Debating India


Political echoes

Saturday 17 July 1999, by VENKATESAN*V.

There is a national consensus on supporting the Indian armed forces’ operations in Kargil, but in the guise of parading their patriotism some elements within the ruling coalition and outside it have discouraged a debate on the government’s handling of the situation.

in New Delhi

FOR the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition, a political formation given to invoking "nationalistic" rhetoric even in times of peace, the war-like situation in Kargil has provided a platform to parade its patriotism.

Simultaneously, elements within the ruling coalition and some others outside it have taken to casting aspersions on the nationalist commitment of some Opposition parties and leaders. They have sought to avert a national debate on the government’s handling of the Kargil situation on the specious plea that such a debate would lower the morale of the armed forces. Some Opposition parties too have been swayed by the winds of "competitive patriotism" and jingoism.

The BJP-led government has stubbornly refused to concede a proposal by several Opposition parties to convene a special session of the Rajya Sabha in order to discuss the Kargil conflict. In its view, any criticism of the government’s handling of the situation would amount to criticising the defence forces, which would have serious consequences for the soldiers’ morale. "We cannot afford to have a ’fight’ in Parliament when our soldiers are bravely fighting the enemy," a leader of the ruling coalition said. A few others felt that it would be "unpatriotic" to allow criticism of defence policy in Parliament "at a time when our forces require complete political and moral backing in their battle against the enemy."

However, the all-party meeting held on June 28 and the conference of Chief Ministers on July 7 have shown that, if anything, unfettered expression of views could in fact strengthen the national resolve and convey the message that the nation was united in facing up to the challenge posed by the Pakistan-backed infiltrators.

In response to the opinions voiced at the Chief Ministers’ conference, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said that he was "heartened"by the national consensus on the need to defeat Pakistan’s designs. Although there were political differences, the participants had upheld the primacy of national security, he said. There had been sharp disagreements among the Chief Ministers on the issue of convening a session of the Rajya Sabha, but he would examine the matter afresh, Vajpayee added.

While all the Chief Ministers extended their support to the armed forces and to the Union Government in dealing with the infiltration, a few who belong to parties that make up the national Opposition expressed reservations over the government’s handling of the conflict, particularly in allowing such a serious situation to develop along the Line of Control. At least seven Chief Ministers - those of Orissa, Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala - urged the government to convene a Rajya Sabha session. Two Congress(I) Chief Ministers, S.C.Jamir (Nagaland) and Luizinho Faleiro (Goa), did not participate in the conference.

According to Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting and government spokesperson Pramod Mahajan, at least 13 Chief Ministers - those of Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Gujarat, Punjab, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Maharashtra - opposed the demand for such a session. The Congress(I) Chief Ministers wanted the government to bring out a White Paper on the conflict in Kargil.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal, which is in power in Bihar, is known to support the demand for a Rajya Sabha session, but Chief Minister Rabri Devi did not raise the issue. Karnataka Chief Minister J.H. Patel, who belongs to the Janata Dal, opposed the demand for a session even though party president Sharad Yadav had expressed his support for it at the all-party meeting.

According to Prakash Karat, member of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who represented his party at the all-party meeting, the majority of the parties urged the government to convene a Rajya Sabha session. In his opinion, it made little sense to take a head-count of the Chief Ministers in this matter; given the war-like situation on the Kashmir border and the fact that the government functioned in a caretaker capacity and the Lok Sabha had been dissolved, it was incumbent on the government to convene the only House of Parliament that existed, he said.

Karat indicated that the Opposition would step up pressure on the government and urge the President to exercise his powers if the government failed to advise him to convene the session. On July 9, a Congress(I) delegation led by Balram Jakhar met President K.R. Narayanan and requested him to direct the government to convene the Upper House. The delegation said that the session was necessary to evolve a collective national response to recent events. "Allowing a caretaker government to function for too long a period without accountability to the democratic process is contrary to the spirit of the Constitution," the delegation said.

Some political observers believe that the government is fighting shy of a Rajya Sabha session because, unlike at the conference of Chief Ministers - where it got away with merely making a statement - in a Rajya Sabha debate the government will be held accountable and its acts of omission and commission will be exposed. Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy said that the government’s reluctance to face a Rajya Sabha session stemmed from this fear.

At the conference, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh pointed out that peace had prevailed between India and Pakistan for 27 years after the signing of the Simla Agreement . He said that the roots of the Kargil conflict could be traced to the Pokhran-II nuclear blasts.

Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, in his address, said that although the Simla Agreement had brought about peace on the border, it had not enabled "complete peace". Pakistan had resorted to a proxy war, first in Punjab and later in Jammu and Kashmir, he said. Advani noted that about 1,700 soldiers died in Punjab between 1984 and 1994, whereas Pakistan had suffered no casualties. In Kashmir, he said, 1,845 Indian soldiers had died between 1989 and 1998; since the Kargil conflict had begun, 270 Indian soldiers had died, Advani said.

THE Opposition’s demand for a Rajya Sabha session has a curious precedent, set during the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962. Ironically, it was Vajpayee, as the leader of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh’s parliamentary delegation, who urged Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to convene an "emergency" session of Parliament to discuss the crisis. Newspaper reports of that period reveal that the Jan Sangh pushed a strident line and demanded that India break off diplomatic relations with China and declare China an "enemy country" (The Hindu, October 22, 1962). A delegation led by Vajpayee met Nehru on October 26, 1962 and appealed to him to relieve V.K. Krishna Menon of the Defence portfolio; it wanted Nehru himself to take over the portfolio in order to "create confidence in the country about the Government’s firm determination to eject the Chinese invaders from Indian territory" (The Hindustan Times, October 27, 1962).

The delegation further told Nehru: "So far, the Indian defence had been passive in the sense that they had been allowing the Chinese to select the point of attack. Indian defence had only been on the checkposts. The Indian forces should take initiative in their hands" (The Hindustan Times, October 27, 1962).

Nehru conceded the Jan Sangh’s demand and convened a parliamentary session on November 8. Vajpayee, in his speech in the Upper House, accused the Nehru Government of failing to introspect and of neglecting national security. He wanted an inquiry into why soldiers were not posted in adequate numbers in the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA).

Congress(I) leaders have pointed out that in 1962, Vajpayee and the Jan Sangh had, even before the war ended, pressed for a critical analysis of what went wrong and criticised the Government. No one had questioned Vajpayee’s patriotism even when he had harshly criticised Nehru’s "lapses". They wondered whether Vajpayee would now display the same degree of statesmanship as Nehru had in 1962.

AT the conference, some Chief Ministers wondered whether there was a constitutional provision that allowed the convening of a session of the Upper House when the Lok Sabha stood dissolved and whether such a session could be convened when elections to the Lok Sabha had been announced.

There is no precedent for the convening of a Rajya Sabha session in isolation (during the interregnum between the dissolution of a Lok Sabha and the holding of elections). However, there is nothing in the Constitution that prevents the Union Cabinet from advising the President to call a session of the Rajya Sabha in such circumstances. In fact, President Narayanan had suggested to the government that the Cabinet advise him to call a Rajya Sabha session. Vajpayee had indicated to the President that a session could be called in the first week of July, but he has not acted on the proposal, evidently under pressure from within the ruling coalition.

Constitutional experts say that it is not unusual for the Rajya Sabha to continue its session even after the Lok Sabha has been prorogued. Subhash Kashyap, former Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha, said that the Constitution provides for the convening of a Rajya Sabha session even after the dissolution of the Lok Sabha, in order to approve the proclamation of a state of emergency. However, he said, the present controversy seemed to be of a political nature, considering that the ruling coalition was in a minority in the Upper House.

WHETHER or not Kargil gets to be debated in the Rajya Sabha, there is enough to indicate that it will figure as a campaign issue in the Lok Sabha elections. Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, on her campaign tours, has criticised the government for not pre-empting the Kargil crisis. The ruling coalition believes that it can make electoral gains if the infiltrators are driven out before the elections.

The government, after initially signalling that it might prefer a postponement of the parliamentary elections in the light of the Kargil situation, has in recent interactions with the Election Commission made it clear that it wanted the elections to be held as decided earlier. Advani’s remark that the situation in the country and the external threat to its security merited the imposition of internal emergency caused disquiet in political circles. The Samata Party, an ally of the BJP, indicated that it would support such a move. Imposition of a state of emergency would have entailed a postponment of the elections. However, sensing the public mood, the BJP denied that the government was considering imposing a state of emergency. "We don’t see any need for it as of now," BJP spokesperson K.L. Sharma said.

At the conference of Chief Ministers, Advani denied that the government had considered postponing the elections. However, he said, given the war-like situation, the government may be unable to make available to the States paramilitary troops in numbers comparable to the 1998 elections. The State governments would have to meet the shortfall by augmenting the police and civil defence, he said.

IF the ruling coalition considered the demand for a Rajya Sabha debate an "unpatriotic" response, there were other, more extreme, expressions of "patriotism" from self-styled opinion leaders. Information and Broadcasting Minister Pramod Mahajan imposed a ban on the transmission of Pakistan TV broadcasts through cable channels. The Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL) made an unsuccessful attempt to block Internet access to the online edition of the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. Chairman of the VSNL Amitabh Kumar admitted that the action had been taken on instructions from "higher authorities" in the Ministry of Telecommunications. There was no explanation for the selective targeting of Dawn’s Web site for online censorship, but the move, which showed up an inadequate understanding of the futility of filtering information in the seamless world of the Internet, only ended up embarrassing the political leadership further. The newspaper continued to be accessible to Internet subscribers through other Web sites.

On another front, the Sahara cricket series in Toronto (in which India and Pakistan were to have played) was cancelled following former Test cricketer Kapil Dev’s call (issued after visiting injured Indian soldiers in a Srinagar hospital) for the suspension of cricketing ties with Pakistan until the conclusion of the war. Although Kapil Dev took a highly nuanced stand - he favoured such a suspension only for the duration of the border hostilities - Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, who had cited Pakistan’s support for the militants in Kashmir and campaigned against (and even threatened to sabotage) the recent tour to India of the Pakistani cricket team, felt vindicated.

A section of the Congress(I) and the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra seemed to have been swept away by the tide of competitive jingoism. A victim in this case was veteran film actor Dilip Kumar. The Shiv Sena started it all when it demanded that he return the Nishan-e-Pakistan award, the highest civilian honour in Pakistan, which was conferred on him by the Pakistan Government last year. A BJP Minister in the State Government asked Dilip Kumar to "return the award or quit the country". Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde asked the actor to decide whether he wanted to join the nation in condemning the Pakistani intrusion in Kargil. Congress(I) spokesperson Ajit Jogi declared that there was no question of doubting Dilip Kumar’s "patriotism", but even he refused to condemn the State leaders of his party who had endorsed the Shiv Sena’s demand.

The Federation of Legislators of India deplored the exhibitions of "misplaced patriotism" and said that doubting Dilip Kumar’s loyalty and patriotism was an "unforgivable crime" against India’s culture and civilisation. Dilip Kumar, who accepted the award after obtaining the consent of the then Prime Minister and the President, sought an appointment with Prime Minister Vajpayee to find out whether he endorsed the demands of his party’s coalition partners.

Given the recent success of the Indian armed forces in ending the infiltration, the battle in Kargil may end before long. However, the wounds caused to India’s pluralistic polity by the jingoistic responses of certain sections may take a long time to heal.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 15, July 17 - 30, 1999

SPIP | template | | Site Map | Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0