By Charitha Ratwatte –
The prospect of power drives politicians rabid
Rabies is an infectious disease of dogs, cats, bats, monkeys, jackals and other animals and man, usually fatal if prophylactic treatment is not administered. It is caused by the virus Formido inexoribilis and usually transmitted to man by the bite of an infected animal. It is also called hydrophobia. Rabid is explained in the dictionary as: irrationally extreme in opinion or practice, furious or raging, violently intense, affected with or pertaining to rabies; mad.
In neighbouring India, the prospect of achieving power in the Union Parliament elections scheduled to be held before May 2014 has really driven the Indian political class rabid. Just after the All India Congress Party held its annual sessions in Jaipur, Rajasthan , a few months ago, which all but anointed Rahul Gandhi , as the heir apparent, to lead the Congress party as successor to his mother the Italian born Sonia, and widow of Rajiv Ghandi, son of Indira Ghandi and heir to the leadership succession of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Advocate Motilal Nehru, who was a contemporary and supporter of Mahatma Ghandi, Rahul said publicly that his mother had come to his room, told him that “power is a poison”.
There is much in recent South Asian political history which would establish this as a fact. Completely rational, reasonably, sensible and balanced individuals, when the prospect of political power is dangled tantalisingly before them, go completely bonkers and there is only one word which would in reality explains their behaviour – is that they go virtually rabid.
In New Delhi, some time ago, an attractive and glamorous young Delhi-ite, Miss Jessica Lal, was helping out behind the bar at a friend’s restaurant, in a fashionable part of the town, when after bar closing time, when no alcohol can be served, a young rich politico/businessman came up to the bar and demanded an alcoholic drink from Jessica. Jessica politely informed him that it was after closing time and that the bar was closed. The young man pulled out a revolver and shot her dead, before a number of witnesses.
The assassin, being a man of wealth and political influence, the police inquiry was botched, as is known to happen in our part of the world, and he was acquitted of murder! A popular newspaper carried the headline ‘Nobody killed Jessica Lal”! There were humongous public protests, the police inquiry was reopened by order of Court, and the assassin was retried and convicted of first degree murder.
Nobody assassinated Rajiv Gandhi
Recent events in the political environment in India, has led to the distinct possibility that there will be a newspaper headline to the effect that ‘Nobody assassinated Rajiv Gandhi’! The reason being that Jayalalitha Jeyaram, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu state, in India, has declared that seven men, who were convicted of plotting the 1991 assassination of former Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, would be freed from jail, within three days, unless the Indian Union Government in New Delhi responds within that timeframe.
Her announcement came a day after the Supreme Court of India commuted the death sentences of three of the men to life imprisonment, saying they had been in death row too long, constituting cruel and unusual punishment. The message from the apex court was that the right to life is sacrosanct. The court stated that an ‘inordinate and unreasonable’ delay in the disposal of the mercy petition of the convicts rendered the ‘process of execution of death sentence arbitrary, whimsical and capricious and, therefore, in-executable’.
Analysts say that the verdict is also proof that Indian Judiciary’s outlook is in keeping with the international call for doing away with the death sentence, awarding it only in the ‘rarest of rare cases,’ where there is irrefutable evidence. After the Governor of Tamil Nadu had rejected the three convicts’ mercy petitions in April 2000, the Ministry of Home Affairs submitted the mercy petitions for consideration to the President of the Republic of India in July 2005, after a delay of over five years. The President only rejected these mercy petitions in September 2011, after a wait of 11 long years, for the convicts.
The Supreme Court of India observed that a ‘mercy plea can be decided at a much faster speed than what is being done now’. Analysts say that this has been proved by the hanging of a Kashmiri Moslem Mohammed Afzal Guru, who was convicted and sentenced to death, in 2002, for the terrorist attack on the Union Parliament in Delhi in 2001; in February 2013, only six days after the President rejected his mercy plea, Guru was hanged, stealthily, without even his family in Kashmir being informed! But there are other nuances to Guru’s expeditious hanging, more of that later.
The Union Government moved the Supreme Court to stay the Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers’ decision, and the Court directed the Tamil Nadu Government to maintain the status quo on the three prisoners until the next date of hearing in Delhi, 6 March. The Court, the bench headed by Chief Justice of India P. Sathasivam, commented adversely on the haste of the Tamil Nadu Government, acting the day after the Supreme Court commuted their death sentences. The Court observed that ‘the remission of life sentence which is awarded on commuting death penalty is not automatic; there is an elaborate procedure for remission of life sentences, which the Tamil Nadu Government appears not to have followed’.
The case against the accused is that they were a part of assassination squad sent by the LTTE of Sri Lanka to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi because, when he was Prime Minster of India, he sent the Indian Peace Keeping Force to Sri Lanka to put down the LTTE rebellion. A total of 26 people were found guilty of conspiring to kill Rajiv; 19 were later acquitted. In her Manifesto released for the elections, Jayalalitha further says that India would move the UN to hold a referendum amongst minority Tamils in Sri Lanka and the diaspora on forming a separate state! She also says that India will renege on the treaty granting Kachchativu Island to Sri Lanka!
Rooted in competitive politics
Why can it be said that these are examples of rabid mad dog politics? Shekhar Gupta, Editor in Chief of The Indian Express newspaper, has said that the decision to free the three killers ‘Is so cynical, it’s criminal. It’s totally rooted in competitive politics. Irrespective of whether I vote for him or not, nobody has any business to come from overseas and assassinate the most prominent leader of my country’.
The ‘competitive politics’ Shekhar Gupta refers to is the 2014 Indian Parliamentary elections. The Congress has been in power at the centre for over a decade, the opposition BJP is vying for power, is supported by the Hindutva RSS, and has nominated the Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi, a ‘char wallah’ (tea seller) onetime RSS cadre, as their prime ministerial candidate, who has allegations regarding the treatment of Moslems in his state during a pogrom against him.
Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, with her 72 million vote bank in Tamil Nadu state, sees herself as a potential prime minister of India , as head of a ‘third front,’ which is always talked about in Indian national politics, as an alternative to the Congress and allies and the BJP and allies. Recently 11 Indian political parties including Jayalalitha’s AIADMK, which currently hold 100 seats (out of 545) in India’s Parliament’s Lok Sabha (lower house) met to discuss a strategy to win sufficient Lok Sabha seats to form the Union Government without the BJP or Congress support. These are the AIADMK of Jayalalitha from Tamil Nadu, the Samajwadi party from Uttar Pradesh, the Janata Dal (United) from Bihar, the Biju Janata party from Odisha, the Asom Gana Parshad from Assam, the Janata Dal (Secular) from Kerala and Karnataka and India’s four leftist parties.
In addition the Jharkand Vichas Morcha from Jharkand state, initially associated itself with the ‘third front,’ but has later distanced itself. A strange mixture of politicians from India’s traditional Hindu cow belt and the Dravidian southern heartland combined with some Marxists and left wingers. The potential leaders of this ‘third front’ are Jayalalitha or Naveen Patnaik of Odisha. They have publicly stated that will decide on the PM post elections.
Cynical and ironic
The mad dog politics has come into play over the 72 million votes in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalitha hopes that these voters will propel her into the top job in Delhi. Her stand on the release Rajiv’s assassins is based on this. Her stand is cynical and ironic since at the time of the assassination of Rajiv, Jayalalitha was against the LTTE and highly critical of the assassination. It was her opponent in Tamil Nadu – the Dravidian Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) of Muthuvel Karunanidhi – who supported the LTTE and was castigated by Jayalalitha for doing this!
Recently Jayalalitha celebrated her 66th birthday, and the cake she cut? You guessed it – a model of the Indian Parliament in New Delhi – given to her on a platter by her acolytes! The DMK Leader has tried to claim credit for Jayalalitha’s decision: ‘It’s not a prompt decision by the State Government. They ridiculed me when I proposed their release!’
The matter has been put in perspective by Neelam Deo, Director of Gateway House, a research institute in Mumbai. She says: ‘If there is any support for the plotters of the Gandhi assassination, it was being manufactured by the Tamil Nadu parties and not coming from the public. Ms. Jayalalitha had previously been highly critical of the terrorist attacks by the LTTE. In fact, most Dravidian support that there had been for the Sri Lankan Tamil issue actually all evaporated after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.’
This was reflected in an earlier comment by the late Dr. Anton Balasingham, LTTE ideologue, and advisor to LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. He was so close to Prabhakaran that he used to call him ‘Thambi’ (younger brother). Balasingham described the assassination of Gandhi as a ‘colossal mistake’.
Satish Mishra, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, in Mumbai, says that Jayalalitha’s three-day deadline to Delhi was her way of asserting her independence. “She is using her leverage because the Congress party, currently ruling at the centre, does not have an ally in Tamil Nadu for the 2014 Parliamentary election. These may or may not be popular sentiments, by they are arousing popular sentiment, and they are converting it into a Tamil sentiment issue to essentially create a vote bank issue.”
Case of Kashmiri Muhammad Afzal Guru
The case of Kashmiri Muhammad Afzal Guru was referred to earlier. Neelam Deo cites this as another example, as in the present Tamil Nadu case, of the death penalty being used to rouse local passions. As a classic example of mad dog politics in 2012, Farook Abdullah, India’s current Congress Party Minister of Renewal Energy and former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, said, “Whoever attacks India, should pay the price.” But recently, facing a Parliamentary election late this year, Abdullah said of the hanging of Guru that it was “absolutely unjustified”! The BJP demanded the hanging of Guru, a Moslem from Kashmir, as it sat well with their Hindutva agenda.
Consider the stand taken by Palaniappa Chidambaram, the current Finance Minister in the Congress Government and a Gandhi loyalist, but whose electoral seat is in Tamil Nadu, on the release of the Rajiv’s assassins. He says: ‘I am not unhappy. If the court says that imprisonment for 22 years is sufficient… that’s it, that’s the end of the matter. I don’t look at it as a cynical decision; I don’t look at it as cynical politics.’ Kapil Sibal, the Congress Union Government Law Minister is of the view that the Gandhi killers ‘should not be released but we must abide by the court order’. Minister Sibal also castigated the BJP who while baying for Afzal Guru’s blood was keeping mum on the pardon of Rajiv’s killers due to the need to be on good terms with Jayalalitha, for post-election coalition purposes!
On the other hand, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condemned the Tamil Nadu Government’s move. ‘The attack on Shri Rajiv Gandhi was an attack on the soul of India. The release of the killers of a former Prime Minister of India, our great leader, as well as several other innocent Indians, would be contrary to all principles of justice. No government or party should be soft in our fight against terrorism.’
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi – the party’s heir apparent and Rajiv Gandhi’s son – expressed sadness over the Tamil Nadu State Government’s decision: “If a prime minister’s killers can be released, what kind of justice should the common man expect?” he asked.
But in 2008, Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul’s sister and the late Rajiv and Sonia’s daughter, visited Nalini Sriharan, a woman convicted of the conspiracy to kill Rajiv in jail and said: “I don’t believe in anger or violence and I refuse to let it over power me. Meeting Nalini was my way of coming to terms with my father’s death.”
Reality check of numbers
In this seemingly chaotic scenario of rabid politicians chasing after this elusive concept of coming into ‘power’ as prime minister of India, it’s time for a reality check of numbers. India’s Lok Sabha has 545 seats. To have an absolute majority one needs to win 273 seats. The Indian Union of States has of late ‘federalised’ regional parties in control of a number of states, and the government at the centre will necessarily be a coalition, led by one big party.
Cho Ramaswamy, a lawyer and newspaper editor based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, and sometime adviser to Chief Minister Jayalalitha, says that the Congress or BJP has to win a minimum of 230 seats to be powerful enough to attract smaller parties into a coalition. There will be horse trading of a high order. The BJP now has only 116. The highest it ever got was 182 in 1999. It is doubtful whether Congress could even get near this figure.
That’s where the ‘third front’ gets traction. The ‘third front’ has 100 seats now. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu is serious about leading the ‘third front’ and becoming prime minister of India. She wants to solidify the 72 million Tamil Nadu voters behind her. That is why the cynical, rabid, political step of releasing Rajiv’s assassins from jail.
In Chennai her posters and billboards cover every blank space. One commentator said: ‘As a personality cult, it reminds me of Libya under Gaddafi.’ The ubiquitous placards have spawned a humorous website ‘Jayalalitha is watching you’. (Gives you an idea, eh?) Of late the posters have the Parliament building in the background. Jessica Seddon, an American economist based in Chennai says, Jayalalithaa ‘has no real ideology, but she embodies three of the most important trends in Indian regional politics. She is imperial in style, technocratic in her administrative approach and outrageously populist in her approach.’
The Tamil Nadu economy has done well under her, to become ‘India’s greatest manufacturing centre, and a home to global companies such as Ford and Hyundai,’ says Gopal Srinivasan of the Chennai-based TVS conglomerate. ‘She is a skilled administrator and a formidable politician and could play a larger national role. People should not under estimate her,’ he concludes.
But, then there is Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Until recently Chief Minister of Delhi resigning because his signature anti-corruption law was not passed by the Delhi Assembly. Born out Anna Hazare’s street anti corruption movement, the AAP (common man’s party) made a stunning electoral debut in Delhi winning 28 out of the 70 seats and formed a minority administration for 49 days. The AAP slashed water and power prices and carried out an effective war against corruption.
A straw poll was held before the Delhi election at the India International Centre (IIC) an intellectual hangout, which was made world famous by the Punjabi Sikh taxi driver, who had his taxi stand behind the IIC, who gave his address on his calling card with his phone number as ‘International Backside’! The straw poll showed that the retired and serving IAS, IFS, IPS, Indian Armed Forces, Judicial officers and businessmen around the swimming pool and at the bar, their drivers in the car park and the char and paan wallahs, rickshaw and taxi drivers at the ‘International Backside’ were all voting for AAP, they were so sick and tired of both the Congress and the BJP!
The APP will contest all the major Indian urban mega polis, university, industrial and business cities. The AAP in the view of one analyst is ‘small, young, hot headed and underfunded, with its platform still evolving. But harping on the corrupt rottenness of Indian politics, it has the both the BJP and Congress running scared’. The AAP may well have a decisive role to play in the ‘third front’.
A two-timing political class, which routinely indulges in ‘rabid mad dog’ politics, contesting on one set of policies and soon after the election, dropping that, changing sides and supporting a diametrically opposite set of policies, which they opposed tooth and nail before the election, just for the purpose of ensuring they are in ‘power’ is nothing new to us South Asians.
The ordinary voter is sick and tired of these two and three timers, perpetuating themselves in power. But the 2014 Parliamentary election in India may bring about a refreshing change, in this corrupt merry-go-round, with the Congress, BJP, Jayalalitha’s ‘third front’ and the AAP all in the fray. Hope fully we may find a cure for this political hydrophobia which is the curse of our region.
A respected Buddhist Monk once told me: “You want to know the real meaning of ‘power’? Write it in the Sinhala script. Reflect on the fact that everything in this world is time bound, and think. Then only will you appreciate the emptiness of the ‘power’ which rabid people chase after!”
As Sonia Gandhi told her son, it is, indeed, a poison.