Thursday, April 16, 2009

On the terror front

Mahesh Rangarajan

Thursday, April 16, 2009 21:21 IST Email

On the one side stands a man who re-invented himself in 1990 as the spokesperson for a zero-tolerance for terror position. On the other is an economist who strayed into politics and stayed on due to a series of historical coincidences.

It is commonplace to assert that the Congress is weak on terror and the larger area of national security. Indeed many sins can and should be laid at its door. Most critical in the post-1967 phase was the nurturing of extremism in Sikh politics to counteract the Akali Dal. But on the whole, the campaign of the BJP is off the mark.

For one, its own record has blemishes so serious that it is unable to wash it away. For the other, the Congress has a tradition of being much tougher on security issues at least since the Indira Gandhi era than its opponents, and at times well-wishers recognise that.
But first for Advani's own party and his own public record. It is wide off the target partly due the warts on its own leader's face. Unlike his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee who spoke little but said a lot, LK Advani is prolific both in print and on the stump.

The entire Kandahar episode had faded away into the background till he published his bestselling autobiography, My Country, My Life. Most prominent among many issues was the claim that he did not know about the prisoners for hostages' deal that was struck with the hijackers at Kandahar. The whole country was following the drama that ended in the swap. But the home minister of the time is on record that he was not in the know.

There has been no word from close aides of the then prime minister. But the silence itself is deafening. It shows up a party and government that were deeply divided at a time of extreme national danger.

The Congress has not done so but one of its leaders is bound to contrast this with two episodes of the past. One was the hijacking of the Air India plane in early 1971 in the run-up to the Bangladesh war. The other was the siege of the Akali Takht undertaken during Rajiv Gandhi's tenure. Both were handled with a mix of firmness and resolve.

This had an internal dimension as well. The Indira Period 1966-84 was marked by critical security challenges at home and abroad. The immediate aftermath of her becoming premier was marked within a year by the Mizo rebellion and the much more widespread Naxalite uprising. In neither case could she be accused of having been soft. Reading human rights accounts, one is struck by how much criticism she came under for excessive use of force.

Yet, in both cases, there was serious political follow up as anti-poverty programmes helped the government reach out to the rural under-privileged. The Mizo leader Laldenga was in detailed talks before her death that eventually led to an accord in 1987 that has held the passage of time.

Bangladesh is too well known an episode to require repetition. But it must be stated for the record that the surrender of 93,000 men of the Pakistan armed forces in Dhaka was the largest single such surrender since Stalingrad.

The occupation of Siachen was one of the last strategic decisions of Indira Gandhi. But the subsequent operations including the major battles of 1987 were conducted under Rajiv's watch.This period also saw India asserting itself on other occasions: Brasstacks (November '86 to March '87), a virtual forerunner of Parakram under Vajpayee.

On the Chinese front, there was Operation Falcon in Sumdorong Chu area of Arunachal Pradesh (late 1986 to May-June, 1987). Interestingly, two years later the PM was in Beijing for his famous five-minute handshake with Deng. Again, the show of strength went with flexibility in diplomacy.

The BJP's problem is not that the record of the three Vajpayee governments had no positive moments. It is that Advani has the mindset of a leader who has spent most of his lifetime in opposition. The inability to appreciate the constraints of a governing party are but natural for anyone who has been in public life for decades before holding high office.

What is significant is that the Congress has not cashed in on its own record, especially under both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. One does not have to be a partisan Congressman to know their achievements.

The country can and will ask questions of their record. But so will it of Advani's party. Have no doubt about who really blinked.

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