The SYL mess matches the Rubaiya disaster in its scale of govt incompetence. And in its unmasking of a political class which canít decide where self-interest ends, national interest begins
Let's not get into the merits of the Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal issue for now. I donít have the scholarship to unravel something so complex. I also cannot take sides because, even personally, in more ways than one, but predominantly as one born in the family of a government servant in combined, pre-1966 Punjab, I belong to both. But I can raise some questions.
How come a state assembly met and passed a resolution that could scar, blight and bedevil the entire nation for decades to come, and nobody in Delhi figured what was going on? Was it complicity, as Om Prakash Chautala alleges? Or was it incompetence of the home ministry and its intelligence apparatus? Finally, which one is worse?
A resolution of this kind, abrogating signficant inter-state water accords, is not drafted or passed during a casual break in an afternoon golf session that is de rigeur with much of the bloated Chandigarh bureaucracy. A draft must have moved in the system, the file must have floated between offices and, most important of all, 117 MLAs belonging to several parties, summoned for a one-day special session, presumably knew what it was about. In Punjab, the ruling party and the main opposition have been involved in a blood feud where the leader of one has already put the other and his son in jail and where that "other" is obviously waiting for his turn to get even. So it must have taken some work behind the scenes to arrive at this stunning unanimity. It is a state that also saw the most vicious phase of terrorism in our independent history besides Kashmir, so you would presume its capital and key "sensitive" districts are still bristling with men of the Intelligence Bureau, the home ministryís eyes and ears. Now where were they in the run up to that special session on July 12?
There is plenty of recrimination and whispered name-calling over this in the UPA government already. But incompetence of this magnitude has not been seen from a new government since V.P. Singh began his innings in 1989 with the Rubaiya Sayeed episode. India is still paying for that disaster, brought about by a combination of incompetence, callousness and pusillanimity, rare by even the most modest standards of the Indian political establishment. One would shudder to suggest that the July 12 Punjab assembly resolution is a precursor to another major problem. But the political and administrative failure that allowed this is of the same calibre as the Rubaiya story.
Search must already be on for a scapegoat. Maybe some bored IB assistant director, or some lower form of life, will be axed and we will carry on, hoping that the Supreme Court will buy us time. But the question is a larger one. And because, even within the establishment, it is being asked in whispers, it is necessary to raise it in public: would we have reacted so coolly if such a resolution had been sponsored by an Akali government instead?
Imagine the impact the same resolution under an Akali government would have made, not only on smug New Delhiís but on public opinion across India. People would have read in it all kinds of things, from separatist adventurism to constitutional bonapartism to sheer political insolence. The same Congress, which is now so stunned into silence (though it no longer hides its embarrassment), would have rushed to the roof-tops. The same self-righteous Left, which gets so hot under Fabindia kurta collar on what equity foreigners can hold in your private telecom companies or the returns on my EPF deposit, would have gone apoplectic: if you give away power to communalists who rule in the name of religion, this is what you get. Now there isnít a whisper. Even those who threaten to elevate their barks to bites have not even whimpered on this. Not because they do not care, or do not understand. They know exactly what their own government has walked itself, and India, into. I hope even they are praying that they, and the entire secular coalition, is not made to pay for it by the people of India as V.P. Singh was, in so short time.
This is no longer a mere inter-state river waters issue. We have been so caught up with issues of such profound life-and-death significance as the privatisation of airports and EPF interest rates, that we were oblivious to the can of worms that was being opened no more than a three-hour Shatabdi Express ride from Delhi. You may be still able to "manage" the Punjab crisis now, particularly as Sonia Gandhi has understood its gravity and presumably intends to get involved firmly. But state-level politicians around elsewhere may have taken note.
What will happen tomorrow if Chautala gets his Haryana assembly to declare that just as Punjab has appropriated rivers as its resource, the G T Road is ours and ours alone? And that every Punjab truck should be tolled this. What will happen if an assembly out of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan passes a resolution abrogating the Narmada accord? Already the chief minister of Andhra has made a demarche on New Delhi, his sworn enemy Chandrababu Naidu in tow, demanding waters from Karnataka. Who knows, they may be mulling an interesting "unanimous" resolution too. Imagine the kind of stuff Jayalalithaa could pass in her assembly with her brute majority. Or if Nagaland passes something enshrining the cartographic dream of a "greater" Nagaland? And Narendra Modi, if not unanimously, at least by a huge majority, could present you with a similar challenge over-ruling the transfer of the Best Bakery case to another state? His Punjab counterpart has also given him a pretty reasonable argument. If the SYL canal, as ordered by the Supreme Court, "cannot be built" because it might unleash violence and disorder, so might the transfer of Best Bakery.
Check out with your friends in politics, and they will tell you how concerned they are. Then why is even the BJP so muted? It is because the Akalis are allies and yet the party also has a contrary stake in the coming elections in Haryana. The BJPís confusion only mirrors that of the Congress. Our political class cannot figure out where partisan politics ends and national interest begins though it has a pretty good understanding, and equally cynical acceptance of the vice versa. They now seek an escape by parking their garbage truck in the Supreme Court. One would wish the honourable judges would send it right back to them and ask them some obvious questions. For example, how come, you first so brazenly defy our own orders, pass a law to overrule us in effect, and then throw all the muck back at us, and that too under Article 143 so what we say will not be binding on you? Are you serious? Are we the Supreme Court of this great democracy or some consultant like McKinsey or Accenture, who would charge by the hour and give you the road-map you want? Get real guys. You were elected to run this country, not us. And running a country the size of India involves challenges bigger than bargaining over EPF interest rates.
A man as good as Manmohan Singh canít but be deeply disturbed today. He has been let down by both, his party, as well his intelligence system, the home ministry which is supposed to keep the wheels of the federation running smoothly besides drafting the repeal of Pota. His governmentís rivals are laughing and sharpening the knives. He knows what is the morally right thing to do. But, for that, he needs his party on his side. And he needs his allies to get off his back.
He is also conscious that Punjab is just one symptom. Already, large parts of the Northeast are in a mess, Manipur is on the boil. The Naga peace talks are caught in confusion. The Hurriyat is still figuring what the new governmentís intentions are. Within a fortnight, there have been three attacks on the chief minister and his deputy in Kashmir, each resulting in loss of life. The Maoist-PW threat running from Nepal across the central heartland is worsening. And he is still negotiating with his "outside" allies to get his budget passed. The same allies are now bringing back the spectre of dharnas and strikes, from airports to banks that we had learnt to live without for almost a decade. We have been lulled into complacency by a sense of internal stability in the last couple of years. But Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi are much too wise not know how fragile all this is, and what kind of damage an act like the July 12 Punjab resolution can cause it. Governance is all about taking hard decisions and standing by them. And this applies to everything, from fixing the provident fund interest rates to enforcing discipline in your own partyís backyard.
Postscript: While you can now find intelligence scapegoats, was somebody even reading the newspapers? This one carried stories on July 7 and 11, written by its Chandigarh-based principal correspondent S. P. Singh, that such a bill was going to be passed. It is possible other papers did so too. Could it be, then, that many in the establishment knew what was going on but chose to ignore it? It could be complacency, or inability to figure the seriousness of this. Once again, the question I raised earlier: which is worse?
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