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Home > India > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy

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What did Somnath Chatterjee have to lose anyway?

July 25, 2008

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Was Tillakaratne Dilshan out caught off Zaheer Khan [Images], or was it a case of the bat hitting the ground? Mark Benson, the man out in the middle, thought the Sri Lankan batsman was out; Rudi Koertzen, the third umpire, gave Dilshan the benefit of the doubt after referral.

Did Michael Vaughan [Images] catch Hashim Amla cleanly at Headingley off Andrew Flintoff [Images], or did he grass it? Billy Bowden and Daryl Harper had no problem, but third umpire Richard Kettleborough gave Amla the benefit of the doubt.

Cricket, unlike politics, has clear-cut rules, and is presided over by trained, neutral officials, yet you find grey areas even in sport.

Just as the debate over the new referral system is destined to stretch on, seemingly forever, so I fear shall the arguments over the Indo-US nuclear deal. English and Australian fans still argue about the rights and wrongs of the Bodyline series from three-quarters of a century ago; the nuclear deal is at least as inflammatory as Jardine's decisions.

But some things are clear enough. We can all agree that defections played a key part in the whole mess, that inducements were offered to those who were wavering, and that all this signifies a general deterioration in Indian politics, right?

Not really! If the so-called 'Golden Age' of cricket before World War II was also the time that produced Bodyline, Indian politics before 1947 -- when everyone was supposedly noble and self-sacrificing -- had its fair share of controversy.

Have you heard of a gentleman named Hafiz Muhammad Ibrahim? Probably not, but he was a defector, and his decision to cross the floor continues to send ripples across South Asia.

The relevant portion of Hafiz Muhammad Ibrahim's story begins in 1937, when elections were held in the eleven British Indian provinces. Hafiz Muhammad Ibrahim, once a follower of Pandit Motilal Nehru, was elected to the UP assembly on a Muslim League ticket. He then, much to Jinnah's fury, crossed the floor to join the Congress.

The Muslim League leader, understandably angry, shot off an angry message to Mahatma Gandhi [Images], sarcastically enquiring what had happened to all the ideals supposedly espoused by the Congress. The Mahatma in turn forced the Congress Working Committee to demand Hafiz Muhammad Ibrahim's resignation from the legislature, so that he could win a fresh mandate from the voters of Bijnor.

The resultant by-election saw one of the dirtiest campaigns to date.

To quote Jawaharlal Nehru, 'Everything up to murder on religious grounds is preached...' If you think some of the things said in Parliament crossed the line you should read some of the speeches from 1937, when Muslim League campaigners claimed the Congress was out to ban the 'Muslim' pyjama in favour of the 'Hindu' dhoti. (That is one of the more printable remarks!)

The unsavoury episode was one of the issues that apparently convinced Jinnah that the Congress was out to crush the Muslim League, refusing to form a coalition in the UP ministry and encouraging defections.

The new political path that Jinnah would walk would bear fruit in 1947, and India's defence budget continues to show the effects to this day.

We can argue forever -- many historians still do -- about whether South Asia would have looked different had Jawaharlal Nehru been more accommodating in 1937. But let us not ignore the fact that Mahatma Gandhi had provided a solution of sorts to dealing with defections.

The Mahatma's answer to defections was, and is, elegant in its simplicity: A legislator is free to defect, but he or she must not participate in legislative activities without being re-elected. Or to put it another way, 'Win votes from the people before you vote in the House!'

The Congress managers of today may believe that Gandhian ethics died with Mahatma Gandhi. When quizzed about the rights and wrongs of condoning defections they respond with allegations about similar BJP tactics in Karnataka, where two MLAs each from the Congress and the Janata Dal-Secular have joined the ruling party. The Congress says the situations in Bengaluru and in Delhi are exactly the same.

This is completely untrue. J Narasimhaswamy, Anand Vasant Asnotikar, Balachandra Jarakiholi, and K Shivanna Gouda Naik have all resigned from the assembly after proclaiming their new-found love for the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is now up to the voters of Doddaballapur, Karwar, Arabhavi, and Devadurga to choose whether or not they want the four named above to continue representing them; until such time as the by-elections are held the four cannot sit in the Vidhan Soudha.

We can debate ourselves blue in the face about whether this quartet have any genuine feelings for the BJP and what that party represents. But you cannot deny that the BJP in this instance has followed Mahatma Gandhi's 1937 formula in the case of Hafiz Muhammad Ibrahim.

The 'Bijnor Formula' of 1937 -- should we call it the 'Bellary Formula' of 2008? -- is clearly distinct from the Congress's 'Delhi Formula' of today. The Congress, or to be precise certain of its partners, encouraged MPs to defect and then participate in the House without being re-elected.

As I have said before in this column, my gut instinct about the nuclear deal is that it is, on the whole, a good thing. India needs power, and while the agreement will not bridge the gap between demand and supply, the country will be worse off without the pact with the United States. That said, the tactics used to win the confidence motion reeked of bad faith.

As far as I remember, the Congress succeeded in getting Hafiz Muhammad Ibrahim re-elected to the UP assembly in 1937. (I do recall that he polished off his political career as governor of Punjab in the 1960s.) But it was a pyrrhic victory, one that would cost the Congress -- and the country -- dear ten years later.

Tailpiece: Somnath Chatterjee [Images] is the flavour of the month in the media and the message boards. The logic, presumably, is that anyone who annoys the Marxists must be a good guy. I admit to a general dislike of CPI-M policies and tactics, but the cynic in me wonders whether the Speaker's defiance wasn't assisted by the knowledge that he cannot possibly be re-elected from Bolpur.

Following delimitation, the new Bolpur seat will be a reserved constituency from where the Brahmin Chatterjee cannot stand. At the ripe age of 79 and with his constituency taken away from him, what did Somnath Chatterjee have to lose anyway?

The response to that poser changes with the perspective of the man who answers -- as Tillakaratne Dilshan and Hashim Amla might gleefully testify.


T V R Shenoy



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