On August 15, a few months after the nuclear tests of 1998, Prime Minister Vajpayee left a shoe behind as he tottered to the podium of the majestic Red Fort. He made an insignificant Independence Day speech without the usual flourishes and had to be supported by security men as he almost collapsed afterwards. “Not only did the prime minister of India look uninspiring, he seemed completely unfit for office,” reported India Today about his performance.
Mr Vajpayee was a transformed man after the Kargil war. He was steadier on his feet, and relatively articulate. But that didn’t stop him from wading into one crisis after another, including in his relations with Pakistan. In contrast Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has acquitted himself well. He hasn’t lost a shoe while walking to deliver a national address, like the one he did on Sunday. And he hasn’t done anything half as adventurous with Pakistan. Yet there is a perceptible resemblance in the hollowness of Dr Singh’s addresses with Vajpayee’s, the man he regarded as Bhishma Pitamah, the sage of an Indian epic.
“Last year,” Dr Singh told India on Sunday, “our country was facing a number of difficulties. There was a drought-like situation in many parts of the country. We were also affected by the global economic slowdown. I am happy to say that we have acquitted ourselves well in these difficult circumstances. Despite many problems, the rate of our economic growth has been better than most other countries in the world. This shows the strength of our economy.”
Way down in his speech does Dr Singh grudgingly admit to an opposite reality. “I know that in the last few months high inflation has caused you difficulties. It is the poor who are the worst affected by rising prices… It is for this reason that we have endeavoured to minimise the burden of increased prices on the poor. Today, I do not want to go into the detailed reasons for high inflation. But, I would certainly like to say that we are making every possible effort to tackle this problem. I am also confident that we will succeed in these efforts.” Amen.
“Today,” he declared, “India stands among the fastest growing economies of the world. As the world’s largest democracy, we have become an example for many other countries to emulate. Our citizens have the right to make their voice heard. Our country is viewed with respect all over the world. Our views command attention in international fora.” Which country is emulating India’s hallowed democracy? When did Indian citizens not have the voice to be heard? Was India not viewed with respect “all over the world” under Nehru or even Indira Gandhi? Or did Dr Singh’s “world” suggests that India has acquired more space in Washington’s scheme of things? As for India’s views on international forums – It sounds like a critique of India’s widely lauded Non-aligned Movement’s leadership.
“Our society often gets divided in the name of religion, state, caste or language,” complained Dr Singh. “We should resolve that we will not allow divisions in our society under any circumstance. Tolerance and generosity have been a part of our traditions. We should strengthen these traditions. As we progress economically our society should also become more sensitive. We should be modern and progressive in our outlook.” That’s an old but worthy agenda. What have successive prime ministers done about the problem, including during the six years that Dr Singh has been in office?
Of the Maoist problem, he said: “If law and order in any part of India deteriorates or peace and harmony gets disturbed, the common man is adversely affected… As I have stated earlier, most Naxalite-affected areas lag behind in development. Many such areas also have a large concentration of our adivasi brothers and sisters. We want to end the neglect of these areas.” The assumption in this is that rural areas not under a Maoist threat have seen great strides of development under Dr Singh’s rule. Since the advent of his economic policies more than a hundred thousand farmers have killed themselves – in non-Maoist areas.
“In Jammu and Kashmir, we are ready to talk to every person or group which abjures violence. Kashmir is an integral part of India… Recently, some young men have lost their lives in violence in Jammu and Kashmir. We deeply regret this. The years of violence should now end. Such violence would not benefit anyone.” The model of brutally suppressing stone-throwing resistance groups is borrowed from recent Israeli practices in Gaza. In the massacre of peace activists on the relief flotilla unarmed passengers were held responsible for harming well-armed Israeli soldiers forcing them to shoot. That’s a new trend in massacres. In any case if Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India – though the United Nations still holds otherwise – then why bother to discuss it with Pakistan at all? China doesn’t discuss Tibet with the world. Can we be a little clearer about this?
On Pakistan, Dr Singh said: “We expect from them that they would not let their territory be used for acts of terrorism against India. We have been emphasising this in all our discussions with the Pakistan government. If this is not done, we cannot progress far in our dialogue with Pakistan.” This is the most perplexing thing about these ties. The clause about cross-border terrorism was inserted by Mr Vajpayee in his Islamabad meeting with Gen Musharraf in 2004. Since then Dr Singh has on several occasions signed agreements – in 2005 with Musharraf and last year with Prime Minister Gilani – saying that terrorism would not be allowed to come in the way of the peace process. But then there are a lot of things that Dr Singh has promised, including the starting of consulates in Mumbai and Karachi. We have to forget all that for now.
“The Commonwealth Games…will be a proud moment for the whole country and especially for Delhi. I am convinced that all our countrymen will treat the Games as a national festival and will leave no stone unturned to make them a success. The successful organisation of Commonwealth Games would be another signal to the world that India is rapidly marching ahead with confidence. Our future is bright. The day when our dreams will come true is not far off.” Whose dreams is Dr Singh talking about? Would he say this to hundreds of thousands whose homes were uprooted to make space for the Games?
According to NGOs working on this beat, Delhi officials demolished a temporary night shelter for the homeless during the peak of Delhi’s winter for the sake of growing grass for the city “beautification”.
“Beggars” and homeless citizens are being rounded up, arrested and arbitrarily detained under the Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act 1959. Some have been sent to beggars’ homes and talks are on with states to ensure they go back to where they originated.
Civil liberties in Delhi are being curtailed, and as the Games draw near, the city is likely to witness an increased surveillance and restrictions in the guise of security measures.
Article 7 of the Games’ constitution says: “For the Commonwealth games and generally in respect of all activities of the federation and events under its control, there shall be no discrimination against any country or person on any grounds whatsoever, including race, colour, gender, religion, and politics.” The clampdown against the urban poor and homeless in Delhi is a glaring violation of this charter. Except for the missing shoe Dr Singh is just the successor Mr Vajpayee would have liked. He is better than that. He makes us miss Mr Vajpayee.