DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Friday, April 24, 2009

Et tu Manmohan?

It’s election time in India and there is a veritable war on. The war is, mercifully, only of words but attacks on each other by the leaders of the two major parties – the National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – are becoming frequent and the skirmishes trifle more spiteful for comfort. Since “all is fair in love and war” accusations and counter accusations have been progressively turning acerbic and even unethical. What is worrying is that even those who are reputed to possess good and bright heads on their shoulders have been indulging in this kind of spewing of vitriol. The intellectual and cultured Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, is an example who, while rebutting the accusations of LK Advani, made a statement that was certainly not honourable. In fact, it was eminently avoidable.

Advani, the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha (the Lower House in the Parliament), has been calling Manmohan a “weak” Prime Minister since much before the polls were announced. He had his reasons for doing so. Manmohan was neither elected the leader of the Congress Party in Parliament nor that of the ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). An indirectly-elected member of the Rajya Sabha (the Upper House), Manmohan was nominated as Prime Minister by Sonia Gandhi, a plain MP in the Lok Sabha but who is also the President of the Congress and the Chairperson of the UPA.

The understanding that seemed to have been arrived at between Manmohan and Sonia Gandhi suggested that while he would run the government, she would manage the Party and the rainbow coalition of the UPA. The arrangement had weaknesses built into it. No prime minister in a parliamentary democracy can ever run a government with a reasonable degree of authority and freedom without the blessings of the party chief. This is more so in this country with its feudal orientation, especially in the Congress Party which forsook long ago its inner-party democracy. Overtaken by dynastic predominance of the Nehru-Gandhi family, the prime ministers belonging to Congress Party – even if it is the highly-rated academic, Manmohan Singh – have to pay their obeisance to Sonia Gandhi, who has been in control of the levers of power in the Congress for more than a decade.

That apart, as the political power flows from the Party chief, the ministers belonging to the Congress have been paying scant regard to the Prime Minister. Many senior ministers, on numerous occasions, bypassed the Prime Minister and reported to or took orders from the Party Chief. Politically, it suited both – the Party Chief and the ministers. The Prime Minister had no alternative but to keep his counsel. This weakening of the institution of the prime minister was further accentuated by the self-willed ministers of the motley group of regional parties that, in their attempt to claim pieces of the cake, allied with the Congress to enable it to form the government. While Manmohan had to overlook their corrupt and parochial ways, he also, seemingly, surrendered his prerogative to choose his ministers for specific portfolios. Some of the allies dictated their terms and demanded for their chosen party-men the most lucrative of ministries. Besides, the Left Combine supporting Manmohan’s government from “outside”, stifled his agenda for economic reforms. He couldn’t shake them off for the sake of sheer survival. His government’s survival became so important that he remained a mute spectator at the maladroit methods adopted by his coalition managers for buying legislators for garnering support once the Left decided to end its live-in relationship with the UPA.

Advani’s accusations about Manmohan being a weak and “nikamma” (worthless) prime minister, therefore, were largely true. His ceaseless barbs, however, somehow seemed to find the target and something snapped within Manmohan. The good Doctor, generally soft and mild-mannered, cracked under pressure. In an attempt to give it back to Advani, he recalled the 1999 hijack of IC 814 to Kandahar in the aftermath of which, failing to talk the hijackers into releasing the 167 passengers and crew held hostage, the then National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, with Advani as Home Minister, ended up releasing three dreaded terrorists, including Masood Azhar who has now assumed greater notoriety as the chief of the Pakistan-based terrorist outfit Jaish e Mohammed. Further, to run down Advani and his NDA, Manmohan, rather gratuitously, made not quite truthfully an uncharacteristic egotistical claim that his government never entered into any negotiations with the 26/11 attackers of Mumbai. He asserted his government instead sent commandos of the National security Guards to deal with them.

The release of terrorists to secure the freedom of the scores of hostages has always been used as a stick by the Congress to beat the NDA with. Now that a ‘war’ is on all the biggies of the Congress, in a cacophony, have been harking back to it and attacking Advani. That the NDA government, inexperienced as it was then, was up against a tight situation and had to choose between the lives of innocent hostages and the terrorists held in Indian prisons, mostly without having been charged, while the relatives of the passengers kept baying at it for release of the terrorists with, reportedly, covert support of the Congress, has never been appreciated. Only recently, however, one man had the guts to admit the difficult situation that the NDA was faced with. P Chidambaram, Manmohan’s current Home Minister and another of his bright heads, honestly stated in response to a journalist’s query that he wouldn’t know what he would have done had he faced such a situation. After all, lives of 167 innocents were involved.
Then, to claim that the UPA never entered into negotiations with the Mumbai attackers was neither ethical nor desirable. The surviving attacker of 26/11 has confessed that he and his other murderous colleagues were given a clear mandate only to cause death and destruction and not to negotiate. No wonder, they never tried to negotiate for any trade-off. Curiously, Manmohan fictionalised the traumatic event merely to politically attack Advani, in the process exposing the deep inroads that partisan politics has made into his psyche that, otherwise, is brimful of intellect.



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