June 06, 2020
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The Peace Zygote

It's ironic that the myth of Vajpayee as the peacemaker, and the betrayed dove, has found so many gullible takers.

The Peace Zygote
With Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee now revealing himself to be just as passionate about Hindu majoritarianism and as partisan in his political perceptions as are the rest of his comrades in the Sangh parivar, the romantic belief that imbued his government with statesmanly qualities stands exposed as mere wishful thinking. Sections of the middle-classes and several members of the intellectual and political elite appeared to have subscribed rather uncritically to the notion that being a product of a hardline right-wing political environment, Vajpayee is best-placed to provide a leadership that holds the key to solutions to vexatious and intractable problems. Incredibly, despite the fact that there is very little evidence of Vajpayee's ever having seriously deviated from the philosophy of Hindu nationalism in his actual practice of politics, it has been argued that at heart, the poet-prime minister is a "moderate pragmatist", more in the mould of a good old right-wing Congressman than a khaki shorts-clad fanatic.

So much has been invested in this perception of Atal Behari Vajpayee that the world has come to rest all its hopes of peace on the subcontinent on his tired shoulders. The praise heaped on the PM when he visited America last September by President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore evoked stirring images of a statesman committed to the building of a pluralist governing ethos for a civil society peopled by diverse communities. Al Gore was lyrical in his tribute to Vajpayee: "As Prime Minister, you have challenged your people to act on their imagination, to create a shared vision for a united democratic, prosperous and peaceful India and then to make that vision a reality." Such words have a bitter resonance in the context of the reality that as a civil society India has never been more sorely tested nor have its reserves of nation-building been so strongly called upon as it is today. Yet, it is ironic that more than any other leader in India's recent history, it is Vajpayee who has been described as a healer and much faith has been placed in his capacity for reconciliation. So successful is the selling of the myth of the peacemaker that despite the fact, as any Foreign Office mandarin should acknowledge, that the much-celebrated Lahore Agreement is only an expanded and more detailed reflection of the earlier agreement that emerged during the tenure of Inder Gujral and wherein were the real conceptual breakthroughs as regards the Kashmir dispute, it is the Lahore pact which has received worldwide approbation. It might be true that the Lahore Agreement captured the world's imagination because it followed the prime minister's personally riding a bus to Lahore. But the fact remains that in substance the Lahore pact traversed little distance that had not been trodden before in diplomatic negotiations between India and Pakistan in the '90s.

The second myth, which of course arises from the image implicit in the first—the peacemaker—is that of peacemaker betrayed. So often has the refrain been heard from the bjp that "the road from Lahore led to Kargil and Kandahar!", Pakistan's folly in Kargil and its implicit sponsorship of criminal militancy, as painfully exemplified in the hijacking of an IA plane to Taliban territory last December, have been seamlessly woven into a tapestry that paints India as numbed and betrayed and hence no longer being able to conceive of sitting down and talking peace.

The myth-making continues, as does the assiduous portraying of Vajpayee as a peacemaking statesman now offering a ceasefire in Kashmir during Ramzan. Hopes and expectations soar again, even among the hitherto disillusioned leaders of the Hurriyat who say that they believe that Vajpayee is personally sincere in his quest for peace in Kashmir. Yet the time has come, however high the costs may be for those who do so, to question the credibility of Vajpayee's so-called peace moves and also to closely scrutinise the chances for such a peace process succeeding, given the inflamed atmosphere within the country as a consequence of the deliberate stoking of Hindu communal passions by the bjp and its cohorts in the Sangh parivar—the rss, the vhp and the Bajrang Dal. It is no longer going to be possible to discount the incendiary impact of the majoritarian political discourse of the votaries of Hindutva, with its strong emphasis on polarising the Hindu majority and the non-Hindu minorities, a concept which Vajpayee has now shown that he endorses, while evaluating the credibility of the government's peace efforts in Kashmir and its diplomatic approach to Pakistan. If indeed, Vajpayee hopes to convince the Muslim-majority territory in the Kashmir Valley that their destinies and aspirations are best protected within the Indian Union, what worse advertisement of India's case can there be than the spectacle of mosques and churches being hacked at by frenzied Hindutva activists? And given the high stakes that the Sangh parivar appear to have in whipping up Hindu communalism by evoking ugly and dangerous stereotypes of the Muslim and Christian minorities, it is unlikely that Vajpayee or the bjp will abandon the tactical course required for this end. If indeed the idea of a Hindu rashtra is being brought to life with such force and with the Vajpayee government's tacit approval, how is it going to be possible to persuade the hostile and alienated people of the Kashmir Valley to believe that Indian civil society has space for them?

Malini Parthasarathy | Executive Editor, The Hindu
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