New India’s fast fiesta

Political leaders communicate with people in various ways. In Britain, constituencies being small, candidates campaign house to house. Televised debates and fundraising dinners are common in the United States. In India, besides these techniques, hired crowds, paid news, gheraos, fasts and rath yatras are used.
In the 1920s, when the then Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) toured India, the Congress boycotted his tour. All shops were closed and roads deserted in Allahabad. The prince told the governor, “Such a dead city does not deserve to be the capital of a province.” The capital of Uttar Pradesh was shifted to Lucknow, the high court remaining at Allahabad. Khudabaksh, the superintendent of police of Patna, assured the Bihar governor that he would organise a rousing welcome for the prince. Emissaries were sent to neighbouring villages promising four annas per person plus a free meal and a big “tamasha” in the city. The villagers came in thousands on bullock carts. Everyone was given paper Union Jacks to wave as the prince drove past. The prince was thrilled and the Congress outwitted. Hired crowds were not used during the Nehru era but, in subsequent years, it became standard operating procedure for many political parties. Mahatma Gandhi would fast to put moral pressure on the British who practised democracy at home but denied freedom in their empire. He also fasted for self-purification. His fasts used to be sombre affairs with no publicity stunts. Potti Sreeramalu fasted unto death in 1952, resulting in the creation of the Andhra state in 1953.
There has been a fiesta of fasts in 2011. Irom Sharmila Chanu from Manipur has been fasting since November 2, 2000 for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Swami Nigamananda died fasting to preserve the Ganga. Baba Ramdev fasted for recovering black money. Anna Hazare fasted twice for an effective Lokpal Bill. Narendra Modi’s three-day sadbhavna fast and Shankarsinh Vaghela’s counter-fast took place this month. Chandrashekhar Rao, meanwhile, is threatening to again fast for Telangana. Mr Hazare’s fast in August took the country by storm, evoking an unprecedented national upsurge. There was boiling anger among the people over mind-boggling scams with apparent government complicity. Corruption at all levels and rising prices have made life difficult for the common man. Congress ministers and spokesmen bungled at each stage while dealing with the Anna agitation. Round-the-clock TV coverage added fuel to the fire. The majesty of the Constitution and Parliament appeared in jeopardy. Ultimately the dignified debate in Parliament, starting with Pranab Mukherjee’s sober and balanced presentation and followed by brilliant speeches by Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, retrieved the situation. A settlement was reached. Mr Hazare called off his fast. His movement should not now become a loose cannon. He and his civil society of four should not be too dogmatic. An effective and practical Lokpal Bill should be enacted with consensus. The act should not only be incorporated in the statute book but must also be implemented.
Never before has a fast been organised with more fanfare than Mr Modi’s at Ahmedabad. It was well managed and included oratorical flourishes and a large attendance of people of all faiths. The stated aim was laudable but, not surprisingly, the real motive was questioned by many. In view of the vilification of Mr Modi for the last one decade, his credibility will improve when he is fully cleared by the law courts. Till then, the BJP’s allies, like the JD(U) or other non-NDA parties, may not support him.
The BJP is not in a position to win national elections on its own. The secular brigade is demanding that Mr Modi apologise to Muslims for the Gujarat riots. With ongoing court cases in which social activists are reportedly resorting to perjury to implicate him, how can he do so? The misconceived comparison with the anti-Sikh riots, for which Manmohan Singh and not Rajiv Gandhi, apologised, is not relevant. The burning alive of returning pilgrims in the railway train at Godhra and the subsequent killing of innocents were both horrendous incidents for which the guilty must be severely punished. Mr Modi’s astonishing development achievements have been remarkable. Even the US, which was reported to have denied him visa, seems to have recognised this, with the US Congressional Research Service mentioning him and Rahul Gandhi as contenders for Prime Minister in 2014.
L.K. Advani’s proposed rath yatra against corruption has set the chatterati abuzz. Sitaram Yechury apprehends communal violence during this yatra. Linking corruption to communal violence is ludicrous. There may be some justification in saying that Mr Advani’s hidden agenda is to project himself as a future Prime Minister, though he has given no such indication. His Ram Mandir Yatra, despite its communal overtone or its unfortunate aftermath, raised his party from virtual insignificance to dominance in Parliament. Yet he did not throw his hat in the ring for Prime Minister and gracefully accepted his senior and deserving colleague becoming Prime Minister. Even in 2004, with Atal Behari Vajpayee in his eighties, he was not a prime ministerial candidate. He was so projected only in 2009. The jibe of his being a perennial Prime Minister in waiting is unfair. He has served much longer in politics than any other leader today with a totally unblemished record as regards his personal integrity and for not promoting his family in politics. No political leader is better qualified to lead an anti-corruption and anti-dynastic yatra than Mr Advani.
As the leading Opposition party, the BJP must lead this crusade and convince the people of being a credible and united alternative. Nitish Kumar flagging off this yatra may help usher in a Western-style two-party democratic polity which should be welcomed. No age limit is prescribed for the Prime Minister. Acceptability, capability, experience, integrity and physical health matter more than age. Kuer Singh, the most successful military leader of 1857, successfully carried out a 1,000-mile march fighting battles in his eighties. Churchill and Hindenberg remained heads of government till their eighties. Now is not the time to quibble over who will be the Opposition’s prime ministerial candidate. The need now is to provide a ray of hope that corruption will be suitably tackled in our existing, badly mauled democratic polity. In this regard, a strong Opposition is of great value.

The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, was Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu & Kashmir.

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