Friday, Sep 24, 2021

Of Missed Calls And Wrong Numbers

"To the extent we've been wronged, we must forcefully defend our honour; if somewhere we were wrong we must honestly and courageously accept the mistake and move on," writes Salman Khurshid in his latest book, ‘Spectrum Politics: Unveiling The Defence’. Extracts:

Of Missed Calls And Wrong Numbers
| File Photo
Of Missed Calls And Wrong Numbers

Although the entire period of five years of UPA-II were dubbed as wasted years by the opponents who rode to victory in 2014, and also by many disappointed well-wishers, there is much that can and must be salvaged. It becomes important to recover the truth when hollow and exaggerated claims in the name of development provide an alibi for shortcuts to power and its retention, even as the consensual version of social concord in society is being ripped apart cynically, perhaps even viciously.

Furthermore, for the sake of the integrity of our country’s institutional history, it is necessary to mount a salvage operation to put those years in the right perspective. We owe this to succeeding generations. But that of course will require a serious look at the decisions that were taken, most of them during UPA-I, seen by many, including the electorate at that time, as a successful tenure. Unlike the India Shining claim that could not get Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee re-elected in 2004, UPA-I was rewarded with a greater majority in the 2009 elections.

By any yardstick, those were boom years (2004–09) and should normally have been the launch pad for consolidation and greater success beyond 2009. Yet, tragically, the opposite happened. Virtually, five years of relentless and unprincipled political bludgeoning culminated in the ignominy of 2014. ‘Good economics makes bad politics’ became the dirge of UPA-II and with it the stifling of the most ambitious social welfare experiment that included National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), Right to Education (RTE), AADHAAR-linked Direct Benefits, et al. The triumph of the Indian Camelot ended in tragedy.

The salvage exercise demands considerable efforts since several sectors and government decisions need revisiting. But since the 2G episode was proclaimed to be the mother of all scams, we chose to put it through forensic scrutiny. As this book reached its last mile, the country was stunned by the verdict pronounced by Judge O.P. Saini acquitting all accused in the 2G trial. Predictably, there were celebrations in some quarters, while others put up a brave face but with weak logic that ‘the acquittal does not mean there was no scam’. An appeal has been filed in the Delhi High Court, but given that it will be under consideration for a long time (all 1,552 pages), the political sting has been decisively blunted.

The voluminous judgement merits separate consideration, but at this stage, it must be noted that in addition to the clear acquittal by the CBI court, the two reports—first of Justice Shivraj Patil and the second of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC)—and the Five Judges Constitutional Bench Advisory Opinion to the President of India, all variously rejected the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report. This report, that was relied upon by the Supreme Court Bench headed by Justice G.S. Singhvi, scrapped the 122 licences awarded under the former Telecom Minister A. Raja.

Despite such preponderance of material to vindicate our position, one questionable CAG report derailed and, in the process, may have cost India several decades of phenomenal growth that it was poised to achieve. Moreover, it might just have given an opportunity to what marginal forces were, till recent years, to radicalize in India and diminish it in unthinkable ways.

The Spark That Set Off a Devastating Fire

The rumblings of trouble began in November 2010 with the leaked CAG report on the 2G Spectrum which suggested that ₹1.76 lakh crore were lost (described as presumptive loss) to the government exchequer because of myopic, even legally questionable policies of the government in handing out valuable spectrum resource in 2007–08 at the 2001 price.

First, newspapers and news channels took the bit and ran, only to be overtaken by the Parliament that comprised an Opposition desperate to capture power and deeply divided treasury Benches. The former had, for over a decade, failed to whip up religious sentiment beyond a point, while the latter was caught in maladjusted attitudes towards the duality of power between the party and the government, something that had appeared to be a master stroke when UPA-I trounced the BJP in 2004.

Session after session, week after week, Parliament was paralysed by an unrelenting and abrasive Opposition with chants of scam and demands for the resignation of important members of the government. The party and its allies that had returned to power with an increased majority and had outstanding and ambitious plans of inclusive development, were suddenly thrown into confusion and self-doubt followed by induced inaction or what was maliciously described as policy paralysis. While on the one hand the government was not allowed to work, it was, on the other, accused of being unable to do any work. Our economic policies were obstructed, while our social policies were distorted to cause acute self-consciousness. It is ironic in the extreme that many policies that the NDA then opposed such as Aadhaar, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Retail, Goods and Services Tax (GST), etc. are now being implemented (although with flaws) and being claimed as great achievements. Again, the unwholesome trend of disrupting parliamentary proceedings is haunting them despite their majority.

Admittedly, by the time the 2G affair rocked our boat, we had already been pulverized by the CWG controversy which was like handing to our opponents our destiny on a platter of meaningless and compromised integrity and incompetence. Looking back at the time of the opening ceremony, one wonders if the watchful citizen recalls the contrast of the applause the then Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit received and the sound of disapproval that greeted Suresh Kalmadi. Clearly, Dikshit with her formidable reputation for good work, retained some hold on the public imagination, but the talented Chairman of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) had obviously slipped beyond repair. It was sad that a remarkable career that started with a commission in the Air Force and blossomed into sturdy political stature as the invincible MP of Pune and right-hand man to Sharad Pawar, came crashing down where young athletes jousted for gold and glory.

Kalmadi, whose political star rose to take him to ministership in the railways, has not recovered from the sliding slope even after a decade. On top of it came the botched attempt to deal with the slippery adversary who had mastered the art of manipulating public perception— the current Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal. Ably assisted by Anna Hazare, who came, fasted and conquered, the former IRS civil servant converted the long-debated Lokpal into a battle cry for anarchy, but virtually destroyed the ability of the Congress party, itself born as a mass movement, to deal with crowds possessed by the cause of eradicating corruption from our daily lives. The deluge of cynicism and false salvation combined in a fatal mix to sweep away Dikshit despite a remarkable record of growth of services in Delhi.

But then the mood in the country had rapidly turned anti-establishment and it took a little spark to set off a fire of devastating proportions. The impassioned crowds that took over the streets of Delhi and Ramlila Maidan with the flag of India Against Corruption (IAC) were matched only by the spontaneous, leaderless young people who, in bitter winter, for days on end, thronged the central vista from India Gate to Rashtrapati Bhawan in solidarity with Nirbhaya, brutally assaulted and fatally injured by a group of maladjusted youth. Such was the dominance of the youth across Lutyens’ Delhi that President Putin’s formal banquet had to be shifted from Andhra Bhavan to the PM’s Residence.

Suddenly, it seemed that we had lost the ability to speak while people in the streets accused us of being blind, deaf and insensitive. For days on end, Kejriwal held the national capital to ransom; fasts, flags, and feverish slogans of change injected idealism bordering on revolutionary zeal. Kejriwal became the oracle who wielded a brush (later to be replaced by the broom symbol of his newly established Aam Admi Party [AAP]) that relentlessly and mercilessly tarred many a reputation, starting with the unimpeachable and noble Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh.

Huge posters with more than a dozen ministers portrayed as villains went up in the city with coarse invitations to citizens to vent their ire with invectives and shoes. Kejriwal picked out, one by one, each minister who could match his histrionics with sound logic. I myself came in for special attention for daring to answer back in the media where he was a star. He picked on a misguided, motivated report on Disabilities NGO with which I am associated, and actually travelled to my constituency, Farrukhabad, ostensibly to hurt me politically. A subsequent regret by the news channel concerned did little to prick Kejriwal’s conscience.

I was intrigued that our party having had a rich heritage of mobilizing popular public support going back to the Independence movement suddenly became aliens to the streets. Long before Occupy Wall Street challenged the established order in western societies, we saw that strategy on the streets of Delhi. I recall seeking answers from the likes of Mahabal Mishra, Congress MP from North Delhi, famous for his ability to gather humongous crowds as well as Satpal Maharaj, the then Congress MP from Tehri and a spiritual guru with a vast number of devotees. Both leaders lamented that no one asked them to help as though we had no plans to react to the Kejriwal onslaught. The latter even ventured to suggest that he would have let loose an army of volunteers who would launch an unbearable assault of nature calls and drive the revolutionaries away.

Clearly, we had turned into an impervious bureaucratic machine far removed from the political moorings that made the Congress party the dominant force of Indian democracy. What makes the irony more piquant is the way in which the then Minister for Home Affairs and one of our best ministerial assets, P. Chidambaram allowed Arvind Kejriwal to outsmart him. Unlike many people who concede his great intelligence and knowledge, but consider him politically naive, I hold his political gumption in high esteem. But then we were yet to see Kejriwal as a slippery and crafty interlocutor when the Group of Ministers (GoM) was mandated to negotiate the resolution of the Lok Pal stalemate.

Although the perception battle was sadly lost well before the 2014 elections, and we went into the campaign as a tired and worn-out party, the adverse poll results of considerable magnitude did not put a closure to several issues, including spectrum allocation. The campaign to displace the UPA got over, but the campaign to malign its leaders continues, helped by the ongoing criminal proceedings that have dragged on for months and have many interesting side tales to note. Besides the criminal proceedings in the 2G and other matters each week, fresh reports of investigations against prominent Congress leaders, including some still holding important offices, continues to darken the mood of the party cadres. This Goebbels-like repetition of false and exaggerated allegations has been able to damage morale, only to be pushed further by a series of electoral setbacks.

Since democracy does not countenance a vacuum, our moral and political retreat was followed by the ascendency of a quickly assembled political outfit—AAP in Delhi and the BJP-led NDA at the Centre. It is a moot question that if both of them were working for a similar if not the same objective—the annihilation of the Congress—how is it that there is such bitter antagonism between them? However, many seasoned political commentators continue to believe that the RSS provided muscle to Kejriwal, a view fortified by the subsequent BJP governmental positions going to some dramatis personae of the movement, like Minister of State for External Affairs, V.K. Singh and Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry, Kiran Bedi.

At least at one level the distinction is clear: The BJP, many serious political observers believe, has an ideology that purports to dismantle the secular state envisioned by the Congress leadership of the Independence movement, even if imperfectly implemented because of practical constraints rather than a weak commitment; the AAP, on the other hand, has a malleable ideology that combines extreme opposites and can best be described as unmitigated opportunism.

Yet both rely heavily on the willing credulousness of the electorate suffering from ennui, impatience, desire for change, and social envy. Curiously, similar developments have been seen in other parts of the world, beginning with Brexit in the UK and the victory of President Donald Trump as determined by votes from the electoral college, if not by popular vote, in the US.

Beyond the Decisive Mandate

The 2014 mandate was a peculiar mix of aspiration, desperation, fatigue with stagnation, false projection of secularism, misdirected nationalism et al. It certainly was not about love-jihad and Romeo squads, Aadhaar cards for bovines and lynch mobs for cattle traders, having no burqas or not having girlfriends either, or even replacement of history with myths, speech control, undeclared emergency, media’s willing suspension of disbelief, among other things. Yet the distant glimmer of hope such as in Bihar was soon shrouded in the gloom of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. The theatre of demonetization was overwhelmed by the Stockholm syndrome; the hasty and heartless implementation of GST sought to be legitimized by evoking the spirit of sacrifice for the nation.

The important point is that many things that are happening today were not the mandate that PM Modi received in 2014. Ironically, his government’s stated position is a commitment to ‘sab ka sath, sab ka vikas’ or equal opportunity for all. One wonders whether despite divisive politics of polarization of communities, the BJP feels that there is need for lip service to the India of yesteryears. In other words, BJP needs a bit of Congress to survive as indeed some people in the Congress might have begun to feel that the Congress needs a bit of the BJP to revive its fortunes.

When the ocean is choppy, one way is to duck the high waves and wait it out. Politics has similar tactical withdrawals to let time change the landscape for a comeback. But the conditions we operate under in our country may not allow that luxury. Like-minded liberal parties (I use that description advisedly in place of secular) have their jobs cut out, but they cannot hope to make an impact by keeping to the trodden path. Instead we need innovative and courageous steps, some already seen in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Yet even as we reach out to a challenging future, the cobwebs of the past also need to be cleaned out. To the extent we have been wronged, we must forcefully defend our honour; if somewhere we were wrong we must honestly and courageously accept the mistake and move on.

Extracted from SPECTRUM POLITICS , Unveiling the Defence  by Salman Khurshid and Daksha Mehta” with permission from Rupa Publications  India.


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