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What Modi and his ministers must learn from Vajpayee

February 22, 2016 08:30 IST

'Think about how he would have handled Hyderabad, and JNU. He would have been very cross if he found two of his Cabinet ministers weighing in on the side of the ABVP.'
'And if Rohith Vemula still killed himself, he would have been the first to speak out in anguish and empathy rather than deny he was a Dalit.'
'And JNU, he would have simply said something like, 'let the boys speak, then they will grow up and join the IAS.'

'A good idea, when in crisis, is to apply the 'Vajpayee test' to your actions,' says Shekhar Gupta.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee

IMAGE: How would Atal Bihari Vajpayee have handled the JNU affair? 'You will find options very different from what his legatees in this NDA government have pursued,' says Shekhar Gupta.

 

The Jawaharlal Nehru University-Kanhaiya Kumar-Delhi Police story takes me back exactly 35 years, to that fraught 1981 when I covered the Northeast as five insurgencies raged.

Any number of insurgents, merely described as ANEs (anti-national elements) or UGs ('undergrounds') in official briefings, were caught, interrogated and often killed.

It was easier to do all of the above than file a sedition case against anybody. It also led to situations of incredible stupidity.

Soldiers, spies and reporters in such situations have an unusual relationship: Sometimes friendly, often hostile, but with a bond of sharing and co-existence. Among the finest intelligence people in the region (besides Ajit Doval in Mizoram and Gangtok), was my friend Koshy Koshy, an IPS officer of the Haryana cadre (now living in retirement in Faridabad) who was then the IB's man in Guwahati. We often exchanged notes and shared harmless gossip.

Often on a bandh day I would walk to his office in narrow Chenikuthi a couple of miles away, or land up together in the evenings, at K P S Gill's home for our daily tribute to 'Buddha Sant,' as we preferred to call Old Monk rum, the brew of hacks and spooks.

He called me one afternoon asking me over right away. He said there was a big story: That Colonel X (his counterpart in army intelligence) was sitting with him, had a prize catch, but needed to pick my brains to figure out the 'ranking ANE's' affiliation. I reached in no time and the colonel said his boys had 'nabbed' a Naga -- a self-styled lieutenant colonel of an unheard-of group -- and that the he was persisting with the claim that he belonged to something called the Salvation Army. Now you know how wicked we could be on a beat under fire.

Mr Koshy, a devout Syrian Christian, had been waiting with a straight face. He now broke into a helpful smile and explained to our colonel how harmless the Salvation Army was and how the poor soldier of God should be immediately let off with an apology. This was done in the next hour -- and it is a story to share for our lifetimes.

This reached a decent and logical conclusion because we lived in better times, even in the then troubled region.

What has happened in the case of Kanhaiya Kumar's arrest is something exactly similar, and comical, although we will have to wait till the government or the courts take a call on him and is freed.

The highest in the land, and in the Delhi Police, were fooled by a tweet from a parody handle in Hafiz Saeed's name and a doctored video into charging the elected president of the students union of our foremost central university with sedition. Now, they don't know what to do with him.

With all the claims made on social and conventional media by high-ups including the police chief, it isn't as easy as for the army colonel in Guwahati to say sorry and let the poor guy go. Those were also more gracious times. Now, we are dealing with the Sunny Deol-isation of the Indian mind.

The culture now is to brazen it out. So when under pressure after Rohith Vemula's suicide, first fudge by claiming he isn't a Dalit -- and then shift the entire discourse from caste and deprivation to nationalism by striking at JNU, the very home of Left thought and, for the past several years, conflict between the unions of the Left and the Right as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad has grown. But that is whereit has remained, not leading to violence. The campus produces some of our best scholarship.

The rise of the BJP to national power has made ABVP impatient. And now it wants to use state power to wrest control of the 'Lefty' campuses. What we'd describe in the heartland as 'saiyyan bhaye kotwal, ab dar kahe ka? (my lover is now the sheriff, so who do I fear?).' Unfortunately, the government has decided to play the partisan 'kotwal' at Hyderabad and JNU.

The result is the corpse of one Dalit student and the jailing of another poor one they now do not know what to do with. If they say sorry, we screwed up, or blame a scapegoat and let Mr Kumar go, they will concede a second defeat after Hyderabad.

If they prosecute him, it will be a liberal cause celebre, and odds are that sooner or later some court will set him free, certainly of the sedition charge. Either way, he will become a star.

The choice for the BJP therefore, is simple. Whether to cut its losses now and eat crow -- or to brazen out and end up eating an entire aviary of crows.

When those of O P Sharma's vintage beat up students and retiring police chiefs refuse to protect them, it does look like the tyrant uncles have declared war on unruly children. Veterans versus the youth -- you know how that will end in a young nation.

A good idea, when in crisis, is to apply the 'Vajpayee test' to your actions: How would he have handled this? You will find options very different from what his legatees in this NDA government have pursued.

In early 1997, just after the BJP-Akali Dal alliance (which looked as unlikely then as the BJP-PDP now) had won power in Punjab, a rash of pro-Bhindranwale and Khalistani events broke out.

The paper I then edited, The Indian Express, began to attack this aggressively, asking the BJP (still in Opposition at the Centre) to review the alliance. One afternoon I was summoned by Mr Vajpayee to his house. L K Advani and Madan Lal Khurana were present.

Over tea and pineapple pastries, Mr Vajpayee gave me a lecture: Hindus and Sikhs were at each others' throats in Punjab. Sikh militants were killing BJP leaders. Now, if the BJP and the Akalis join hands, is it good for Punjab and India or not? We should ignore these irritants and see the big picture.

'Thode paripakv baniye sampadakji (grow a little mature, Mr Editor).' I asked him what will happen if this goes out of control? He said, all that 'Khuranaji will take care of. Wo kis marz ki dawa hain (he has to resolve these issues).'

Think about how he would have handled Hyderabad, and JNU. He would have been very cross if he found two of his Cabinet ministers weighing in on the side of the ABVP. And if Rohith Vemula still killed himself, he would have been the first to speak out in anguish and empathy rather than deny he was a Dalit. And JNU, he would have simply said something like, 'chhokre hain, bolne dijiye, phir IAS mein jayenge (let the boys speak, then they will grow up and join the IAS).'

Remember also how he handled separatists in Kashmir when they asked him how they could negotiate with a government as it insisted of talking only within the parameters ('dayra') of the Constitution. Mr Vajpayee said: 'Why the Constitution, I will talk with you within the parameters of humanity.' That was an approach to conflict resolution.

What we have seen lately is more like a strategy of seeking out conflict. It isn't working.

Shekhar Gupta
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