Friday 24 February 2012

Speaker Kumar visits Pakistan (PO)

By M D Nalapat
Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament in India, Meira Kumar, has a distinguished lineage, being the daughter of Jagjivan Ram, a member of the Union Cabinets of three Prime Ministers, including Jawaharlal Nehru. Although from a poor family in Bihar, and facing discrimination every day of his life because of having been born a “Dalit” (or low caste), Ram proved a success in every department that he headed, whether it was Agriculture or Railways. In 1977,he quit Indira Gandhi’s cabinet after elections were announced, forming the Congress for Democracy and fighting the polls together with those who had been sent to jail under the just-withdrawn 1975-77 Emergency. The newly-formed Janata Party unexpectedly came to power in 1977,defeating the Congress Party for the first time since 1947. Had Jagjivan Ram been made the Prime Minister, he may have succeeded in weaning away several more elements from the Congress Party, and may have ensured an efficient administration. Unfortunately for Meira’s father Ram, one of the top leaders of the new party was Charan Singh, who shared with others of his Jat caste a distaste for handing over India’s top job to a Dalit. He was joined by Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was born in the highest (Brahmin) caste, in his opposition to Jagjivan Ram, and the two succeeded in ensuring that the job of PM went to Morarji Desai, who began each day by drinking a glass of his own urine. Jagjivan Ram was given the ceremonial post of Deputy Prime Minister.

Unfortunately for Desai, his daily drink could not rescue him from the machinations of Charan Singh, who established contact with Sanjay Gandhi - the son of Indira Gandhi - during the middle of 1978. Shrewdly, the younger man took advantage of Singh’s immense hunger to be the PM, promising him support should he create a split within the Janata Party. Which was exactly what Charan Singh did in 1979,although immediately afterwards the CongressParty withdrew its support to him.

Aware that he was in a hopeless minority, Singh never once faced Parliament. All that he achieved was to disgust the voters of India with his power play, and make them turn once again to Indira Gandhi in the 1980 polls. Jagjivan Ram went into semi-retirement thereafter, his days ending in 1986. However, during his final years, he had the joy of seeing his only daughter Meira emerge as an accomplished diplomat, who on her own merit did very well in the Indian Foreign Service. In 1985,Rajiv Gandhi persuaded her to leave the IFS and contest from Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh. She twice got selected before being defeated, and later re-entering Parliament in 2004,this time as a Union Minister. Before long, her tact and diplomacy made her the obvious choice for Speakership of the Lok Sabha (Lower House) of Parliament, a job she holds to this day.

As Speaker, Meira Kumar has never failed to show tact and politeness, thereby ensuring that even those who disagree with her on rulings (or have political differences with the Congress Party stalwart) have cordial relations with her. Untouchability – the practice of shunning people because of political differences – is against the ethos of democracy, and Speaker Kumar ensures that she keeps an open house, where those of different political persuasions feel welcome. Small wonder that the lady in whom diplomacy is ingrained within her psyche was chosen to lead a multi-party parliamentary delegation to Pakistan, a country that Almighty has made a neighbour of India, and with whom therefore friendly relations are essential. Unlike in the past, when there was a near-total absence of information about each other, these days cable television and the internet have broken down many barriers to knowledge between India and Pakistan. Several tens of thousands of citizens of either country visit the other each year, many of whom bring back warm memories. Those who have been to Pakistan find no words to describe the warmth and hospitality of the people there. Clearly, just as in India, there is a strong desire within both peoples to live in peace with each other, so that third parties do not anymore gain from their rivalry.

Indeed, Speaker Kumar will hopefully meet with another charming lady olitician, one who - like her - has won friends for her country across he globe by her soft-spoken ways and polite demeanour. This is of course Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Kar, who made a very successful is it to India last year. Her confidence stilled perceptions in some quarters that Pakistan was turning into a Talibanised state, where women were forced to wear the veil and be barred from eductional and professional advancement. Minister Kar represents women, a group that has often been treated badly in the subcontinent. Speaker Kumar comes from a family background where oppression was the norm. Both have overcome obstacles to reach where they are, and in the process, have helped modernise their societies

Speaker Kumar must be delighted to visit Pakistan, for the reason that she loves Urdu poetry, and knows it well. She will definitely be meeting at least a few Urdu writers and poets during her six day visit, besides calling on President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. Incidentally, by standing up for the rights of the democratically elected (and implicitly calling for civilian primacy over the military),the Prime Minister of Pakistan has acquired a substantial fan following in India. The perception this side of the border is that the stronger the military in Pakistan is vis-a-vis the civilian leadership, the less chance there is for friendly ties between India and Pakistan. Such a stand is unlike that of the US, China and the EU, all three of whom give primacy to military leaders in their interaction with policymakers in Pakistan. Indeed, there is a much bigger rush to see General Kayani in NATO capitals or in Beijing than there is to have a discussion with President Zardari or Prime Minister Gilani. In Delhi, on the other hand, it is the latter two who are welcome, as indeed is another old friend of several Indian politicians, Mian Nawaz Sharif.

Another Pakistani leader, Imran Khan, is in a different category, being popular mostly among high-society ladies in Mumbai and Delhi, who are eagerly awaiting his next visit to these cities. Several of them have happy memories of the handsome Pathan, and are eager to acquire more Speaker Kumar’s delegation comprises of a broad cross-section of Parliament, and includes two prominent members of the main opposition party, the BJP. One of them, Tarun Vijay, is among the star ideologues of the BJP, very influential in fashioning the party’s views on important issues. The other, Shahnawaz Hussain, is one of the few Muslim leaders in that party, whose task is to ensure that more Muslims vote for the BJP than has been the case thus far. With 16% of the population, Muslims are now a very important voting bloc in elections, and no party aspiring to come to power at the national level can ignore them. No individual who hopes to be Prime Minister can be viable in his job unless he has their confidence and trust. Hence the effort to reach out to Muslims. Even Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and who is regarded as a “Hindu hard-liner”, has made a special effort to reach out to minorities during the past year. The importance of the visit comes from the fact that India has always sought to give primacy to the democratic political process in Pakistan, resisting the line taken by other players, who most reach out to sections that have not been democratically elected. Both policymakers and the public in India have been watching recent developments in Pakistan with interest, and following the fate of President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani, both of whom are seen as committed to civilian supremacy over the military wing of the establishment in Pakistan. Of course, policymakers in Delhi know that the Pakistan army has strong support from both the Pentagon as well as the PLA, both of whom may dislike each other, but are good friends of General Kayani and his team.

The Speaker and her team are gathering several warm and pleasant impressions of Pakistan, and are experiencing both the scenic beauty of the country as well as the good manners of its people. Hopefully there will be many more visits between policymakers on both sides, so that misunderstandings can get cleared and replaced with trust. Friends of Pakistan in India strongly support the civilian establishment, and the visit of a statesperson who may one day become the Prime Minister, President or Vice-President of India is a sign of such backing for those who have emerged through the democratic process.

No comments:

Post a Comment