Thursday, October 31, 2013

Political versus Personal

By Swapan Dasgupta

Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar is an experienced and consummate politician with a firm grip on the administration of his economically backward state. As such, his speech to a Janata Dal (United) convention in Rajgir on October 29 was a masterly performance and constitutes the most coherent attack on the prime ministerial candidate of his erstwhile coalition partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that his articulation of his scepticism of Narendra Modi was more effective than anything proffered by Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi and his colleagues in the Congress Party.

However, every political intervention has a context. In the case of the Bihar Chief Minister, that context was defined by the massive Hunkar rally addressed by Modi in Patna last Sunday. It was not merely Modi’s combative address and the fact that there were at least five lakh people from all over Bihar, not to mention the countless millions who heard his speech on television, which shaped Nitish’s response. Equally significant was the fact that the rally was conducted in the midst of serial blasts that left six people dead and nearly 100 people injured.

Having been at the rally and having observed the proceedings from a discreet corner of the large podium, I would suggest that it was nothing short of a miracle that the event did not end in a monumental tragedy where the casualty figures could have been horrific.

In planting 18 or more timer bombs at different parts of the large Gandhi Maidan, the activists of the Indian Mujahedeen—the believed perpetrators of the attack—had two principal objectives. First, they wanted to kill those who were unlucky enough to be situated near the explosion sites. More important, they placed the explosives in such a way as to create panic in the crowd and trigger a stampede that would undoubtedly have taken a larger toll. In the process, the rally would have had to be terminated abruptly, perhaps even before Modi had the opportunity of speaking to those who had come to cheer him enthusiastically. The aftermath of the chaos could even have led to rioting in the streets of Patna.

It is either fortuitous or even an act of providence that nearly half the low-intensity bombs failed to explode. For example, had the bomb which was placed just outside the ‘sanitised’ D-area exploded, the forward rush of a panic stricken crowd would have endangered the podium and could even have brought it crashing down.

The seriousness of the planned attack cannot be minimised and Nitish Kumar is too experienced an administrator not to have realised it. Predictably, there were fingers pointed at the state administration for the casualness with which it treated security arrangements for such a huge public meeting. The Bihar Chief Minister knew that the charges were grave, especially because there were intelligence inputs that suggested the Modi rally could be targeted by subversives who have scant respect for democratic traditions.

Under the circumstances, Nitish Kumar did what adroit, if cynical, politicians are prone to doing: diverting attention from his area of vulnerability. At Rajgir, he insisted that no intelligence alerts had been received and that, in any case, he had instructed his administration to take all necessary security arrangements. Having brushed off the charges levelled against him and his government, he proceeded to couch his opposition to Modi in hyperbolic overstatements. Modi, Nitish insisted, was not an ordinary politician: he was a fascist, a follower of Adolf Hitler who was prone to using the methods of Josef Goebbels to mislead people.

Mercifully, India has become accustomed to witnessing political attacks being laced with references from inter-war European history. In the mod-1970s, it was the Communist Party of India, then in alliance with Indira Gandhi thanks to Moscow’s strategic partnership with Delhi, which routinely labelled Jayaprakash Narayan a “fascist”. In the early-1990s that abuse was hurled at L.K. Advani in the wake of the Ayodhya movement. And today, Nitish Kumar has deemed it fit to use similar invectives against Modi.

Whether the popular yearning for a strong leader automatically reeks of fascism is a worthy subject of debate. However, whatever may be the Bihar Chief Minister’s understanding of the man on whose account he unilaterally broke his long-standing alliance with the BJP, the fact remains that the Bihar administration had an obligation to ensure the safe and peaceful conduct of the Hunkar rally. He claims to have done so but facts suggest otherwise.

The conduct of the state administration is revealing. First, it put obstacles in the way of the BJP holding the rally in the whole of the Gandhi Maidan. Secondly, it invited the President of India to be in Patna on the same day as the Hunkar rally, knowing fully well that the President’s security drill would create near-insurmountable obstacles in the path of those wishing to attend the rally. Thirdly, in an act of astonishing churlishness, the Bihar Government let it be known that it neither possessed bulletproof SUVs or jammers for Modi’s use. In short, the Bihar Government put out a clear message to its officers that Modi being an unwelcome guest, it wasn’t necessary to oblige the BJP.

It was this attitude that led to not more than six constables being deputed for sanitising the Gandhi Maidan on the day prior to the rally, the complete absence of any CCTV cameras at Gandhi Maidan and the absence of any senior police officer at the rally site last Sunday. Nor, for that matter did the Bihar Police have any emergency evacuation plans ready, not even after the bombs had started going off. There was no bomb disposal unit present at the venue to even take care of the explosives that had been detected by the crowd.

If my personal respect for Nitish Kumar wasn’t so high, I would even have suggested that he wanted the rally to end in chaos. What he probably didn’t calculate was that his antipathy would be picked up by the terrorists to try and turn chaos into disaster.  

ASIAN AGE, November 1, 2013

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