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|May 13, 2002|
The prime minister and his spin masters are furiously working to repair the damage done to his image post-Gujarat. Not only do they want to put a new gloss over what Atal Bihari Vajpayee said in his famous Goa address last month, they even want to distance him from Narendra Modi on the question of his dismissal as chief minister. The word now emanating from the prime minister's office and home is that he had wanted to sack Modi all along, but changed his mind when the Sangh Parivar warned him of a violent reaction should Modi be removed when communal passions were running high.
As we had noted in an earlier column, Vajpayee was veering towards sacking Modi when he first visited the riot-torn state. His aides had kept him informed about the state government's complicity in the violent events that followed the Godhra incident. In fact, the last question at his press conference in Gandhinagar, just before he returned to Delhi, was 'planted' by a friendly scribe so that Vajpayee could publicly chastise Modi for not performing his raj dharma.
Vajpayee's visit abroad even as violence raged in Gujarat seems to have helped shape his perspective vis-a-vis Gujarat.
As he revealed in his controversial Goa speech, his Singapore counterpart, Goh Chok Tong, warned him against the growing menace of Islamic fundamentalism. He also spoke of how the Singapore government had arrested 13 members of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. Presumably, Singapore's prime minister had gone on to add that 'wherever there are Muslims, they create problems'. (Seasoned Indian diplomats are puzzled by some of the remarks the Singapore prime minister made in his meeting with Vajpayee; normally heads of state and government refrain from airing their innermost thoughts before foreign leaders.)
On his return, Vajpayee was ambivalent on the Modi question though his instinct was to give in to the growing demand for the chief minister's dismissal. He decided to wait till after the BJP's national executive meeting in Goa.
However, on the flight from Delhi to Goa, his four co- passengers -- Divestment Minister Arun Shourie, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, Home Minister L K Advani and Sudheendra Kulkarni, Vajpayee's lone aide, engaged him in a discussion on the threat of Islamic fundamentalism and how Modi's dismissal at this juncture could prove counterproductive. Typically, his mind being like a clean slate on which the last person who meets him can write anything he wants, Vajpayee became a willing convert to Shouriespeak. His controversial speech echoed the 'lesson' he had learnt on the flight from Delhi to Goa.
But once the media and the Opposition pilloried him for his remarks, Vajpayee again tried to don his old liberal 'mask'. Hence the furious attempt to juxtapose his remarks, made earlier at a book release function in the capital, against a virulent form of Hinduism with the Goa critique of militant Islam, etc. And the release of a sanitised text of Vajpayee's Goa speech to dispel the widespread impression that he had said anything against Islam or in Modi's defence.
Simultaneously, Vajpayee's media managers worked on a couple of newspaper editors and owner-editors to sell the idea that he was all for sacking Modi, but certain younger elements in the BJP had persuaded him from doing the right thing.
The latest in Operation Whitewash is the publication of his speeches in Hindi, and their English translation, in glossy booklet-form, by the government's media department, with the intention of dispelling the commonly held belief that Vajpayee had waffled on the Gujarat issue.
Mander and the Gujarat victims
At the peak of the sectarian trouble in Gujarat, the media discovered a new conscience-keeper in the form of Harsh Mander, a 1980 batch IAS officer of the newly created Chhattisgarh cadre. Mander wrote an evocative piece in an English daily about some of the gruesome events in Gujarat. That one newspaper article made him a celebrity. He was featured on television shows and feted when he announced his decision to quit the IAS.
Lest anyone think, however, that Mander made a personal sacrifice for the sake of the victims in Gujarat, let it be noted that, financially, he stands to lose nothing, having protected his post-retirement pension and other benefits. And, considering he has already hitched his wagon to an NGO, his resignation from the Chhattisgarh cadre may stand him in good stead, both financially and professionally.
Playing to the gallery, Roy-style
These are not the best of times for Arundhati Roy. The Booker Prize-winning author of The God of Small Things has been the focus of sharp criticism from fellow authors.
An Indian writer, Amrit Dhillon, drove her knife into Roy in a well-written and researched article for the British magazine, Spectator. And Roy's critics, who are legion, lapped it up.
Now, Sangh Parivar partisans are offering further proof of Roy's 'perfidiously opportunistic ways'. The cause for their ire is Roy's essay on Gujarat, Democracy and Fascism, which appeared in a weekly magazine recently. Therein, inter alia, she writes, '...A mob surrounded the house of former Congress MP Iqbal Ehsan Jafri. His phone calls to the DGP, police commissioner... were ignored... The mob broke into the house. They stripped his daughters and burned them alive... Then they beheaded Jafri...'
A few days later, Jafri's son T A Jafri, in a signed article in a multi-edition English daily that is no friend of the Sangh Parivar, said, '...We were all too numbed and shocked. Among my brothers and sisters, I am the only one living in India. And I am the eldest in the family. My sister and brother live in the US...'
Sangh Parivar activists, already furious with the media for the coverage of the Gujarat violence, have latched on to Roy's 'overlush imagery', as another of her critics put it in another context, to damn her and others who abuse them.
Laloo's 'threats' versus Dilip's 'nonsense'
Parliamentary coverage in the media is sketchy at the best of times. That may be why some of the verbal gems heard during the proceedings never get reported. Nonetheless, these need to be noted widely, if only to reveal the mindset of the members concerned. Here are a couple of examples.
Newly elected Rajya Sabha member Laloo Prasad Yadav was determined to make his presence felt and believed the louder he shouted, the better his chance of emerging the undisputed leader of the secularist brigade.
When Nanaji Deshmukh, the only nominated member of the House who speaks like a nominated member and not, like Shabana Azmi or Kuldip Nayar, as a partisan, was counselling a joint peace march in Gujarat by Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi, the RJD leader was heard muttering, "Arrey, chup raho; buddha, tumhara upar jaane ka time aa gaya hai [Keep quiet, old man, it is time for you to move towards your grave]."
Later, Bollywood thespian Dilip Kumar decided to exercise his vocal chords. The leader of the Telugu Desam Party was expounding on the reasons why his party could not support the Congress motion on Gujarat when Dilip Kumar muttered loudly, "Nonsense!" The TDP leader initially ignored Dilip's contribution to the debate, but when he interjected with another "Nonsense!" he ticked him off. "Mr Actor, this is not a film set and you are not reading a dialogue from the script." The thespian's response to this snub was, again, "Nonsense!" This led Deputy Chairperson Dr Najma Heptullah to ask him, as she put it for all to hear, to "Shut up!"
Whoever said politicians are the present-day maharajas must have Laloo Yadav, the self-anointed messiah of social justice, in mind.
The RJD chief and consort of Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi is about to celebrate the wedding of their second daughter later this month. In true maharaja style.
Invitations to the capital's VVIPs and others who are frequently seen on the so-called celebrity pages of newspapers have been sent out. Attached to each invite is a return air ticket to and from Patna. Limousines are to be placed at the disposal of each guest. A few guests are being flown from Mumbai and Kolkata as well. Laloo associate Prem Gupta, who is also an RJD member of the Rajya Sabha, has the onerous task of making sure the capital's VVIPs board the chartered flight to Patna on the appointed day.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
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