Three just-published autobiographies reflecting on our times merit comment on what they have said or are being criticised for writing. Former president Abdul Kalam appears to have angered some, especially Sharad Yadav, for his disclosure in Turning Points that he would have not hesitated to have sworn in Sonia Gandhi as prime minister in 2004 as the Congress-led UPA coalition that she headed commanded a clear majority in the Lok Sabha. Much opposition had been raised to a foreign born national being appointed the nation’s chief executive. Constitutionally, however, there was absolutely no bar. It is another matter that she herself stood down.
Kalam has merely recorded where he stood constitutionally and has cleared the air of gossip-mongering that would build Byzantine mysteries around simple facts. In raking up the issue at this juncture, critics of Kalam do no service to themselves or any ‘nationalist’ cause. The president also took a correct stand in returning the Office of Profit Bill to Parliament as he found that the determining principles set out had not been sufficiently clearly articulated. There is much to ponder in Kalam’s conclusion that ‘practices that cannot meet the standards of public probity are not debated and reviewed with the seriousness they deserve. This can be considered a starting point for accepting wrong practices that will lead to compromises in formulating and practising a national standard’.
Kalam was also right to visit Gujarat in the aftermath of the 2002 holocaust to render such solace and comfort his presence might bring. The object was not to undermine the Modi government. Vajpayee was big enough to accept the president’s decision with grace. He himself had been deeply saddened and disconcerted by what had happened. Presidents have a role to rise above the fray and to speak for the nation.
The second book, A Grain of Sand in the Hourglass of Time, Arjun Singh’s a posthumous autobiography assisted by Ashok Chopra, records his shock at being dropped from the Union cabinet in 2009 as he ‘had been a loyal Congressman for decades and had enjoyed the confidence of both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi’. The inference is hardly flattering, elevating ‘loyalty’ to the throne — read sycophancy — as justification for Cabinet office. Fortunately, Arjun Singh relented on further reflection though he recalls his amazement when on suggesting to Narasimha Rao that Sonia Gandhi be made Congress president, the former burst out that he wondered why compartments of India’s political train must always be pulled by a Nehru-Gandhi engine.
This kind of ‘loyalism’ persists in many dynastically-inclined parties, with Congressmen, for example, rooting for Rahul Gandhi, a callow ‘youth’, to be inducted into the Cabinet if not become prime minister.
Arjun Singh also blames Narasimha Rao for dithering while the Babri Masjid was demolished despite warnings by him and others that this could well happen. This theme is picked up in the third book, Kuldip Nayar’s Beyond the Lines. Kuldip writes: ‘My information is that Rao had connived at the demolition. He sat at puja when the karsevaks began pulling down the mosque and rose only when the last stone had been removed. Madhu Limaye later told me that during the puja Rao’s aide whispered in his ears that the masjid had been demolished. Within seconds the puja was over’.
This is a most uncharitable comment and not based on any credible evidence. As a member of the National Integration Council that met on the eve of the destruction of the mosque, I was witness to Rao’s efforts to avert the tragedy. He was utterly and completely betrayed by the BJP. Had he dismissed Kalyan Singh’s government and imposed president’s rule in Uttar Pradesh before the event or declared Section 144 he would have been accused of provoking mob fury and held responsible for the consequences. The governor too counselled caution and the BJP leadership at the site rather than restrain the mob, encouraged it and joyously joined the ensuing celebration. As for Rao’s supposed puja in aid of the demolition, the then home secretary and others who were in constant touch with the PM completely disprove this unworthy allegation. Rao and his government can be faulted for not earlier pre-empting the karseva. However, the die had been cast and what Rao faced was a Catch-22 situation to the making of which a lot many beyond the Sangh Parivar had contributed. Narasimha Rao was one of India’s best prime ministers and accomplished a great deal. He should and will be remembered for those works.
Exploiting faith to project and propel particular causes is not unknown. Banning construction of dams across the upper Ganga to preserve the sanctity of the holy river is currently in vogue. This is the least persuasive of all the arguments — displacement, forest loss, seismic hazards, ecological harm, adverse downstream effects — advanced from time to time. Dams have their place if sensibly located, built and operated with stakeholder participation and area development. They can be a local boon in employment and income generation without which remote regions are doomed to neglect. The sorry tale of Uttarakhand’s growing list of deserted villages unfolds a human tragedy caused by lack of development.
Elements in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and elsewhere in the Northeast too are opposing dams for denying sufficient ecological flows, obstructing fish runs, drying up stretches of rivers as they are tunnelled for run-of-river schemes thereby undermining downstream flow regimes, and causing havoc when floodgates are opened. However, without a rational river management plan Assam, and certainly the North Bank, is doomed to face annual flood havoc, low risk agriculture and second grade infrastructure, that will perpetuate poverty and fan insurgency. Eighty-one persons have died in unprecedented floods in Assam this year. Huge losses have been incurred. Three major national parks have been devastated. Mindless agitation will solve nothing. Development and peace go hand-in-hand. Neglect development and peace is endangered.
Another encounter in Chhattsigarh has left 17 Bijapur villagers dead, six of them known Naxals or sympathisers, including women and children. The CRPF says it closed in on the basis of hard intelligence and was fired upon, taking six casualties in the fire fight that followed. Why a late night village meeting to discuss sowing arrangements? Why the presence of armed Naxal cadre? Were the forces trigger-happy or did the ‘villagers’ use innocent women and children as human shields when trapped? The judicial inquiry ordered will hopefully find out.
B G Verghese is a columnist. He can be contacted at