Months later, in September 2014, they also spotted her cubs, now sub-adults, back in Amariya, apparently living and operating independently. Not a single incident of attack on humans or livestock was recorded through this epic journey of this majestic feline and her cubs.

Recently, another nursing tigress’s tryst with humans in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal region did not end so peacefully. Thirteen humans had been found dead in Yavatmal’s Ralegaon forest since June 2016, and Avni or T1, a six-year-old tigress with two 10-month-old cubs, was alleged to have been involved in several of these deaths.

According to a Maharashtra Forest Department official, an investigation had proved that she was responsible beyond doubt for at least two of those deaths. On November 2, this “man-eater”, as she was referred to, was shot dead — by a sharp-shooter appointed by the Forest Department — in the Borati jungles that are under the jurisdiction of Ralegaon police, according to news reports that quoted police sources.

Defending the circumstances of Avni’s death, Sunil Limaye, Maharashtra’s additional principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife), explained that the Pandharkawada forests house approximately seven to eight tigers. Avni and her two cubs occupied 160 square km of this forest. Over two years, based on various circumstantial evidence, the department suspected Avni and a male, T2, of having caused several human deaths. At that point, though, the evidence was not forensic.

“In August, we investigated and managed to find clear evidence of Avni being responsible for at least two of the recent killings. Based on these findings the courts ordered us to capture or kill the tigress. The death of the forest dwellers was a grave loss to their families. These people, whose livelihoods depend on the forests, feared for their lives. We followed the courts’ orders and were saddened by the tigress’s death. But we had no other choice,” he said.

Controversies and political banter surround Avni’s death today. Environment activists and animal lovers question whether the mother tigress could have been saved, or at least captured. Meanwhile, a bitter battle of words has erupted between a Union minister and a state minister, both belonging to the same political party. On Friday, November 9, media reported sources in the Maharashtra government as stating that the yet-to-be-released autopsy report “yielded clear evidence of foul play”. It quoted a state government official: “The forensics clearly show that the tigress was not charging at the team, but instead going somewhere else… If she was charging at the team, she would have been shot in her face or chest, not her shoulder.”

Juxtaposing this story of loss of life, both human and animal, against the epic journey of the Pilibhit tigress, raises several questions. Could Avni have been monitored like the Pilibhit tigress to avoid such a tragedy? Could locals have been better informed to control panic about a “man-eater”?

Did Avni truly turn rogue and kill people since 2016? Even as news reports on her post-mortem reveal that she had not eaten anything for at least a week, Dr. Jimmy Borah, tiger biologist and consultant at Panthera, an international organisation working on the conservation of wild cats, said: “A nursing tigress would probably only attack human beings for self-defense, if she feels her cubs are threatened. It is highly unlikely that she would choose humans as food for her cubs.”

Highlighting the apathy in the investigation process, Borah said, “Tigers are very intelligent animals. They might target easy prey, like livestock and humans, if they are injured or old and weak. A healthy animal would never target humans. If the concerned tigress was suspected of killing 13 people since 2016, it should have been investigated much earlier, given the advancement in forensic tests and methods today.”

He said that to safeguard the human population and in the larger interest of saving a wildlife species, it becomes imperative to “remove problem animals” sometimes. “Doing so will help in generating larger public support, especially from communities living in the fringes of protected areas and depending on the forests for their livelihood. However, identifying a problem animal is a herculean task that involves strong evidence, including forensics.” He stated that if an animal is identified as a problem, the best forest departments and states can do is to ensure that standard protocols and guidelines are followed closely.

On Avni’s orphaned cubs, Borah says: “The best option is to leave them alone. If they have learnt to hunt (other animals), they might probably do well. ‘Rescuing’ them would be pointless.”

(In arrangement with Mongabay.com, a source for environmental news reporting and analysis. The views expressed in the article are those of Mongabay.com. Feedback: [email protected])

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