October 2, 2001


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T V R Shenoy

The fact that grief cut across party lines is a tribute to Scindia

What are the implications of Madhavrao Scindia's death in an air crash? There are two answers -- a political angle and a security twist. Let us discuss both of them.

It has been suggested by many that there is a curse on the Congress.

From Sanjay Gandhi's death in 1980 to Scindia earlier this week, a generation of Congress leaders -- those born at the dawn of Independence -- has been lost to death. However, the extravagance of the reactions to the latest death left me in disbelief.

The fact that the grief cut across party lines is a tribute to Scindia the human being. But it says much for the utter paucity of talent on the Congress benches that his death is being interpreted as a major setback for the party. Can we be a little realistic, please?

Madhavrao Scindia was not a mass leader in any sense of the word. In 1996, he was drummed out of the party by being implicated in the hawala scandal. (P V Narasimha Rao wanted to win the image of a 'clean' politician, and thought one way of doing so was to throw some of his own partymen to the wolves.) Scindia went on to found the short-lived Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress; the party won just two of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Madhya Pradesh. And even when the Congress and Scindia were on the same side, as in 1998 and 1999, the 'Scindia effect' appeared to work only in Scindia's constituency, with neighbouring seats falling to the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party.

I suppose it is only a matter of time before the Congress tries to dragoon Scindia's son, Jyotiraditya, into fighting the by-election from Guna. (Buoyed by a sympathy wave, a lingering respect for the erstwhile royal family, and liking for Madhavrao Scindia who was an excellent constituency MP, Jyotiraditya should romp home.) But the net effect will be neither a loss nor a gain for the Congress.

However, the interesting fact, politically speaking, was not Scindia's death, but the place he was heading for when he died -- Kanpur. Uttar Pradesh is not, and never has been, Scindia territory. But so great is the dearth of local talent that poor Scindia was dragged off to try to light a fire under the Congress campaign in the looming assembly election. What does this say of the Congress?

In Scindia's native Madhya Pradesh, there is no shortage of leaders -- Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, Kamal Nath, the Shukla brothers, and so on. Any of them would have scorned the thought of someone from, say, neighbouring Rajasthan or Gujarat being imported to address public meetings on a regular basis. But that is precisely the state of the Congress in India's largest state! There isn't a single Congressman in Uttar Pradesh who can inspire his party colleagues -- which is why Madhavrao Scindia was forced to make that fatal flight.

It also says something of the Congress that Scindia, a 56-year-old grandfather, was hailed as the 'leader of the younger wing' in the party. Jawaharlal Nehru, who was 58 in 1947, knew better; he didn't pretend to be a young man himself, being content to be the nation's 'Chacha' instead!

(I am far more sorry for the families of Anju Sharma, Sanjeev Sinha, Ranjan Jha, and Gopal Bisht, the four journalists who died in the crash. Madhavrao Scindia had risen as high as could be expected of a man who had many friends but few allies; the reporters had many other peaks to climb.)

So much for the politics, what does the Scindia air crash say of Indian aviation? I am sorry to say this, but the episode reveals some disturbing facts.

Going back to the plane crash on Sunday, I hear the Union civil aviation minister has ordered a probe. Sadly, we shall probably never know exactly what happened to the doomed aircraft. For one thing, the famous 'black box' -- the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder -- may not give evidence. (There seems to be some doubt that they were even required to be installed on these small private planes.) For another, administrative goof-ups meant that people were moving around the crash site without any supervision; some experts are already saying that precious remains might have been lost to scavengers. Finally, without any autopsy, there is no way to know whether the plane caught fire before it crashed. (A medical examination would have shown the presence of smoke in the lungs.)

These are matters to be dealt with at the governmental level. But there are some questions that must be answered by those firms which operate private airlines. For instance, there have been several stories that private operators put pressure on their pilots to fly too often and in hazardous conditions.

Madhavrao Scindia's flight to Kanpur definitely qualified as one of the latter. Stormy conditions had been indicated. (The plane was probably struck by lightning.) Was the pilot, an experienced man in the air, forced to keep to a tight schedule? Or was he not informed about the weather forecasts? I hear that another plane, a government of Uttar Pradesh flight from Lucknow to Aligarh, turned back rather than risk flying in the same storm. Why wasn't this done by the plane carrying Scindia and the journalists?

Equally, did the air traffic controllers point out the dangers to the pilot at any point? Did they order him to get back on the ground promptly? It will be easy to pin all the blame on the disorientation caused by flying through a storm, but there are questions of human error which require answers.

There are queries which require responses from the Congress too. But these, I fear, will not wait for a commission of inquiry to give its verdict; Sonia Gandhi must respond before the next session of Parliament.

Death in the Afternoon: The complete coverage of Madhavrao's tragic death

T V R Shenoy

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