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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 1, December 20, 2008

Why V.P. Singh Must Be Defended

Sunday 21 December 2008, by Ajit Bhattacharjea

Former PM V.P. Singh passed away in New Delhi on November 27, 2008. He had been at the centre of controversy for having implemented the recommendations of the Mandal Commission Report thereby introducing reservation for OBCs. In that context and because of his bold stand in upholding secular values in the wake of L.K. Advani’s rath yatra at that time, the following lines were written just before VPS was forced to lay down office on November 9, 1990. This article by veteran journalist Ajit Bhattacharjea, that appeared in Mainstream (November 10, 1990), is being reproduced here while we offer our homage to the former PM’s abiding memory. —Editor

Cynicism has become an armour with which we have learnt to protect ourselves against repeated disappointments with political leaders. The armour is particularly thick for journalists who see them at close quarters and notice the gap between personal and public appearance, sometimes within minutes—in the time it takes, for instance, for an MP to walk from the free and easy Central Hall of Parliament to the adjoining debating chamber of the Lok Sabha. Journalists must also be particularly careful not to be taken for a ride, or give permanence to a favourable impression in print; they cannot deny it later.

It is much safer, therefore, and seems more worldly-wise, to emphasise the negative. Or to hedge the positive with “for the moment”, “perhaps”, “apparently” or similar escape-hatch phrases. But this serves to further heighten public doubts and misgivings about the political process, leaving no room for exceptions, or improvement.

Another reason for cynicism is inverted idealism: the belief that political leaders must be uniformly selfless, clear-sighted, visionary, always put the nation before self. We retain this image from the era of the freedom struggle, though by now we should be fully aware of the compromises, deals and postures a politician must strike to get anywhere near the top—not only in India, but in any country. A political leader does not make society; he reflects it. We blame him or her for the corruption in which we indulge.

Against this background, we must be willing to stick our necks out sometimes to give an above-average politician a chance to reflect society’s nobler sentiments if the nation is to move forward. And this, I feel, is the time to stick out one’s neck for Vishwanath Pratap Singh.

It is far from a judicious moment. By the time these lines appear in print, he may have had the prime ministerial chair pulled from under him by internal conspiracy or been defeated in the Lok Sabha. In his 10 months in office he has aroused more controversy, and attracted more condemnation, than any of his predecessors in the same period. Students continue to immolate themselves in the belief that he symbolises the forces responsible for their ever-mounting frustration in the search for employment. At the same time, he has authorised the arrest of Lal Krishna Advani, whose rath yatra was projected as a holy campaign to arouse Hindu awareness of the need to salve the hurt caused to their religious heritage.

It is precisely for these reasons, however, that V.P. Singh needs support. True, he announced the decision to implement the Mandal Commission Report without adequate preparation to counter a possible rival. True, that he hopes to enlarge his personal electoral base with this announcement. But this is the way any politician survives. It is for us to judge whether what is done will help those who need help most; whether the reaction is justified or stems from anger with a dent being made in entrenched privilege.

I have written on this subject before and remain convinced, despite the torrent of criticism, that most of it is based on biased interpretation of the Mandal Report (for which V.P. Singh is partly responsible for not publicising its contents in time). But also responsible is the customary belief that senior government appointments, or any appointment bearing prestige and social influence, should be reserved for the privileged upper castes. That is the way it has been for centuries; any move that may begin the process of giving others a chance arouses deep-rooted, traditional anger that is justified by claiming that only the fortunate few have the merit needed for the job. In this impassioned atmosphere, it is not very difficult to persuade impressionable, frustrated youth that V.P. Singh is leading the nation to damnation, and to sacrifice their lives to counter him.

THERE is far less room for confusion or obfuscation on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute. Hence, again, there is an organised campaign to arouse emotion rooted in traditional sentiment. But thanks to Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad and countless others, the line between secularism and theocratic rule has been clearly and firmly drawn. It was open to V.P. Singh to strike a deal with the BJP and secure his chair; but this would involve going back on his pledge to defend the law and the Constitution.

To agree, under any pretext, to demolish a mosque when the judiciary is deliberating its legitimacy would be for the Prime Minister to commit contempt of court and destroy the secular foundations of the nation and the Constitution. True, once again, that he is trying to retain the confidence, and the votes, of the minorities. But this cannot be dismissed as a mere political tactic when the stake at risk is the most powerful and prestigious office in the land.

I must admit, unjournalistically, that I was moved by the content of the Prime Minister’s message to the nation telecast on October 22, and even more by the manner in which it was spoken. Some of the phrases merit reproduction:

The challenge we face is not only to the rule of law, not only to our political system and our Constitution. It is to our humanity and our compassion. The coming days will decide whether we will live up to our principles, or betray them. In these few moments of time, the future history of India will be written.....

It is not a question of a temple or a mosque being built in a particular space. Our most fundamental principles are at stake. We drew up a Constitution and decided that it would determine the way our nation would be run. Now the argument is being made that my religion and my faith is above the rule of law and the provisions of the Constitution. If we accept this argument, then we will be laying the foundation stone of a theocratic state. The ideal of a secular state which Bapu and Nehru nurtured will be destroyed.

V.P. Singh’s call to compassion was the most moving for anyone who has seen the impact of fear on a minority community, the fear that Hindus knew in the area that became Pakistan, and the Muslims in parts of what remained of India. These fears have surfaced again and again in communal disturbances. But unless the bulk of the nation stands by our constitutional commitment to secularism today, the fear and anxiety will multiply.

I cannot say if V.P. Singh was entirely sincere when he went on: “I wish to make it absolutely clear that at this moment a government is a very small thing indeed, and saving it is of no consequence. At this moment, we must save the nation.” Being a politician, he would like to save both, if possible. But I feel he did mean: “Governments come and go, but the nation must remain. In this, my fellow countrymen, I need your support.”

It would have been better, of course far better, if a settlement could have been reached by leaders of the two communities, without involving either the government or the courts. Muslim leaders may have done better by their community if they had agreed to have the Babri Masjid re-erected elsewhere as a gesture to their Hindu brethren because the site is revered, whether historically valid or not, at the birthplace or Ram, whose name Gandhiji took at the moment of his death. But they may have feared that this would become a precedent for translocation or demolition of mosques built on the sites of other Hindu temples.

They also cannot be expected to surrender before the kar seva pressures mounted by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or the deadline set by it. But if the pressure is relaxed as a gesture of Hindu goodwill, the Babri Masjid Action Committee should respond (if the moderates get a chance), provided iron-clad guarantees are provided ensuring that this would be a one-time exception in view of the unique nature of the site.

If, however, it is now too late to reach such a settlement, the verdict of the Allahabad High Court must be awaited, and then accepted. To bow to the insistence that the religious beliefs of the majority, or a minority for that matter, must be given precedence over the law would amount to, to quote V.P. Singh once again, “laying the foundations of a theocratic state”. Not only that; the tolerance and compassion that have inspired and vivified Hinduism itself for centuries will be vitiated.

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