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Why the Congress should have involved Modi in Uttarakhand

July 12, 2013 16:47 IST

Narendra ModiWhat happened in Uttarakhand is a national tragedy. Why couldn't Dr Manmohan Singh announce that he was forming an Uttarakhand Relief and Rehabilitation Committee, with himself as chairman but inviting Narendra Modi to become the deputy chairman, asks T V R Shenoy.

In 1993 Pakistan sought to embarrass India by raising the issue of supposed human rights violation in Jammu & Kashmir at a United Nations Human Rights conference in Geneva. Thanks to support from Robin Raphel, then US assistant secretary of state for South Asia in the Clinton administration, it threatened to become a public relations disaster.

P V Narasimha Rao responded by appointing a special delegation to Geneva. It would be led, the Prime Minister announced, by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, with Dr Farooq Abdullah as his deputy, while Salman Khurshid, despite being the then minister of state for external affairs, was only third in the pecking order.

Reporters asked the prime minister why he had given top billing to two leading figures from the Opposition. Narasimha Rao's response was devastating in its simplicity.

"Can you think of a better delegation, or anyone more fit to lead it?" he asked, adding, "Benazir (Bhutto) has challenged the Government of India, not a Congress ministry, and we shall respond as Indians, not Congressmen."

Call it instinct or intellect, Narasimha Rao's ploy paid off. The Vajpayee-Abdullah-Khurshid trio worked smoothly, and the Pakistani move was almost laughed off in Geneva.

Couldn't Sonia Gandhi and her handpicked prime minister display a small fraction of Narasimha Rao's statecraft?

What has happened in Uttarakhand is a national tragedy. Why couldn't Dr Manmohan Singh announce that he was forming an Uttarakhand Relief and Rehabilitation Committee, with himself as chairman but inviting Narendra Modi to become the deputy chairman?

There are practical reasons for calling on Narendra Modi.

In my memory the single greatest human toll in any natural disaster to strike India was caused by the earthquake that struck Gujarat on January 26, 2001. 

Measuring over 7.6 on the Richter Scale, it led to the death of over 20,000 and injured lakhs more. The Kutch region, at the epicentre, was devastated, but the tremors were so strong that hundreds were killed as buildings toppled as far off as Ahmedabad. (The 2004 tsunami was not half as destructive in human terms.)

Then Gujarat chief minister Keshubhai Patel's weak response was one of the reasons that led to his being replaced by Narendra Modi in October 2001. It was through his measures for relief and rehabilitation that the chief minister of Gujarat first made a name as an administrator.

Anything that the government of Gujarat says will probably be met with disbelief and mockery, so I shall quote from a case study conducted by the Congress-led Government of India. 'All hospitals and health facilities were made functional in a small period. 42,678 classrooms of primary schools were completed almost by the first year. Almost 87% of the houses were reconstructed, and 911,150 of 928,369 (damaged) houses were repaired (by 2004).' 

On the social front, widows and the disabled were given pensions, while orphaned children received scholarships. And with an eye to the future, local government bodies were empowered, new building codes were established, and fresh infrastructure laid. (Those interested may download the complete case study here)

It is easy to put that down to the Gujarati can-do spirit. But do remember that the same state machinery proved woefully incapable under Keshubhai Patel. How useful would Narendra Modi's hard-earned expertise have been to the people of Uttarakhand today?

There are three R's in the response to any disaster. The first is 'rescue', getting people to safety. 

The second is 'relief', the provision of medical aid, clothing, and food to persons rescued and placed in relief camps. 

And the third is 'rehabilitation', the attempt to rebuild shattered lives and economies.

The 'rescue' part is best handled by the men in uniform, in this case the Indian Army, the Indian Air Force, and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. But 'relief' and, even more so, 'rehabilitation' demand political leadership. The media has focussed thus far only on 'rescue', involving, mostly, people from outside Uttarakhand. But there are hundreds of isolated villages out there that need help, and very quickly, before the snows come down in November, just four months away.

How would the Congress have gained by inviting Narendra Modi?

First, the Congress would have demonstrated that it was rising above party politics.

Second, it would have deflected all Opposition attacks about the shortcomings of operations as the Bharatiya Janata Party would hardly criticise any effort led by Narendra Modi.

Third, it would have tied up Narendra Modi for several crucial months in the run-up to the general election (which cannot be more than ten months away).

Fourth, had Narendra Modi refused such a call by the prime minister he would have been criticised for placing party above nation.

Fifth, in the event that Narendra Modi failed to bring about adequate rehabilitation measures the Congress could have poked holes in his persona as an administrator.

What has the Congress achieved by wanting to go it alone? It has been mocked for letting trucks carrying relief materials wait for days in the heat and humidity of Delhi before the Congress 'Yuvraj' arrived to wave a flag. 

It saw the Union home minister beg VVIPs to stay away hours before the same 'Yuvraj' went to Uttarakhand. It saw the Congress claim that the 'Yuvraj' went as a 'citizen,' but the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, which had gone there as part of the rescue operation, had to vacate part of its camp in Gauchar to meet the security requirements of the VVIP 'citizen' after he chose to stay overnight. This was confirmed by the director general of the ITBP, Ajay Chadha.

Did the Congress resort to lies to cover up this mess?

Is that how this rubbish about 'Rambo' Modi 'rescuing' 15,000 Gujaratis arose? Nobody, least of all Narendra Modi, claimed any such thing. A single BJP functionary said the chief minister of Gujarat had arranged for the 'relief' of thousands.

As explained above, 'rescue' and 'relief' are two different things, but the media confused them; the 'thousands' became a specific 'fifteen thousand'; the next day people were creating elaborate models to demonstrate that something that Narendra Modi had never said was untrue.

From beginning to end, Narendra Modi has not said a word about what his government tried to do in Uttarakhand. People have been responding to their own prejudices, that is all.

Referring to people who have deliberately remained quiet, may I point to two other men that have worked behind the scenes rather than in front of the cameras?

As noted, the army, the air force, and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police were at the forefront of rescue operations. Did you see Defence Minister A K Antony claim credit for coordinating efforts, and believe me it took a lot of synchronisation. More, it was specifically laid down that only the local commanders would speak to the media, not the chiefs of staff. Until a helicopter crashed, at which point the air chief emerged briefly.

The Indo-Tibetan Border Police comes under the Union home ministry. While Home Minister Shinde did speak to the media, the man handling the operations was his minister of state, Mullappally Ramachandran who was as quiet as A K Antony. (Or Narendra Modi.)

Narasimha Rao had a vision of India that extended beyond the Congress, and that was to India's profit. Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh lack his intellect -- or generosity of spirit -- and that is India's loss.

You can read Mr Shenoy's earlier columns here

T V R Shenoy