Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Manmohan Singh's long-winded intervention on the Sharm el-Sheikh India-Pakistan joint statement debate in Lok Sabha has not answered important questions. Instead, it has left people confused.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a rather long-winded, and convoluted, intervention during Wednesday’s debate on foreign policy in the Lok Sabha. A careful scrutiny of his speech will show that he has not said anything remarkably different from what he told Parliament on July 17, a day after the debacle at Sharm el-Sheikh where he met Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
The joint statement issued after the meeting made four substantive points: Placing Pakistan, the perpetrator of jihadi terrorism, at par with India, the victim of jihadi terrorism; delinking action on terrorism from the composite dialogue process (which includes the ‘Kashmir issue’); transforming Baluchi nationalism/separatism from a purely internal affair of Pakistan into a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, with India portrayed as the promoter of Baluchi violence; and, exchanging real time, actionable intelligence on terrorism with Pakistan. Together, they add up to abject capitulation by Singh, as I have explained in my previous two entries.
According to Ahmed Rashid and other commentators in Pakistani media, the inclusion of Baluchistan in the joint statement followed Gilani handing over a dossier to Singh, containing ‘evidence’ of India’s involvement in fomenting trouble in Baluchistan through its consulates in Afghanistan, and India’s assistance to Baitullah Mehsud and his Tehrik-e-Taliban or Pakistani Taliban.
Singh has denied receiving any such dossier. However, he has confirmed receiving a 34-page dossier from Pakistan, containing details of steps taken by Gilani’s Government to bring to book the perpetrators of the 26/11 outrage in Mumbai. Interestingly, XP Division of the Ministry of External Affairs, which is pro-active in denying stories or issuing contradictions, has not officially refuted media reports on the so-called ‘Baluchi dossier’. The Foreign Office in Islamabad has neither confirmed nor denied stories, but has actively briefed local and foreign journalists as well as diplomats posted in Islamabad on the ‘Baluchistan dossier’ and its contents.]
Back to the debate on Wednesday. The Opposition mounted a strong attack on the Prime Minister and the Government for the sell-out in Sharm el-Sheikh. Yashwant Sinha of BJP, who initiated the debate, was scathing. He made three main points: First, the Prime Minister has walked not “half the way” (to quote Singh) but “all the way to the Pakistani camp”; India’s Pakistan policy (act on terror or no talks) has been turned on its head thus breaching cross-party consensus; and, Singh has fetched trouble for India by agreeing to the inclusion of Baluchistan in the joint statement. In sum, the Opposition described the Sharm encounter as a sell-out.
The Prime Minister spoke at length, often meandering from point to point and seeking to obfuscate the real issues raised by the Opposition. His response was prepared in advance and in anticipation of questions being raised in the Lok Sabha. Yet, it was stilted, shorn of sincerity and lacking in purposefulness.
Singh played at five levels in his usual crafty manner, slyly attacking the BJP/NDA’s Pakistan policy while appropriating a misplaced claim of success.
Obviously at the behest of the Congress, which senses popular disquiet over the shameful surrender at Sharm and has not been enthusiastic in backing Singh, he tried to play to the domestic gallery by repeatedly referring to national sentiment and national position, and how people are opposed to talking to an unrepentant, callous Pakistan. To them his message was: Don’t worry, we are not going to talk to Pakistan. Even if the joint statement mentions ‘composite dialogue’, this shall not happen till there is verifiable evidence of Pakistan acting against terrorism. Intention: Calm frayed nerves and pander to public opinion at home.
He told the Opposition that other countries affected by terrorism emanating from Pakistan were talking to Islamabad, so no reason why India should not do so. He also recalled Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s peace initiatives and tried to place himself at par with his predecessor – ‘he was a statesman, so am I’ – which is truly audacious of him. Intention: He is not alone in treading the path to unmitigated disaster; others are also talking to and appeasing Pakistan.
He played to the Pakistani gallery by talking about the need for ‘peace’ and how ‘dialogue and engagement are the only way forward’. He also praised Pakistan for acting against the 26/11 masterminds, although he was cautious enough to say that more needs to be done. He spoke of ‘trust but verify’, which controverts his assertion that action taken by Pakistan and promises orally communicated to him are impressive and convincing. Intention: He has not abandoned his ‘younger Punjabi brother’, Gilani.
He pandered to his fan club, the lib-left intelligentsia and drum-beaters in media, by saying that war is the only option to no-talks. And since war is ‘not a solution’ between two nuclear powers (‘fear a nuclear holocaust unless we talk to Pakistan’) India must talk to Pakistan. Intention: Get his admirers to portray him as a grand strategist, a peace-maker, a statesman, who is the real winner of Sharm el-Sheikh despite being such a terrible loser.
And, he has let his friends and patrons in America know that he has taken the lead from the US. If Washington is willing to talk to Tehran, betraying the interests of its steadfast allies in West Asia, then there is no reason why New Delhi should not talk to Islamabad. Intention: Let America know he takes his cue from Washington, DC.
I have four questions.
First, the intervention makes little sense, unless it is meant to confuse the nation and confound the Opposition. Are we going to talk, or not talk to Pakistan? Will it be meaningful talks or casual tittle-tattle?
Does delinking Pakistani terrorism from composite dialogue mean a) the composite dialogue will resume even if Pakistan fails to act against terror emanating from territory under its control, as the joint statement says; b) Pakistan cannot make action against terrorism conditional to resuming the composite dialogue, as Singh says; or, c) India must resume the composite dialogue irrespective of whether or not Pakistan acts against anti-India terrorism, as Gilani interprets it? There is no clarity even after Wednesday’s ‘clarification’ by the Prime Minister.
Second, what was the compulsion to include Baluchistan in the joint statement? The Prime Minister’s bunkum about keeping an ‘open book’ means nothing.
Third, why is there this sudden turnaround in policy and at whose behest? This question needs to be answered conclusively.
Fourth, have no lessons been learned from the disastrous experience of trying to set up a Joint Anti-Terror Mechanism with Pakistan? Why have we agreed to share real time, actionable intelligence?
A last point: The Prime Minister waxed eloquent about the “shared future” of India and Pakistan. I don’t think secular and democratic India has any ‘shared future’ with the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Why indulge in such bogus rhetoric? Or does the Prime Minister really believe that a terror-sponsoring Islamic state and an open, plural, free society share a common destiny?
This is neither ‘grand strategy’ nor ‘bad drafting’. It is part of a larger game plan hatched somewhere else. The Prime Minister’s tactics remind me of his repeatedly misleading Parliament and the nation on the nuclear deal with the US. What finally emerged had no resemblance to what he had told Parliament.
Are we headed for a similar denouement?
Saturday, July 25, 2009
What made PM crumble so abjectly?
Shashi Tharoor may have been cavalier in describing the July 16 India-Pakistan joint statement, issued after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in Sharm el-Sheikh, as a mere “diplomatic paper that is not a legal document” and hence not binding on either country or worth the attention it has attracted, but the Pakistanis are hopping mad. On Friday, Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit said, “The insinuations made by Shashi Tharoor were unwarranted and inconsistent with diplomatic norms.” Both countries, he added, should refrain from remarks that “detract from the progress made in Sharm el-Sheikh.”
While Mr Tharoor’s supercilious comments, which should really have been put out by him as part of his daily ‘tweet service’ instead of being told to mediapersons at Parliament House, are unlikely to have stumped too many people within and outside the Government, what is surprising is that the Pakistanis are incensed. Here was an opportunity for them to turn around and say, “If the joint statement is not binding on India, nor is it binding on us.” And that would have put to an end needless speculation over whether or not Mr Gilani will fulfil his assurance that “Pakistan will do everything in its power” to “bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice”, an assurance that, we are now told by Minister for External Affairs SM Krishna, prompted our Prime Minister to compromise national interest by delinking terrorism from talks.
But neither Mr Tharoor’s flippancy nor Mr Krishna’s stout defence of the joint statement answers questions that have come to dominate public discourse ever since our pusillanimous Prime Minister’s shameful capitulation in Sharm el-Sheikh. Nor, for that matter, does Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon’s sly attempt to deflect criticism of Mr Singh by suggesting that the joint statement’s “drafting was not perfect” provide us with a clue as to why our tough-talking Prime Minister turned so disgracefully timorous when he met Mr Gilani.
Soon after the 26/11 carnage in Mumbai, the Prime Minister told a shocked nation that “some Pakistani official agencies must have supported” the fidayeen attacks. On December 11, 2008, while speaking in the Lok Sabha, he was all fire-and-brimstone when he described Pakistan as the “epicentre of terrorism”. He added that “the infrastructure of terrorism has to be dismantled permanently” before India can even consider resuming dialogue with Pakistan. On June 16, when the Prime Minister met Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari in Yekaterinburg, he told him bluntly, and in front of mediapersons, “I must tell you quite frankly that I have come with the limited mandate of discussing how Pakistan can deliver on its assurances that its territory would not be used for terrorist attacks on India.” On July 9, Mr SM Krishna told Parliament, “Notwithstanding Pakistan Government’s assurances to us, terrorists in Pakistan continue attacks against India.”
Between July 9 and July 11, something happened that turned all that bluster into pitiful whimper. On his way back from the G-8 summit in L’Aquila, the Prime Minister, discarding all pretensions of pursuing a tough, no-nonsense policy on Pakistan, said India would “walk more than half the distance” if Islamabad offered a “renewed reaffirmation” of its promise to “bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai massacre to justice”. The demand that the “infrastructure of terrorism has to be dismantled permanently”, that “Pakistan must deliver on its assurances that its territory would not be used for terrorist attacks on India”, suddenly metamorphosed into a timidly expressed expectation of “renewed reaffirmation” of a promise that the whole world knows Pakistan has no intention of fulfilling.
By the time the Prime Minister met Mr Gilani at Sharm el-Sheikh, that expectation had turned into snivelling submission to Pakistan’s insidious motives, best exemplified by the inclusion of the implied allegation of India’s involvement in the separatist violence in Baluchistan in the joint statement. No less worse was the Prime Minister’s endorsement of Pakistan’s long-held contention that “action on terrorism should not be linked to the Composite Dialogue process and these should not be bracketed”.
Perhaps the Prime Minister believed that he would be feted back home for his gutless deed in Sharm el-Sheikh, if not by the masses then the morally bankrupt middle classes which had collectively ensured his continuation in office by voting for the Congress in this summer’s general election. We can also presume that he had hoped the Congress would be ecstatic and ruthlessly put down any dissenting voices in Parliament and outside. On his part, he would claim that nothing had been conceded to Pakistan, insist that it was a splendid diplomatic victory, and demand that all patriots should support the appalling sell-out of India’s national interest. After all, that’s how he craftily manipulated public opinion and political support in his favour so as to let the US have its way on the nuclear deal.
This time, however, the Prime Minister’s bluff has been called, if not by the middle classes, which are still besotted with him for not finding it offensive to be called an American stooge, then by the masses. There is national outrage over his capitulation in Sharm el-Sheikh and even the Prime Minister’s spin masters masquerading as journalists in the English language media have been compelled to ask some discomfiting questions. As for his party, the Congress, sensing popular revulsion, has steadfastly steered clear of coming to the Prime Minister’s defence.
To the Prime Minister’s credit, he did try to sell the sell-out as a great achievement that his genius alone could accomplish. No, he told Parliament, delinking Pakistani terrorism from peace talks does not mean we will talk to the sponsors of cross-border jihadi violence. Only to be controverted by his Minister for External Affairs who subsequently told India Today that the Prime Minister agreed to delink terror and talks because “we will have to continue to talk to Pakistan (as) there is no alternative”. But to talk, both Mr Singh and Mr Krishna insist, is not to resume the ‘composite dialogue’. That’s bunkum because the joint statement clearly mentions the ‘composite dialogue process’, which includes the ‘Kashmir issue’, and not casual tittle-tattle over tea and biscuits.
What, then, forced the Prime Minister to swallow his brave words and do a grovelling act? Was the debacle at Sharm el-Sheikh scripted in Washington, DC? Or is this the first step towards the Prime Minister facilitating the fruition of President Barack Hussein Obama’s AfPak policy which can succeed only if Pakistan is suitably mollycoddled and allowed to regain its ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan via the Taliban? That would also involve India winding up its development programmes and shutting down its diplomatic missions in Afghanistan. The line of least resistance which has come to define the Obama Administration’s approach to Pakistan is now being slavishly replicated in South Block under the Prime Minister’s tutelage.
[Appears as Coffee Break in Sunday Pioneer, Jyly 26.]
Saturday, July 18, 2009
So he compromises national interest; caves in to US arm-twisting; capitulates to Pakistani blackmail at Sharm el-Sheikh
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a decent and honest man. His admirers would say he is an economist too. His detractors (a plague on their houses!) don’t quite see it that way and his critics (may they never escape the damnation of hell!) think he is a feckless man given to spinning webs of deceit to cover up his sins of omission and commission. So, there is no reason to doubt that when he met Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement (yes, it still exists) Summit at Sharm el-Sheikh last Thursday, Mr Singh did the tough-guys-don’t-cry act with him.
“I conveyed to him the strong sentiments of the people of India over the issue of terrorism, especially the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. We are reviewing the dossier of investigations into these attacks which Pakistan has provided to us. I also conveyed to Prime Minister Gilani that sustained, effective and credible action needs to be taken not only to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack to justice, but also to shut down the operations of terrorist groups so as to prevent any future attacks,” the Prime Minister told Parliament on Friday. Since he is a man of impeccable integrity, and because the Right to Information Act won’t allow us access to the ‘Record of Discussion’, we must believe that this is indeed what he told Mr Gilani.
And having read out the riot act, presumably in a stern though whiny voice and with an unsmiling face, the Prime Minister agreed to endorse a joint statement along with Mr Gilani, whose contents, in both letter and spirit, fly ruthlessly in the face of what he now claims to have said. Since 72 hours is a long time for public memory to remain fresh, it would be in order to quote the salient points of the joint statement:
“Both leaders agreed that terrorism is the main threat to both countries.”
“Prime Minister Singh reiterated the need to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice. Prime Minister Gilani assured that Pakistan will do everything in its power in this regard.”
“Both leaders agreed that the two countries will share real time, credible and actionable information on any future terrorist threats.”
“Prime Minister Gilani mentioned that Pakistan has some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas.”
“Both Prime Ministers recognised that dialogue is the only way forward. Action on terrorism should not be linked to the Composite Dialogue process and these should not be bracketed. Prime Minister Singh said that India was ready to discuss all issues with Pakistan, including all outstanding issues.”
Here’s a commonsensical interpretation, which is not quite different from how diplomats with commonsense would interpret it, of the joint statement, based entirely on an understanding of what used to be the Queen’s language:
The Pakistan-sponsored jihadi terrorism India has to cope with, and pay for with the blood of innocent Indians, according to Mr Singh, is no different from the bloodletting in Pakistan caused by those jihadis who have turned rabid and begun to bite the hand that once lovingly fed them. Nothing distinguishes the victim, our saintly Prime Minister believes, from the perpetrator of macabre misdeeds. So, 10-year-old Devika Rotawan, whose right leg has been disabled after she was shot during last November’s fidayeen attack on Mumbai, should feel contrite for deposing against Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani who remorselessly crippled her and sat grinning in the court while she relived the horror of that night at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.
Our firm and not easily persuaded Prime Minister demanded Pakistan must bring those responsible for 26/11 to justice. Mr Gilani assured him everything is being done in this regard. We must believe Mr Gilani, because our wise Prime Minister trusts him. Never mind minor details like Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the chief terrorist of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba who operates under the cover of a bogus Islamic charity, Jamaat-ud-Dawa’h, and the mastermind behind the carnage in Mumbai, being allowed to walk free and plot the next attack on India. Nor should we feel distraught if others ‘arrested’ in the case by Pakistani authorities are also set free on account of ‘insufficient evidence’.
The US, more specifically the CIA, wants us to share real time, credible and actionable intelligence with Pakistan. The Americans have been haranguing us on this score for some time now. We might as well give in and do Washington’s (or should it be Langley’s?) bidding. Why rub the Americans the wrong way, especially since they have us by our short and curly over our now compromised nuclear programme? And why upset the 300-million-strong middle class which aspires to see India become an American stooge? After all, they determined the outcome of this summer’s general election and ensured that we would continue to have a decent, honest and, not to forget, economist Prime Minister who oozes integrity. So, we shall pass on real time, credible and actionable intelligence to the Pakistanis and they shall rework their terror strategy accordingly so that our security agencies cannot pre-empt future jihadi attacks. No, there's no need to get upset about it. To cavil would be unpatriotic as all patriots are expected to back the Prime Minister who genuinely believes capitulation will “serve to further advance India’s interests”.
Pakistan, we are now told, has “some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas”. The sly reference to Balochi separatism in the joint statement need not shock us, even though this amounts to legitimising Pakistan’s absurd claim that Indian agencies, more specifically R&AW, have been fomenting trouble in Balochistan. The Prime Minister says there’s nothing to fear, ours is an “open book”. So, why feel apprehensive that this shall pave the way to Islamabad accusing New Delhi, and convincingly so, that India has been doing unto Pakistan what Pakistan has been doing unto India? The Prime Minister’s silence on the inclusion of Balochistan in the joint statement when he spoke in Parliament need not intrigue us — he wasn’t being cunning or deceitful; that’s not what decent and honest men do; he was merely glossing over a minor detail whose consequences can be disastrous.
The Prime Minister sincerely believes “action on terrorism should not be linked to the Composite Dialogue process and these should not be bracketed”. He is also “ready to discuss”, as the US wants him to, “all issues with Pakistan, including all outstanding issues”. However, this does not really mean what it means, or so we are told by the Prime Minister. What it really means, and I quote from his statement in Parliament, is that “action on terrorism should not be linked to the composite dialogue process”.
Further comment would be tantamount to questioning the integrity of a decent and honest man, and lending credence to what the Prime Minister’s critics say, that he is a feckless man given to spinning webs of deceit.
The Rasta and the Haredi
The Ticho House is where Jerusalem’s artists, writers, musicians and anybody else who qualifies as an intellectual and is appropriately dressed in gloomy black representing the sandal-clad hip crowd’s existential dilemma gather every evening to while away the lazy hours of mid-summer stupor. Nava Bibi, in a billowing flower-printed dress, is a charming hostess. On the lush lawns a huge screen has been set up for the ongoing art film festival and the movie being screened, Seven Easy Pieces by Marina Abramovic, directed by Babette Mangolte, is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Femme Mariée. Godard’s chosen medium was black and white; Mangolte’s use of bleak colours is equally brooding. Young Israelis watch the film intently; later, they dissect it frame by frame over wine and fish at Little Jerusalem, the Ticho House restaurant where it’s tough to find an empty table.
At a short distance, in noisy, raucous Ben Yehuda teenagers and twenty-somethings party late into the night. There’s live music (a woman belts out Jai Ho!) spilling into the street; most pubs throb with Goa Trance. In the din, a singer’s voice soars over the cacophony of club music: Idan Raichel, the Rasta Man with matted hair, is a rage in Israel. His music is unique and defies existing categories. He brings together musicians from Israel’s various immigrant communities — all of them are Jewish yet each of them is different. Raichel says it is his attempt to help new immigrants remain rooted in their cultural traditions while blending with mainstream Israeli society.
Meanwhile, the Haredim, who occupy the ultra-orthodox quarters of Jerusalem and collectively represent the anti-thesis of everything that secular Jews stand for, including their lofty disdain for the haredi way of life which is sustained by generous financial assistance provided by the Government and Jewish charities, fight it out with riot police over a perceived violation of Sabbath rules. A month ago, the Government decided to keep a newly-built parking lot across the walled city’s Jaffa Gate open on Sabbath when everything in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, comes to a halt and an eerie silence descends on the city.
The Haredim, appalled by this callous disregard of established tradition that prohibits people from, among other things, driving their cars on Sabbath, have decided to force the Government into withdrawing the order. So, for the past three Sabbaths, the Haredim, including young and old religious Jews, have been gathering in large numbers to confront the police. It’s a fierce battle that follows each Saturday afternoon, but neither side is showing signs of relenting.
In the West Bank settlements, redolent with the fragrance of flowers and ripening fruit, the resident Jews are in a fury. They see themselves as not just settlers grabbing Palestinian land, as they are made out to be by the Arabs and the international media, but as the true and legitimate inheritors of the ‘promised land’ of Judea and Samaria. All construction activity in the settlements has been halted; even building a new room now requires the approval of the Prime Minister of Israel.
The settlers don’t blame Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (admiringly and loathingly referred to as ‘BB’) for the freeze on settlement construction activity. Their anger is directed at US President Barack Hussein Obama — the middle name is emphatically stressed in Judea and Samaria where settlers have miraculously converted the sterile desert into fertile farms and pine-scented woodlands.
Mr Obama is accused of appeasing Arab sentiments and addressing imagined grievances by forcing the Right-wing Government led by Mr Netanyahu to give in to his demand of halting all settlement-building activity. Israelis of American origin (many of whom still retain their US citizenship) despise Mr Obama with unguarded hostility. For them, the good news is that American gunboat diplomacy has frozen the peace process and restoring the Green Line as a step towards a full and final settlement of the Palestinian issue continues to remain a distant chimera. Abu Mazen is not complaining.
Israeli Arabs, full citizens of the Jewish state, are not complaining either. Any change in the status quo would cause them needless stress. In any event, most of them take a disparaging view of the situation in Gaza Strip and West Bank. Not surprisingly, they would rather live in Israel where law and order prevails than in the anarchy across the Wall.
Between faith and democracy, the choice is clear — at least for those who have benefited from Israel’s economic boom, which has remained largely untouched by the global financial crisis. Young Israeli Arabs may be less hesitant than their parents about speaking up for Palestinian rights, but that does not necessarily reflect split loyalties or subversive tendencies. On the contrary, they are eager to fully assimilate with Israeli society as that would afford them the freedom which Fatah and Hamas deny to Palestinians under their charge.
The certitudes in which the Israeli identity — overwhelmingly Jewish, largely exclusivist and dominated by the cultural preferences, if not biases, of the post-Holocaust generation that came from Europe — has been anchored for the past six decades are still there. But they have begun to yield space to other defining features. The Jewish narrative is witnessing subtle changes and the shift in the Jewish worldview is apparent; victimhood is no longer the main characteristic of the Jewish identity, nor is it cloaked in aggressive religiosity or political Zionism.
The new generation of Israelis is far more confident and aspirational than the previous generation. At the same time, young Israelis have begun to open their doors and windows to the world, absorbing and adopting ideas and accommodating those who were on the margins of a society whose social rules till recently were written by an European elite and religious rites were dictated by the Haredim. Modernity and tradition have found a new equilibrium without disturbing social harmony.
In this Israel, Idan Raichel is as much an inspirational force in reclaiming Jewish cultural identities as the Haredim are in enforcing orthodox Jewish traditions; the Israeli Arabs are not ashamed to flaunt their Israeli identity and the Jewish settlers remain defiant; and, in the heart of Jerusalem, Israelis of various faith and cultural denomination jive to the tune of Jai Ho! and Goa Trance. This Israel cannot but alarm Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Monday, July 06, 2009
The past couple of weeks have been one big, mad rush. I am now off to Israel at the invitation of the American Jewish Committee for a week. Hopefully, I will get to blog at leisure from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, a city that never ceases to amaze me. I am sure there will be interesting stories to tell. By the time I am back in Delhi, which has lived up to its name as the 'Dust bowl of India' with the rains giving this wretched city and the NCR a go-by, the silly season should be over. Meanwhile, I came across an interesting picture of the spot where the Bamyan Buddhas once stood before the Taliban came along with their guns and dynamite... Weep for the barbarity let loose by mullahs.
There was an interesting story in last week's morning papers. Senior IAS officers — which means babus who are well networked with the New Delhi establishment — of West Bengal cadre are desperate to move out of Kolkata. We are told that “at least eight principal secretaries in the State Government, including two additional chief secretaries, are looking to leave” for assignments in New Delhi. “If you work in Delhi, you can deliver because of better work culture,” Urban Development Secretary PK Pradhan has been quoted as saying, “Also, in Delhi, there isn’t much political interference... Here, things don’t move.”
The claim, of course, is no more than hogwash. Bureaucrats are adept at the art of serving political masters, irrespective of the latter’s allegiance and ideology. In any event, a bureaucrat’s job is to turn political directive into policy and implement it. Rare is the bureaucrat who has the courage to resist directives that are flawed, patently partisan or motivated by concerns other than those for the nation and its interests. Equally rare is the Minister who is comfortable with a ‘thinking’ bureaucrat. That’s the way it is.
The issue, however, is not of senior IAS officers of West Bengal cadre feeling “frustrated” or wanting to prove their worth in a “better work culture”. That’s bunkum. It’s to do with babus sensing, as they alone can with unerring accuracy, the demise of the CPI(M)-led Left Front Government in the 2011 Assembly election. Between now and the Left Front’s anticipated exit from Writers’ Building, the seat of power in West Bengal, they would like to rid themselves of any perceived proximity with the Marxists and get into the good books of those who are expected to replace the decrepit Left regime — namely, the Trinamool Congress and the Congress.
The best way to achieve both purposes would be to swing a job in the UPA Government, preferably with a Trinamool Congress or Congress Minister. Curiously, there appears to be no resistance from the West Bengal Government to this cynical job-seeking by its bureaucrats. Has Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee accepted that defeat is inevitable in the Assembly poll? Or is it that he has lost the spirit to put up a fight till the empire built by the Marxists over three decades is actually lost?
Obviously a sense of despondency has overtaken Mr Bhattacharjee and his comrades after this summer’s general election in which the Left’s tally has been reduced from an unnatural high of 35 to an unexpected low of 15, with ‘committed’ voters in both urban and rural areas abandoning the CPI(M) in hordes. The Maoist takeover of Lalgarh, till recently a bastion of the CPI(M), and the need for Central forces to put down the rebellion after personnel of West Bengal Police, who owe their jobs to the ‘Party’, turned tail and fled, has only served to further accentuate the sense of defeat.
The CPI(M)’s debacle in Nandigram and Singur could be linked to Mr Bhattacharjee’s industrial policy, but the party’s fall from grace in Lalgarh is about repudiation of its politics by its core constituency — the toiling masses. Images of palatial buildings built by local CPI(M) leaders amid gut-wrenching poverty and squalor, deprivation and denial, being razed to the ground by those who till recently held aloft the Marxist banner and identified themselves with the ‘sarba haarar dal’ (party of have-nots) is unlikely to be erased from popular memory in the near future. To the contrary, it can only fuel similar uprising in other impoverished districts of West Bengal where yesterday’s mass leaders are now in an awful minority and stick out like sore thumbs for their affluence and prosperity which has been glaringly denied to others.
Mr Bhattacharjee and his comrades are painfully aware of this reality. They are also aware that nothing seems to work any more under their tutelage. The civil administration, which has been systematically subverted over 32 years and whose mainstay, the bureaucracy, has been only too willing to be emasculated and treated as a doormat, is virtually non-existent in vast swathes of the State. The party’s own organisation, which was used to supplant the official machinery, is riddled with corruption; the little that remains of it has become too slothful to respond in any meaningful manner. This became only too evident in the aftermath of Cyclone Aila when relief material, including emergency food packets, despatched from Kolkata for the affected villagers of the Sunderbans remained undistributed for more than 72 hours. Mr Bhattacharjee discovered this to his horror when he visited the Sunderbans for what is referred to as an ‘on-the-spot survey’, but by then it was too late and the damage had been done. Men, women and children who had to remain hungry and thirsty for three days and more because neither the Government nor the ‘Party’ delivered on time and with alacrity are unlikely to forgive and forget.
And, as the CPI(M) struggles to cope with the emerging reality of its fast-slipping grip over the masses it once mesmerised with its promise of ‘revolutionary change’ and whose unflinching loyalty it could bank upon in the toughest of elections, its fair weather friends have begun to distance themselves like rats jumping from a sinking ship. The ‘intellectuals’ of Kolkata — writers, actors, film directors, theatre personalities, artists and journalists, collectively referred to as the ‘Nandan crowd’ — who have benefited enormously on account of the patronage extended by the CPI(M), most notably by Mr Bhattacharjee himself, have been the first to turn their coats. Nothing illustrates this better than Aparna Sen aligning with the Trinamool Congress. The colour of activism has suddenly turned green.
But the ‘intellectuals’ are not alone in jumping the sinking Marxist ship. Look at the ease with which the CPI, which was rehabilitated by the CPI(M) after its shameful collaboration with the Emergency regime, now blames the Marxists for the Left’s problems. Mr AB Bardhan was the loudest and the most strident in demanding that the Left break ranks with the Congress over the India-US civil nuclear cooperation deal. Even before ‘marriage counsellors’ could get into the act, he had declared ‘talaq’ with the Congress — not thrice but many times over. Indeed, it could be argued that the CPI forced the CPI(M)’s hands, making the Left tread the path of no return.
Yet, Mr Bardhan is equally loud and strident now in blaming the Marxists and berating them for breaking the Left’s cushy alliance with the Congress. These are truly bad times — dushshomoy, as Mr Bhattacharjee would call it— for the CPI(M). It will only get worse here on.