The nightmarish nineties
By Faraz Ahmad
The nineteen nineties, the last decade of the last millenium were terribly unsettling for the nation and for me as well.
The 80s ended the Congress supremacy and applied a rude 15-year brake to Nehru-Gandhi regency. It is difficult to say whether the last decade of the millennium began on a worse note than it ended on, for the nation and for me.
The ’90s definitely started on a worse note for India, than the preceding decade, with a handful of pretenders to power becoming ministers under Chandra Shekhar as the Prime Minister of India, with just 55 defector MPs in a House of 544 of which almost all of them became ministers or chaired a Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) with corresponding perks and protocol . Some, like Subramaniam Swamy, continued enjoying this preeminence much after his Parliament tenure ended, almost till the end of the decade. The Chandra Shekhar era was the most disgraceful chapter of Indian politics and Rajiv demonstrated absolute political naivete and lack of foresight by foisting such travesty of democracy on the Indian Parliament. He paid for it soon after with his life, but was so blinded by his hatred of V P Singh that he failed to look beyond his nose. The era of coalition governments was begun by V P Singh in 1989. But the four-month long Chandra Shekhar government with outside support of the Congress party and a tacit approval of the BJP was no coalition. These handful of MPs running the affairs of the vast Indian state depended on the Congress party, which had the highest numbers in the ninth Lok Sabha, staying out of government, for their day to day survival and yet had the audacity and airs to behave as if they were mandated to rule the country, and went to elections later on the cheeky slogan of “Chaalis saal banam chaar mahine,” juxtaposing the four months of Chandra Shekhar rule against 40 years of Congress rule.
The most significant aspect about the beginning of the last decade of last century was that it exposed the hollowness of the whole outrage against corruption as a sham, merely a campaign to oust Rajiv Gandhi. Similarly Shourie’s sudden passion for Parliamentary propriety was inspired by his Sanghi desire to create a rift between Devi Lal and V P Singh primarily to get rid of V P Singh whom they found a bit insufferable after a while because Singh started taking himself a bit too seriously as an inclusivist, secular leader. Be it the great crusader Arun Shourie or his comrades N Ram Iyengar, the part owner of The Hindu or that charlatan of an insurance agent C R Irani who most deceitfully usurped the great institution The Statesman and then destroyed and lost it in his lifetime to similar fraudulence, none was outraged about the fact that the very foundation of Chandra Shekhar’s 55-member government was Corruption personified. Not once in those four months did any of these worthies or the BJP/RSS combine raise the corruption bogey which they keep raising every now and then. Did they express any sense of indignation at this outrageously in your face corrupt exercise?
Just to recall, Yashwant Sinha, the man who feels so outraged today about the “UPA corruption” today was the Finance Minister in that government which looted the national treasury in four months and left the nation bankrupt, with no foreign exchange reserves. His comrade in arms then Subramaniam Swamy, who by his own admission was virtually number three in Chandra Shekhar government and who after returning to the RSS/BJP after 36 years, is currently leading a crusade against the alleged corruption of this government and the former Telecom Minister A Raja in 2G case through a series of court cases at the instance of Sunil ‘Bharti’ Mittal, was also the Law and Justice and Commerce Minister in that government. He called Sinha and Kamal Morarka another anti corruption crusading businessman, the Sancho Panza of Ambani. Swamy in his book had described Sinha and Kamal Morarka as the cronies of Dhirubhai Ambani. About Sinha I can corroborate, because I was a personal a witness to how Yashwant Sinha was rewarded for having worked assiduously to pull down V P Singh government. Before Janata Dal government was formed Sinha, (who had quit Government as a former IAS officer, following charges of corruption in DTC, and had sought refuge under Chandra Shekhar’s wings in Janata Party) was the Dal spokesman. Once V P Singh became PM, Sinha started conspiring against the National Front government from day one, also because he felt Singh did not give him his due by offering only the rank of Minister of State instead of a cabinet rank and he walked out of Rashtrapati Bhawan swearing in ceremony. Since that day he held newsmen’s darbars in his Feroze Shah Road house every evening, giving a daily count of the number of MPs (ready to pull down V P Singh), till Chandra Shekhar split the JD. I was covering Janata Dal those days for Sunday Mail, and soon as news came on November 9, 1990 afternoon of President R Venkataraman inviting Chandra Shekhar to Rashtrapati Bhawan , I rushed on my scooter towards Chandra Shekhar’s 3, South Avenue abode. As I turned into South Avenue, a brand new red Contessa Classic, one of the first sedans on the Indian roads and those days a statement of status and luxury, whizzed past me and in it were sitting Yashwant Sinha and Harmohan Dhawan, who became Chandra Shekhar’s Civil Aviation minister, heading the same destination.
Then we had our other crusader against Ambani and corruption, Balbir Punj. The man who aided the trinity of Goenka, Arun Shourie and S Gurumurthy to break the Indian Express strike of 1987 on the pretext that it was engineered by Rajiv Gandhi and Dhirubhai Ambani together, by facilitating the ABVP to lead the strike breakers. He didn’t take long to join Ambani’s Business and Political Observer (BPO) or was it (OBP), as an Editor. I have seen his rise from reporting the daily foodgrain rate from Khari Baoli (wholesale foodgrain market of Delhi) to transforming into an expert commentator on national and international affairs. I don’t know who writes for him because he and English language are strangers to each other, which anyone watching daily news channels might have noticed as well and for him international merely means Pakistan where he makes occasional forays with all kinds of questionable delegations. I also remember that Balbir Punj acquired his first sky blue colour Maruti 800 somewhere around the time of the Indian Express strike. Some said that was a gift from Goenka for facilitating breaking the strike. But soon as the 1989 elections approached Punj had acquired a new Maruti van, also blue in colour. Today he moves around in sedans and is the nation’s conscience keeper. Never mind Punj. It didn’t take much longer for Shourie himself to join the Ambani bandwagon. Shourie though deserves a full chapter. But that, some other time. So much for Corruption!
Back to Rajiv, politically naïve Rajiv Gandhi was hoping to do a Charan Singh on Chandra Shekhar. But the Balia Thakur was far too wily and crooked for the politically immature Rajiv Gandhi to tackle. He was also disdainful of this young fellow’s capabilities and demonstrated his open contempt by inducting two persons in his council of ministers who were a red rag to Rajiv then; one Maneka Gandhi and the other Sanjay Singh. How else would a seasoned politician assess any national leader gullible enough to be guided by Subramaniam Swamy, as Swamy himself described in his book? The problem with Rajiv Gandhi, it seems from hindsight now, is that in the beginning he had no serious interest in politics and later on when he was drafted in rather reluctantly he got everything on a platter. Besides his pedigree, his good looks and charming personality made him instantly popular. He had to make no effort to become India’s Prime Minister. His grandfather Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru struggled for nearly two decades, spent time in prisons, participated in mass movements and got the hang of the people of India and its politics, before he became India’s Prime Minister and so had a good understanding of national and international affairs of his times, though towards the end he too floundered on the China border dispute and succumbed to the right wing pro- US pressure to go to war with China, thereby providing succour to the American lobby in India.
Rajiv’s mother Indira Gandhi also did not automatically inherit her father’s mantle upon his death in 1964. First, right from her childhood she took active part in the freedom struggle and participated in mass movements till India became independent. Besides, she took her internship in the Government under Lal Bahadur Shastri, with whom she did not enjoy the best of terms. Also she faced considerable resistance when her name was proposed to succeed Shastri upon his sudden untimely death in Tashkant and had to eventually defeat Morarji Desai in an electoral contest in the Congress parliamentary party. Even brother Sanjay who nurtured political ambition, struggled and proved his political mettle during the Janata Party government. Rajiv in those days merely watched political developments from the sidelines as a distant uninterested observer only because he happened to share the roof in Indira’s home. Once in office, he brought into Parliament and government all kinds of glitzy apolitical persons like Amitabh Bachchan, Arun Singh, Aslam Sher Khan and a host of others who were completely at sea on political matters. Soon as he started facing a crisis, these worthies ether jumped the sinking ship or simply became invisible. Then he turned to another even more lethal set of advisers, Subramaniam Swamy, Rajiv Shukla, M J Akbar, Romesh Bhandari, T N Seshan, M K Narayanan and Chandraswamy all out to make a career of Rajiv’s crisis.
He failed to appreciate the political reasons for his downfall and the rise of V P Singh. His courtiers merely worked on his animus towards Singh painting the Raja of Manda as a “thankless wretch” to use M J Akbar’s phrase which he hurled at me sometime before he sacked me from Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle in 2006. Rajiv behaved like MJ as some sultan who deserved personal loyalty unmindful of the merit of his case. To Rajiv like MJ, or Shourie, personal integrity or commitment to a political cause held no meaning and his hangers on made it worse for him, though MJ and Shourie had neither. They never allowed Rajiv to sit back and reflect on the reasons for his downfall in a cool dispassionate manner.
V P Singh may have brought in Mandal with a narrow political purpose, but Rajiv Gandhi failed to appreciate the far reaching political impact, the move created specially among the OBCs and that he should not be seen attacking V P Singh calling him a ‘limpet’ on this issue for it may further alienate him and his party from the rural subaltern castes, the mainstay of India’s predominantly rural socio-political reality and also the Congress party in Bihar till Mandal came in.
Then going by Subramaniam Swamy’s account he agreed on Chandra Shekhar only because Swamy convinced him that that was the only way to get rid of V P Singh. Swamy also wrote that Rajiv was so cavalier that he offered the prime ministership to Swamy. Unimaginable! Well, I wasn’t surprised seeing Rajiv’s naivete.
V P Singh’s Mandal phenomenon had immediate reverberating effect. The upper caste students were up in arms, particularly in Delhi where a Delhi University student Rajeev Goswami set himself on fire opposing Mandal. Simultaneously it aroused the aspirations among the OBCs of northern India and that put many a Janata Dal MP like Hukumdeo Narayan Yadav, otherwise ready to defect with Chandra Shekhar, in considerable dilemma. V P Singh was elected the Prime Minister in spite of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad both of whom had a congenital disdain for “Raja sahib.” Mulayam had suffered V P Singh’s rule as UP chief minister and witnessed the killing of many a Yadav by UP Police in the name of liquidating the dacoits and Lalu was a camp follower of Devi Lal till then. Conversely both Mulayam and Lalu were elected the leaders of their respective state legislatures in spite of V P Singh and not because of his support. Lalu, with greater political integrity , post Mandal unhesitatingly supported V P Singh. Mulayam had nursed a grudge against V P Singh for long. Besides, for some reason the Ambanis held tremendous hold on Mulayam and he felt a personal loyalty to Chandra Shekhar. He did face a dilemma persuading MPs loyal to him to defect to the Chandra Shekhar camp, but finally put his lot with Chandra Shekhar. This in turn decimated his lot in the 1991 general elections and helped BJP pulverize V P Singh’s Janata Dal. The only political advantage Chandra Shekhar derived from his six month occupation of the PM office was to acquire the stature to win his Balia seat. This summed up his achievements of four months.
Apart from the fact that the OBCs in this country had rightfully deserved restitution of their due rights, which the Mandal report sought to enforce, V P Singh’s decision to implement the Mandal report, did a yeoman service to the nation by tearing the veil of hypocrisy off the faces of the Indian urban upper caste rising classes, with pretensions of modernity and progressive outlook, specially of the socialist variety like Chandra Shekhar, who rose in public esteem and furthered their career through socialist pretensions. The media was overactive in whipping up anti-Mandal passion in Delhi and elsewhere, specially its vicinity or the other urban habitat like Chandigarh, where impressionable agitated young boys were egged on to indulge in violent agitations to force rescinding that decision.
Ex-Leftist Chandan Mitra, now a two-term BJP MP and the Editor of The Pioneer, owes his rise to the anti-Mandal agitation and the role he played as a Times of India assistant editor in scheming and conspiring to further fuel the anti-Mandal agitation. I refrain from naming here a mutual friend from the media, who told me how Chandan would mark each day on Delhi’s map, spread on his table, that day’s agitation spot, send out his chosen local reporters’ team of the Times of India, who in turn would spread the word around with other reporters and photographers who would reach the predetermined destination at the appointed time to ostensibly to cover that day’s series of self immolation attempts, something like the present day Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal candlelight walks to provide manufactured spot coverage, fodder for the daily newspapers, conveying the impression that the whole city was on fire.
Soon thereafter Chandan and his other turncoat leftist friend Swapan Dasgupta, who by then had directly migrated to the saffron camp, were spotted for this extraordinary talent and offered more lucrative positions by the secular Aveek Sarkar in The Telegraph. But Kolkatta was no happening place for the two ambitious Bengalees and within no time, both were back in Delhi, with Chandan heading the Sunday Observer, which by that time had been bought over by Dhirubhai. Here he got his team of confidants from the Times of India, Syed Zubair Ahmad, Rashmee Z Ahmad, Vijay Jung Thapa and others, plus some more from the Indian Express like Rajeev Deshpande, who soon became a dependable Chandan fan club member. Soon enough Chandan also imported Divakar Asthana, the current Political Editor of The Times of India, from Searchlight, Patna and introduced him to the glitzy world of Delhi, because unlike the Delhi pen pushers, Divakar understood Mandal, could fool for a while many like me passing himself off as a Mandalite when he was all along a dependable Sanghi trained to spot fresh talent to recruit and initiate them in the Sanghi brand of journalism. However after the Sangh and IB, many a high profile present day journalist is a gift of Dhirubhai Ambani to the Indian nation. But Dhirubhai notwithstanding even today, 22 years after Mandal it is well nigh impossible to find an English or Hindi journalist in Delhi not overtly hostile to the OBCs and Dalits. Sadly, a few Yadavs who entered the profession post Mandal, have almost all been co-opted and those not, have remained on the margins or simply dumped.
Even before Ambani, journalists, particularly reporters, were prone to corruption, but these were really small time, acting as police informers and collecting haftas from Police headquarters or business correspondents collecting Vimal safari suit lengths at the Reliance annual general body meeting or such other sundry gifts at corporate press conferences. I did crime reporting in three cities, one after another Bombay, Chandigarh and Delhi and the latter two in critical times of Sikh militancy. I was admittedly no Shekhar Gupta but wasn’t that bad either, for all three places I was nudged by the Police officers to “Share information” in exchange of getting scoops. Then again when I graduated to the national bureau in The Pioneer, and was occasionally reporting on the Congress beat, a former colleague, now in the Editors’ hallowed club, told me to develop fraternal ties with the IB, to further my professional career. As is evident, I didn’t go too far, though it would be presumptuous on my part to claim that as the reason. Anyway the credit goes entirely to Dhirubhai Ambani to have introduced the cringing supplicating lot to big time. Suddenly from collecting taxi fares in the press conferences and then footing home, Delhi’s Fleet Street babus started moving around in sedans, owning farmhouses, spending annual holidays abroad and aspiring for big time.
I remember for instance that not long before acquiring The Pioneer, without paying a penny, Chandan did not have enough to pay a measly sum of Rs 30,000 to his mechanic Saleem for the engine overhaul of his Maruti gypsy. It so happened that Swapan Dasgupta was my tenant occupying the newly built first floor of my house. Before I say anything, let me clarify that Swapan was a real good tenant and was on the best of terms with my father, who naturally owned the house, though I never had much of an interaction with Swapan.
Returning to the Chandan story, though by now Chandan had moved beyond Ambani. I was then living with my wife in a Greater Kailash government flat allotted to her. One day I found a white Maruti gyspy parked outside my Gulmohar Park house. A couple of days later my mechanic Saleem came over and I asked him whose car was that? He replied, Chandan’s. I asked him how come, since Chandan never lived there and only occasionally visited Swapan. He told me Chandan owed him Rs 30,000 for overhauling the engine of his car and so had asked his jeep to be left outside Swapan’s house till the payment was made. This was when Chandan was living in Arun Jaitley’s IFS officers’ flats in Mayur Vihar without paying any rent while drawing a fancy salary as the Executive Editor of The Hindustan Times and yet he did not have enough to pay either for his car or to rent a decent apartment. Today even though The Pioneer doesn’t sell anywhere Chandan Mitra is a billionaire. Pioneer has editions all over the country and many Congress led states including Delhi freely subsidise the paper by generously granting The Pioneer huge ads. Additionally Chandan is into other media businesses as well including The Pioneer School of Journalism run by my good Sanghi friend A Surya Prakash. I don’t know what other pies he has his finger in. Same is the story of Rajat Sharma or Rajeev Shukla who were in economically much worse state. Not to be left behind, what about Prannoy Roy or Rajdeep Sardesai? What money did they have to invest and own a TV channel? These are our crusading champions against corruption. There may be no space left to write anything else if start making a list of all of them including Shekhar Gupta and Prabbu Chawla. I mentioned this to point out what hypocrites our journalist fraternity is and how hollow our indignation over corruption.
Returning to Mandal, the Thakur blood of Chandra Shekhar started boiling along with that of his friends with socialist pretensions, like Kamal Morarka, Yashwant Sinha and even the great socialist Madhu Limaye all either blatantly opposed to Mandal or covertly worked at bringing down V P Singh government to overturn the Mandal decision.
Mandal led immediately to numerous conspiracies at different levels of politics, all enjoying the financial backing of Dhirubhai. So at one end he was financing the split in Janata Dal to bring down V P Singh government, at another he financed L K Advani’s Somnath to Ayodhya Rath Yatra seemingly to demolish the Babri Masjid and build a “Bhavya Mandir (magnificient temple)” at the spot, but primarily to roll back the rise of the subalterns. Simultaneously through his men in the Congress party and busy bees like Subramaniam Swamy he had persuaded Rajiv Gandhi to help Chandra Shekhar split the Janata Dal by promising to support an alternate formation under him. There was no dearth of Ambani lobbyists surrounding Rajiv either, who impressed upon him the urgency to pull down V P Singh more than anything else. Actually Mandal came in handy for Ambani and Chandraswamy combine to persuade the fraud and corrupt “Samajwadis(socialists)” to ditch V P Singh.
Within no time, Rajiv realized his mistake in helping Chandra Shekhar become the Prime Minister with the audacity to deny Rajiv NSG security cover, despite repeated demands from the Congress party, even while providing the same, about the same time, to a host of other leaders led by L K Advani, Bhajan Lal, Buta Singh, H K L Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler. Finally Rajiv, accompanied by a single unarmed Personal Security Officer (PSO) Sub-inspector P K Gupta, was killed in Sriperumbdur Tamil Nadu by a Sri Lankan Tamil woman identified as Dhanu. This helped Rajiv’s party the Congress to return to power on a sympathy wave. His wish to see the political demise of V P Singh came true but at what cost?
The 1991 general elections were probably the most turbulent even before Rajiv’s assassination, which happened mid-way through the polling. Mandal had unleashed several conflicting forces simultaneously. Initially Rajiv believed it was Godsend to help him put the BJP in the dock for being the right crutch of the Janata Dal/National Front government. He made a speech in Parliament attacking V P Singh for accepting the Mandal report. This way he thought he could persuade the upper caste youth, up in arms to abandon V P Singh and back the Congress regime. One thing Mandal surely did. Post Mandal there was not even in a whimper about Bofors and Rajiv was appearing for a while to this anti-Mandal youth as the knight in shining armour who alone could put the Mandal genie back in the bottle. In some places the youth even tried to heckle Advani, then the BJP president for BJP support to National Front government.
But BJP/Sangh were far too smart for Rajiv Gandhi. The then Sarsanghchalak Balsaheb Deoras came to Delhi, and directed Advani to revive the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation which had become slightly dormant during the period BJP was supporting the National Front Government. So Advani decided to undertake a Rath (actually a Swaraj Mazda truck converted into a comfortable bus with the looks of a horse driven cart) Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya to demolish Babri Masjid.
Meanwhile BJP had already used its support of the National Front Government to persuade V P Singh to appoint Jagmohan the Governor of the sensitive state of Jammu and Kashmir, soon after the kidnap of Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s daughter Rubaiya. In financial matters, none can question Jagmohan’s integrity. Similarly he is sincerely committed to the protection of historical monuments and promoting tourism. But on the other hand he belongs to a generation forced out of its home and hearth in Pakistan and migrated to India as “sharanarthi (asylum seeker) who can never forget and forgive that past. So he radically communalized an already charged volatile situation in the Kashmir valley, creating a permanent divide between the Kashmiri Brahmins and Muslims of the valley and a problem, the country is facing to date.
Back to Advani Rath Yatra, logistically worked out by Pramod Mahajan and financially supported by Dhirubhai. This Yatra transformed Advani into a bigger icon than today’s Narendra Modi, often times carrying a bow and arrow on his shoulder in the image of Ramchandraji and once in a while obliging waiting cameramen by slinging an arrow in his bow. But Advani’s Yatra, naturally overwhelmingly supported by the Sangh and its many avtars, VHP, Bajrang Dal, Durga Vahini, et al, created a mass hysteria, the likes of which was never witnessed, before or after that period.
Suddenly it seemed as if BJP, which withdrew support to V P Singh government in the wake of this Yatra, was capable of returning to power on its own. The BJP had won 85 seats in 1989 but only through a tacit understanding and seat adjustment with V P Singh. But once Advani raised the Ayodhya temperature, though he was finally halted by Lalu Prasad at Samastipur and arrested along with his fellow travelers, many in the media predicted that the BJP would return to power on its own, winning all of 272. There certainly was a BJP wave in the North West India, particularly where the BJP was in direct contest with the Congress. It’s another thing that Advani himself could also sense the strong anti- mood, and filed nominations simultaneously from New Delhi, wherein he entered the Lok Sabha first time in 1989, riding piggyback on V P Singh. This was his first direct election in his political career beginning pre-partition. He contested simultaneously from the BJP’s emerging Hindutva laboratory, Gandhinagar and made it his permanent Lok Sabha constituency. His apprehension was well founded, for he very nearly lost to filmstar Rajesh Khanna in 1991. But BJP’s most significant victory came from Uttar Pradesh where it won nearly half of its total tally in the land of Lord Ramchandra. The credit also went considerably to the fact that because of the presence of Kalyan Singh, its chief minister candidate and Sadhvi Uma Bharti in the forefront, the backwards of UP easily identified with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement However the neighbouring Bihar was a complete antithesis of this. Of the 54 seats in the undivided Bihar the BJP won only four and none of them from what now constitutes Bihar. One went to Congress and the rest were all won by Lalu for his Janata Dal and allies CPI, CPM and JMM, such was the Mandalisation wave in Bihar. Also in UP, once the casteist BJP started slighting Kalyan Singh, the OBCs started moving away and it has to be seen whether they would return this time with the projection of another OBC Narendra Modi as PM.
On the other hand the Congress was left with no electoral plank. Mind you there was no anti-Congress mood in 1991. Nobody was raising the slogan “Gali, gali mein shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi chor hai. Yet in UP and Bihar Rajiv’s public meetings were poorly attended. That created a real panic in Congress circles and the only thing the Congress could bank on was the personal charisma of Rajiv Gandhi, which still seemed to work in Southern India. In any case Rajiv’s death brought back the Congress to power and the BJP emerged as the main Opposition. It also sounded the death knell for the Janata Dal, which was emerging as the permanent fulcrum for the third force.
Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination had the desired effect on Congress, which returned to power, though still considerably short of a majority and P V Narasimha Rao, who had ostensibly retired from electoral politics, excusing himself from contesting the 1991 general elections, was foisted on the nation for want of a better choice.
Meanwhile, after facing open discrimination and pointed marginalization by Arun Shourie, in the Indian Express I finally found refuge in the Sunday Mail under its Editor-in-Chief T V R Shenoy in 1989 and till he was there I really enjoyed working for Sunday Mail. Though Shenoy was known to be close to Dhirubhai and a member of Advani’s think tank, he was really an old order journalist who treated all those working for him, never mind their political views, fairly and justly. He had his weaknesses, like suffering from a glad eye. But if we were to discuss this aspect of Indian journalism in these decades, I would be left writing only about it. So let that rest for the time being. For over a year I worked under him in Sunday Mail, I never faced any professional problems. Then came M L Kotru who didn’t stay long enough, succeeded by Sumit Mitra and some manager called Sidharth Shankar Ray planted by the Times of India, who inducted all the extras from the ToI, Patna and Lucknow and presided over the demise of Sunday Mail in the end taking all his faithfuls to Star News where some of his remnants are still ruling the roost. I realized it was time for me to say goodbye to Sunday Mail as well. Luck favoured me again. Thapars had bought over The Pioneer which was then being published only from Lucknow and Lalit Mohan Thapar (LMT) engaged Vinod Mehta to bring out the Delhi edition of The Pioneer, who gave me an opening in The Pioneer. Thapar was not a cussed employer, though he did not have the nerve to run a newspaper, specially by an independent editor, who was definitely not BJP. In due course he chucked Vinod, but after that he knew not what to do with The Pioneer and a Chandan Mitra with Advani’s backing stepped in to turn it saffron and even usurp it.
Narasimha Rao was heralded as a man of great learning, undoubtedly a true scholar, a polyglot speaking eight languages fluently, English, Urdu, Hindi, his native Telugu, Marathi and I don’t know how many others. Immediately after Rajiv Gandhi’s death the Congress repeatedly offered its presidentship to Sonia Gandhi and even Rahul at one stage. Only when the two firmly refused to accept the offer, the party had to look elsewhere and chose Rao, who was never a mass leader, though he had been the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh and then presided over every important ministry at the Centre, including External Affairs, Defence and Home and therefore billed as most eminently qualified to head the nation. Curiously throughout his five year regime the BJP raised neither the Bofors issue (except once when they wanted to get rid of Madhavsinh Solanki whom they hated ever since as Gujarat chief minister he had come out with KHAM formula). Nor did the sufferings of the 1984 Sikh riots bother the BJP and its comrade Parkash Singh Badal, though Rao as the nation’s Home Minster on October 31, 1984, whom the Delhi Police was reporting directly , was indeed accountable for that massacre. Rao inducted Manmohan Singh as his Finance Minister and his mantra was globalization and liberalization which went very well initially with the corporate sector. Internationally too he made a new beginning by opening the Indian doors to the Israelis establishing the Israeli embassy in New Delhi. His Foreign Policy, his internal policies, particularly in respect of terror (he brought in TADA) pleased the saffron brigade no end. The media too, by now starting to show its saffron colours more openly, went gaga at his intellectual prowess and the fact that finally a seasoned, experienced man was heading the Indian state. Rao’s great quality was that he was a man of very few words.
But the one quality that endeared him to the Brahmin establishment of India including the fast spreading media was his total commitment to the supremacy of the Brahmins. Coming at a time when the Savarnas both in the Congress and the BJP and more so in the media and judiciary had started feeling threatened by the Yadavs and other backward castes, this quality seems to have won him many admirers in the urban upper caste India across the political divide and for a while, like earlier with Rajiv Gandhi the whole right wing establishment in this country was completely bowled over by P V Narasimha Rao. To be fair to Rao, nobody could fault him with demonstratively observing any overt religious rituals like observing weekly fasts or wearing vermillion on his forehead, but perhaps because of his Brahmin predelictions he courted sadhus and sants and the most prominent among them was godman Chandraswamy.
Like Rajiv, Narasimha Rao’s honeymoon with the Sangh parivar too lasted a while, till the demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. BJP’s return to power in UP on the Ram Mandir issue had truly shaken the Muslim community and as the new saffron breed entered Parliament and legislatures greeting everyone loudly ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and announcing publicly “Kasam Ram ki khate hain, Mandir wahin banayenge,” the average Muslim fearing the impending violence was ever ready to hide behind the Congress coattail. This was an opportunity for Rao to win back the Muslim constituency. But he seemed to have decided that as long as the Masjid stood there, this communal dispute would never end and so he discreetly acquiesced in the demolition of Babri Masjid. On that lazy winter Sunday afternoon, when the news started pouring in of kar sevaks climbing the Masjid domes to demolish it, Rao became incommunicado and remained so till the final report of completely razing it to ground came.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid was the high point of achievement for the BJP and Advani as well. On the surface, it brought together and cemented the ties between the Left, Janata Dal and whatever little was left of parties like the TDP, DMK and AGP. This in turn led to unprecedented communal violence unleashed by the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and in particular, Mumbai. V P Singh sat on a hunger strike at Hutatma Chowk in Mumbai though Shiv Sena/BJP tried to heckle him, he carried on with the fast, unmindful of the attending health problems. His kidneys were affected by that fast, which in turn affected his physical capability to generate a 1980s kind of movement. Ironically it was Narasimha Rao and his Congress party which derived maximum benefit from the events that followed the demolition. For one, sensing all round attack on Rao and his government, the Congress party rallied round him, when both the BJP and V P Singh moved a no confidence motion against Rao government. Arjun Singh, P R Kumaramanglam and others who later viciously attacked Rao for not intervening when the Masjid was being demolished, made no move against Rao that day and in fact strongly defended the Government in the no-confidence motion.
With the monetary help from Bhajan Lal, Satish Sharma and Sunil ‘Bharati’ Mittal, who got the mobile telephony letter of intent for free for his services to Rao, and distribution capabilities of Chandraswamy and Subramaniam Swamy, Rao managed to bribe not just poor JMM MPs, who were unfortunately caught because they foolishly put the bribe money in the banks, but many others in the Janata Dal, particularly those owing allegiance to Ajit Singh then.
It is not the Congress which was initially dented in the immediate fallout of that no confidence motion. Yet in February-March, 1993 when the AICC session was held on Surajkhund grounds, a section of Congress leaders led by Sheila Dikshit and K N Singh but remote controlled by Arjun Singh, raised the first banner of revolt against Rao on the plea that he was not doing enough to catch the culprits responsible for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
But Rao was still on top of the world because a process of disintegration of the much hated Janata Dal had begun with the active help of the then Lok Sabha Speaker Shivraj Patil and by the next winter Rao-led Congress achieved a majority of its own in the Lok Sabha with a whole lot of Janata Dal defectors led by Ajit Singh joining the Congress party. The demise of Janata Dal appeared imminent. Meanwhile Bihar assembly elections approached and Lalu Yadav’s popularity already proven in the 1991 general elections, was on test yet again. Chief Election Commissioner T N Seshan, who hated Lalu Yadav and any other OBC with a passion and whom Rao and his Brahmin establishment had endowed with unbridled powers, had resolved not to allow Lalu to win this time. So on one pretext or the other Seshan extended these elections for record six months making a mockery of the election process, cussedly ensuring that the term of the earlier assembly expired and Lalu ceased to be the chief minister, at least for a while. V P Singh parked himself in Patna and campaigned ceaselessly for Lalu. Finally despite all the efforts of Seshan, readily aided by a biased media, Lalu Yadav still succeeded and formed the government.
But the attempted marginalisation of the OBCs and decimation of Janata Dal made little difference to the Congress fortunes under Narasimha Rao, even though out of four BJP-led state governments, dismissed by the Centre for sending kar sevaks to demolish Babri Masjid, three were defeated with the Congress returning in two Madhya Pradesh and Himachal and Mulayam-Kanshi Ram duo defeating the BJP in UP and forming a coalition government which did not last long though. But the December 1993 state assembly elections were the last won by the Congress under Narasimha Rao.
In the meantime sections within the Congress led by Arjun Singh became openly critical of Rao’s handling of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, as petition after petition from people of dubious distinction, believed to be proxies of Chandraswamy or Subramaniam Swamy tried to stall the progress of the Jain Commission set up by the Government to unravel the conspiracy behind Rajiv’s assassination. The Jain Commission became a butt of jokes because embroiled in litigations, some of its own doings and some through deliberate stalling proceedings indulged in by proxies, it continued facing court proceedings till the end of December, 1995. That is what led Sonia Gandhi to deliver her first public speech expressing her “Vedna (anguish)” at the Government doing precious little to unravel the conspiracy behind Rajiv’s assassination.
By this time a rather obscure case of hawala transaction, actually beginning 1991, to finance Kashmiri militants, probed by the CBI, started growing big with the mention of high profile politicians starting with L K Advani being paid hawala money by the Jain brothers of Madhya Pradesh as conduits in all these cases. Advani’s name cropping up in the Jain diaries, had serious political ramifications for him and the BJP in the long run. Advani’s graph, which was only rising till these disclosures, suddenly started falling and correspondingly Vajpayee’s stock started rising, forcing Advani to propose Vajpayee’s name as the BJP’s PM candidate much ahead of the 1996 general elections.
But Advani and his men, in particular Ram Jethmalani seemed to hold Narasimha Rao responsible for this Hawala case and never forgave him for that. Immediately, the Advani brigade got after Rao and held a press conference of Bombay Stock Exchange Bull Harshad Mehta to allege that he had gone and delivered in a suitcase a sum of Rs one crore to Narasimha Rao personally at his 7, Race Course Road residence.
That was not the end of the matter. Suddenly scams after scams allegedly involving Narasimha Rao and his ministers started surfacing in a repeat of 1974 and 1987. The BJP aided ably by the media, then projected Rao as the most corrupt politicians in the Indian history. So now we notice that this exercise is repeated by the Sanghis, promptly supported by the media, every ten years or so. Returning to Hawala, it started becoming bigger by the day with the names of prominent Congress leaders, particularly those critical of Rao coming up as the beneficiaries of the Jain munificence. One time Sangh/ABVP activist Vineet Narain went to the court on Hawala and sought CBI probe under Supreme Court supervision, which Chief Justice J S Verma happily granted. But the CBI itself and in particular officer Amod Kanth handling the case seemed to have deliberately botched it up, with Kanth writing in the file that the diary is not complete evidence, thus implying that none mentioned in the diary could be convicted without corroborative evidence. So the first person to get discharged on this case was Advani and within no time all the others named also had to be discharged, with the exception of Sharad Yadav and Devi Lal. The specious plea against the two poor backward politicians hated by the urban class, was that they admitted on camera having take money. But post 1998, first Devi Lal and then even Sharad Yadav too were discharged soon after they aligned with the BJP. So now we know that, those opposed to the BJP or disliked by the BJP are corrupt and the moment the same person, be it Sharad or Paswan or even Shibu Soren switch sides to BJP, overnight all taint is washed off. As for the corrobator, one Bombay based hawala dealer Ameerbhai, who remained elusive in Dubai till Advani was discharged by an obliging judge of Delhi, Mohammad Shamim, returned to Delhi soon after Advani became the Home Minister and went scot free. But the poor CBI officer O P Sharma, who had first dared to question Advani regarding the Jain diaries, is currently serving a sentence ostensibly for seeking a bribe, never mind the fact that he had an exemplary clean service record throughout. Hawala scam had embroiled several Congress ministers, which resulted in large scale desertions by top Congress leaders. Arjun Singh had already quit the Congress party. After the Hawala issue important party leaders like Narain Dutt Tiwari, Sheila Dikshit, Madhavrao Scindia and Rangarajan Kumaramanglam, also left the party to float the Congress-T. T for Tiwari who became its president. This Congress-T was a member of the UF when it came to power in 1996, but soon as Rao stepped aside they all went back and rejoined the Congress playing an active role in ousting Sitaram Kesri and persuading Sonia Gandhi to occupy the chair.
At a parallel plane the BJP had started targeting Lalu Prasad ever since he won the 1994 Assembly elections. BJP ideologue K N Govindacharya, who in the late 1980s worked strategically to create Janata Dal by uniting various leaders of Janata Party and Lok Dal, in the 1990s split the Janata Dal to weaken Lalu Yadav. He told some friends later how he worked on Nitish’ ego. According to him Nitish felt that while he was far more erudite and articulate than Lalu, Lalu became the chef minister and a mass leader. Govindacharya needed an alternate “secular OBC” leader in Bihar to dent Lalu ‘s image, so he successfully worked on Nitish grievances and aspirations. Once Nitish was ready to leave, getting George Fernandes, Syed Shahabuddin Mohammad Yunus Saleem, Chandrajit Yadav, Abdul Ghafoor and Hari Kishore Singh and others, was not at all difficult. Lalu too was to blame to some extent, because success went to his head and he started throwing his weight around. Before the end of the decade Ram Vilas Paswan, Sharad Yadav and Devendra Prasad Yadav too walked out on Lalu, leaving Lalu alone to face the BJP onsalught. Lalu’s current lieutenants Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and Jagtanand Singh emerged on the political scene as leaders of any standing only after Lalu formed the RJD.
Even V P Singh, feeling effectively sidelined, decided to withdraw from parliamentary politics and consequently also resigned his leadership of the Janata Dal parliamentary party, necessitating the election of a new leader. Singh’s word carried no weight with the trio of Sharad Yadav, Nitish Kumar, and Lalu Prasad. For the larger unity of the OBCs and Dalits, V P Singh wanted Ram Vilas Paswan to succeed him as Janata Dal parliamentary party leader. But Sharad Yadav and Nitish Kumar put their foot down. Then Singh and Paswan suggested George Fernandes. But again Nitish and Sharad did not want him either and the duo persuaded Lalu to back Sharad (who lost the 1991 general elections and entered Parliament later in a bye election, through Lalu’s generosity), against George, which really hurt George. V P Singh and Paswan too were upset with Lalu on this account. Thus at Sharad and Nitish instance, Lalu slighted Paswan, George and V P Singh That is how BJP succeeded in creating the Samata Party in Bihar.
Having politically weakened Lalu, BJP/Sangh now targeted Lalu Prasad on corruption, its most time tested weapon calling its political rivals, “Chor,chor.” All along, though the Congress party, under Narasimha Rao, which was left with no effective presence in Bihar and UP too, worked surreptitiously in tandem with the BJP helping to decimate and besiege Lalu Yadav.
After V P Singh abandoned the Janata Dal, the party was left in the hands of a very meek and docile president S R Bommai, too soft and helpless against the rising might of the cow land Yadavs to enforce any discipline or respect for the high command. Slowly poor Bommai stood too completely marginalized in the Janata Dal with Lalu and Sharad Yadav treating him like a “coat hangar” to borrow the phrase from a friend of mine. Eventually Bommai decided to step aside and make Lalu Prasad, who was anyway effectively the commander in chief, the president of Janata Dal. We believed that would energise the party. But Lalu had no time for Delhi, so in effect he handed over the reins to his best friend, philosopher and guide, Sharad Yadav, for whom his five hours’ afternoon siesta each day takes precedence over anything else, however urgent. Back home in Patna, by this time BJP leaders Sushil Kumar Modi, joined in now by Nitish Kumar and George Fernandes, with the help of an over active and biassed media and effectively aided by a prejudiced state judiciary along with the CBI controlled by anti-Mandal forces, were succeeding in raising the bogey of a “corrupt, corrupt Lalu Yadav, calling him chara chor, alleging that Lalu had swindled the state treasury of more than Rs 900 crore only by bungling the cattle fodder. Just as the J P movement made a leader out of several Samajwadi and ABVP activists, the anti-Lalu campaign once again threw up Ravi Shankar Prasad, till then a relatively lesser known Patna lawyer with familial ties with the RSS for two generations. But somehow even after the best efforts of the BJP duly aided by its cronies in the CBI U N Biswas (now a minister in Mamata’s government in Bengal) in Patna and Director Joginder Singh in Delhi, and a proactive all Brahmin bench of Patna High Court out to teach an abrasive Lalu a lesson, the BJP government, which by 1998 had assumed power, filed a chargesheet against Lalu in the year 2000 ostensibly for accumulating wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income amounting to just Rs 40 lakh and that included his MLA colony flat, his Maurti 800, a couple of Income tax saving Indira Vikas Patra and Kisan Vikas Patra and a few pieces of village land purchased after becoming the CM. That is all they found against a man who became a MP in 1977 and was in public life either as a MP or a MLA ever since from 1977-97 20 years, including eight years of chief ministership? The BJP, the media, the CBI and the judiciary all combined together to hound him, because he was perceived as the messiah of the backwards and the face of social justice, and with all the effort they found only Rs 40 lakh that after obvious over assessed computation of his alleged wealth. In effect they found nothing against Lalu. But Lalu could never be forgiven for arousing social consciousness among the backwards and Dalits of Bihar. And to this day be it Arvind Kejriwal and Anna Hazare or the prejudiced Savarna judges or the TV channels, Lalu for them personifies what is wrong with the Indian parliamentary democracy and so they are busy to date trying to somehow disenfranchise Lalu Yadav.
Lalu Yadav besieged by the BJP and its cronies from one side and his detractors like H D Deve Gowda, unseated as PM, (through Kesri, Lalu and V P Singh’s machinations), Ram Vilas Paswan, Devendra Prasad Yadav, Srikant Jena and even Sharad Yadav on the other, had to resign as CM, appointed his apolitical wife Rabri Devi in his place, was arrested and went to jail for this crime, even while his party Janata Dal led United Front government was ruling in Delhi led first by H D Deve Gowda and then by the rootless political climber Inder Kumar Gujral. By the time Lalu returned on bail, the Election Commission, also an interested party got into the act and forced organizational elections on the Janata Dal and Lalu’s detractors, came together to finish off Lalu politically, unmindful of the long term consequences on the Janata Dal and the third front politics in the country. Sharad Yadav, a rootless politician, with a vaulting ambition, immediately rose to the occasion to challenge Lalu on the strength of this group and after much drama and bickering Lalu broke away from the Janata Dal with his 16 MPs, floating his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which did pretty well in the 1998 general elections in Bihar, while the JD including Sharad got wiped in that round.
As the JD was slowly withering away and an uninspiring Congress left virtually rudderless once Narasimha Rao ceased to be the Prime Minister, the rise of the BJP was inevitable and it did emerge as the single largest party with 162 seats in the 1996 general elections. On that strength, Atal Bihari Vajpayee staked claim, was sworn in by President Shankar Dayal Sharma but resigned before proving his majority in the House because apart from Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Samata Party of George and Nitish which came to a total of 191 seats in a House of 544, no other party was willing to back even the Vajpayee led BJP so soon after the Babri Masjid taint. But never mind that, the clamour in the media for the BJP was becoming shriller by the day. As a matter of fact the rise of the BJP also coincided with the sudden boom in the media, ever multiplying TV channels, more and more opening every day.
The media could not digest the formation of a United Front (UF) government led by “Humble farmer” H D Deve Gowda, it dismissed disdainfully as evident from the remarks of a senior journalist S Venkat Narayan in the then Janata Dal spokesman S Jaipal Reddy’s press conference, “How can he be the Prime Minister? He neither knows Hindi nor English. Never mind the fact that under Deve Gowda’s stewardship of Karnataka, the Janata Dal won 16 out of 28 Lok Sabha seats, an unparalleled record for the JD.
It was all the more disappointing for the BJP, the pro-BJP media and the judiciary and Election Commission with unapologetic caste bias, who were conspiring in their own little way to rid Bihar of Lalu. The emergence of a Third Front government headed by a “humble farmer” and supported by Lalu Yadav was something the media could just not swallow.
Soon as Vajpayee resigned his 13-day government and it became evident that there was now no alternative to a third front led government, the media started spreading rumours. One of them was that Deve Gowda is hustling away his flock of MPs to Kodaikanal, lest they defect, sending across a deliberate mischievous message that the JD MPs from Karnataka and Bihar were some lowly lot up for sale. And Chandan Mitra who had by now joined The Pioneer, though frankly till then we had no inkling he will one day, through subterfuge, become its owner, was the one who planted this story on his, and till then my paper on its front page, without a by-line subtly trying to pass on the responsibility to the shoulders of the beat reporter.
Forming a United Front government of fourteen parties at that point was anyway a difficult task, on top of that V P Singh, despite pressure from DMK, refused to bite the bullet, though he played an active role in nominating his two nominees to Deve Gowda government, namely I K Gujral and Maneka Gandhi. On the other hand he proposed that the Front should elect Jyoti Basu as the PM, which the CPM refused to permit, even though Jyoti Basu and the then CPM general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet seemed game to the proposal. But the real reason behind the UF settling on Deve Gowda was that the UF was dependent on support from the Congress, till then chaired by Narasimha Rao who preferred Deve Gowda and conveyed this decision through Margaret Alva to the JD leaders deliberating in Karnataka Bhawan. Whatever may have been the consideration, the fact that a non-Brahmin, a farmer’s son, a man with pronounced rural background, succeeded Rao, was a big cause for celebration by many of us who felt cheated in 1991 elections. Saeed Naqvi wrote a centre page article in The Indian Express saying that Rao was the last Brahmin who occupied the PM chair. He proved wrong soon after, with Vajpayee becoming the PM within two years of that and even secular Brahmins like veteran Congress leader Devendra Dwivedi gleefully pointed this out on Vajpayee’s crowning.
Despite the daily media barbs the UF gave a pretty clean and scam free government and Deve Gowda proved to be an able administrator. It had stalwarts like CPI general secretary Indrajit Gupta as Home Minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav as Defence Minister and Gujral as External Affairs Minster. But what Deve Gowda scored on his administrative ability he lost in political acumen. Soon after this government came to power Rao had to step aside as Congress president too, on account of Lakhubhai Pathak and other cases filed against him, though he was never sent to jail or convicted in any case. He handed over the baton to Sitaram Kesri presuming that Kesri, not particularly charismatic, would all through remain indebted to Rao and function as his factotum. But the day Kesri took over he started conspiring against Rao. Simultaneously there was never any comfort level between Deve Gowda and Lalu, who had sent up the maximum number of MPs. Meanwhile the Fodder scam case was haunting Lalu. So he aligned with fellow Bihari OBC, Sitaram Kesri. Deve Gowda, without understanding the emerging political equations, continued backing Rao against Kesri and was persuaded by Ram Vilas Paswan, then a widely known detractor of Lalu, to appoint Joginder Singh, a confirmed RSS man as the Director of CBI, who through U N Biswas another politically interested person, had made up their mind to send Lalu to jail, because that, in their perception was a good way not just to unseat Lalu but to eventually destabilize the UF government, which could not survive a day without Lalu’s support. Thus Kesri withdrew the letter of Congress support, Deve Gowda faced the House without Congress support, made a valiant speech in the Lok Sabha and quit even as the conspirators had already decided to replace Gowda with Gujral, who succeeded him only through these conspiracies and the machinations of the media led by The Times of India, which was desperate to secure some relief for its owner Ashok Jain a fugitive in some fraud/ tax evasion case. The crux of the matter is that in spite of all the disdain, contempt machinations of the Brahmanical forces, meaning the BJP, the Congress, the media, the Election Commission and the judiciary, the subalterns managed to grab power at the Centre, but because of their inexperience and lack of foresight, lost it too soon and in fact failed to settle on an OBC leader who as their consensual choice, could lead the nation. So in effect while the coming to power of the UF government amply proved that they had the numbers on their side and succeeded in breaking the monopoly of the Brahmin forces to rule this great nation, on the other they also exposed that due to their fragmentation, the coalition governments in India will continue to be led by Brahmin parties like the BJP or Congress. Once Deve Gowda quit, the UF leaders quarreled throughout the night at Nara Chandrababu Naidu’s Andhra Bhawan abode, not agreeing on anyone among them. Lalu under Fodder scam cloud was anyway out of question. But he commanded the support of largest number of MPs. Surjeet lobbied for Mulayam, but Lalu put his foot down. Others backed G K Moopanar, but M Karunanidhi wont have him to lead the nation. Babu himself emerged as an alternate choice. But since like Deve Gowda he too was the first time chief minister, he too was ruled out. CPM again would not allow Jyoti Basu, besides Congress was too wary to allow a man of Jyoti Basu’s stature to dwarf their leadership, so Basu was not even considered this time round.
Eventually the OBCs squandered their first opportunity at leading the nation by failing to agree on anyone from their lot and happily handed over the baton to Gujral who held the rural backwards from Devi Lal to Deve Gowda in utter contempt and downright disdain. Gujral was the first Punjabi Sharanarthi (refugee) to occupy the PM chair in India. Manmohan Singh is the second. Advani, is also a refugee from Pakistan, but he is from Sindh and he could never reach 7, RCR. Two things common between Gujral and Manmohan were their commitment to secularism and their genuine desire to normalize relations between India and Pakistan. But even there Gujral, as a sitting Prime Minister and a leader of Janata Dal had no compunction getting elected to the Lok Sabha in 1998 from Jallanadhar with Akali Dal support, never mind that the Akali Dal is an alliance partner of the BJP. Soon thereafter his son Naresh Gujral formally joined the SAD and is likely to be made a minister in the event Narendra Modi becomes the Prime Minister of India. So much for the family’s secular credentials.
Anyway returning to the subject, soon enough the Sitaram Kesri led Congress party pulled support from Gujral government on the flimsy excuse of the interim report of Jain Commission on Rajiv Gandhi assassination, which had pointed an accusing finger at the DMK. Using that as an excuse Arjun Singh insisted that the only way Congress could continue supporting the UF government was to drop Murasoli Maran and T R Baalu, the two DMK ministers, which was a direct attempt at breaking the UF. Naturally that was not acceptable to the UF and Gujral government fell. But the real target of Arjun Singh, with now a little more than active support of Sonia Gandhi was neither DMK nor even the UF, Leading a substantial number of Congress leaders Arjun Singh aimed at Kesri and eventually succeeded in replacing him with Sonia Gandhi.
While such public spectacles of mutual bickering in the UF left all those who had enthusiastically supported the formation of the UF government despaired and demoralized, an OBC non charismatic leader like Kesri leading the Congress party did not inspire confidence in the anti UF voter either. In such a situation, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whom the media projected all through the brief UF rule as a victim of apartheid, naturally benefited this time as the most eligible and acceptable leader nationally.
But that alone did not help the BJP. After the UF fiasco, there was a rethink in many parties vis-à-vis the BJP. AIADMK general secretary and the then Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha, to counter arch rival DMK aligned with the BJP and offered it Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu. And once more the poll eve violence helped to garner numbers, this time for the BJP when a bomb blast occurred in Coimbatore a little before Advani’s scheduled election rally, ostensibly by Muslim militants. Thus the BJP opened its account in Parliament for the first time from Tamil Nadu, winning three seats, including the Coimbatore seat for C P Radhakrishnan. Similarly it won four seats in Andhra Pradesh and 13 in Karnataka, taking its overall tally to 182. In the final analysis the Coimbatore bomb blast gave the BJP the same political advantage in 1998, though not of the same magnitude, since it did not entail any loss of life of any BJP leader, that Rajiv Gandhi assassination gave the Congress in 1991. And it was no coincidence that both times Jayalalitha benefited from the after effect. But even with all that the BJP fell short of the magic figure of 273, without the support of seven MPs of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress. Even with Mamata support, Vajpayee led coalition was standing on the razor’s edge with just the requisite number of 273 to stake a claim. That is when Andhra Pradesh chief minister and the convenor of the United Front Nara Chandrababu Naidu betrayed his much touted commitment to secularism by jumping last minute to support Vajpayee all the time protesting, “I am secular.” Thus the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was born.
Suddenly Naidu became the darling of the media, particularly the fast multiplying TV channels. Ramoji Rao, another Sanghi Shourie acolyte, the founder of the Eenadu media group of Hyderabad the man who once went round Luttyen’s bungalow zone in Delhi selling hot Andhra pickles and who owed his rise in media world to Babu’s father-in-law NTR, the founder of Telugu Desam, was fully backing Naidu to further the interests of the Kamma community, started his ETV channels, campaigning for Naidu, a fellow Kamma CM. The media promoted Naidu the same way it heralds Narendra Modi today. He was projected as a leader sharply focused on development of his state to the extent that President Bill Clinton went all the way to Hyderabad to acknowledge Babu as the epitome of a modern no nonsense leadership, ushering the IT age in India through his Cybercity in Hyderabad. Those who are today praising Modi sky high forget that till yesterday Naidu was their poster boy. The Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister was hailed as young energetic and forward looking and pronounced by the same corporate driven media as the ideal candidate to occupy the Prime Minister’s chair one day. Doesn’t it sound so familiar. But we seem to suffer from some sort of amnesia and forget that all the so called development work Naidu undertook in his ten years, failed to pay him any dividend. Poor Naidu has been in political wilderness for last nine years and has no hope of returning to power even in 2014.Sadly for TDP MPs, he did not allow them to join the government and be ministers in the NDA government, apparently to maintain a secular façade. Nevertheless, those who had rejected the UF and preferred a BJP led government to bring stability and order in the country, were in for a great disappointment. For one, it was now the turn of all those who had abandoned all former protestations of secularism and had attacked the BJP post Babri Masjid demolition to ride to power. So the first spectacle of bickering was right inside the parivar with the then RSS chief K S Sudarshan going to Vajpayee at 2 am and forcing him to drop plans of appointing Jaswant Singh his Finance Minister and instead choose Yashwant Sinha at the Sangh’s instance. Then there was the big tussle between George Fernandes and Ramakrishna Hegde, with both vying to head India’s Defence ministry under Vajpayee and finally Vajpayee had to give in to George, because he refused to take any other ministry. As for Jayalalitha, since she was embroiled in FERA cases, she wanted the Revenue ministry with her party where she got her chosen Chartered Accountant R K Kumar appointed as MoS Finance and Revenue, but somehow it did not help her much and she did not like this one bit. She came charging first at Kumar. The poor man fearing her wrath got admitted to a nursing home. But she brushed aside all these alibis, charged into his hospital room, gave him a solid tongue lashing and within a few days the man died of nervousness and hypertension. One-man-party Subramaniam Swamy who got elected with Jayalalitha help, was also denied a portfolio and he immediately resolved to bring down Vajpayee government, suddenly becoming a big champion of secularism. But the Sanghi/ brahmanical media was in thrall, besides itself with joy and ecstasy for its dream come true. And why not? One of the first things Advani did for the media was to do a deal with L M Thapar to surrender The Pioneer, with all its movable and immovable assets for free to Chandan Mitra and in addition Thapar was made to shell out Rs 1.8 crore to take care of the day to day running of the paper. It is another thing that Chandan who had turned The Pioneer into an Advani poster (currently it is a Narendra Modi broadsheet) was not paying us our monthly salaries for months and made no commitment to pay these after taking it over from LMT. But while washing his hands of the Pioneer, LMT was considerate enough ready to pay our legal dues which worked out to Rs 12 crore (for both Lucknow and Delhi editions). Chandan tried to gobble up this amount as well. But last minute vigilance by several prominent Pioneer staffers like Pradeep Magazine, Shankar Raghuraman and Ajaz Ashraf scuttled his plans and Thapars abused Chandan for misleading them and taking them up the garden path. We got our dues nevertheless and bid Pioneer adieu. Chandan usurped The Pioneer, and through some recent trickery also the Link House, housing the Pioneer office, since there is no one now to claim possession of that prime property. In any case, the BJP government proved to be a boon for the media. The print media particularly non-English media, had started looking up with Advani’s Rath Yatra of 1990, specially for UP and Bihari publications, suddenly flooded with Ads upon showing their true saffron colours. Small time rags like Dainik Jagran and Amar Ujala became multi-edition entities and their owners, newspaper tycoons. Rice merchant Subhash Chandra suddenly became the Rupert Murdoch of India, with his Zee channels. Similarly ETV also multiplied by the dozen with local language channels in every nook and corner of the country. Publications which were not willing to offer subsistence salaries to journalists were suddenly hiring people for the same positions, offering lakhs. I left The Pioneer, joined a magazine Meantime brought out by the Madhyamam publications of Kerala, with pronounced Jamaat-i-Islami association and leanings, was there for a year and half, then joined tehelka.com briefly for a month and half and then landed up in Deccan Chronicle under M J Akbar and an illiterate Hunterwali editor in Hyderabad called A T Jayanti. Meanwhile Vajpayee, within three months of assuming office, (March 16, 1998), played a master stroke scoring browney points with the Sanghis by conducting Pokhran II nuclear explosions on May 9, announcing to the World that India was now in possession of nuclear weapons. This invited US trade sanctions which the BJP and the embedded media welcomed nonchalantly. But it did not take Pakistan even 20 days to respond by conducting its nuclear explosions in Chagai, also announcing that they too had the bomb.The last days of Narasimha Rao were full of scams with media running stories of one scam or the other every day. In one such CBI raid Rs three crore were recovered from Rao’s Telecom Minister Pandit Sukh Ram. Ram along with his secretary Runu Ghosh was arrested ostensibly for taking bribes for giving away the upcoming mobile telephony to a chosen few. The media had gone to town about the corruption of Sukh Ram. But soon as the Vajpayee government assumed office and Sushma Swaraj became the Telecom Minister, the telecom operators approached her with the request that it was not profitable to run mobile telephony on the rates they paid during the auction under Sukh Ram (the same Sukh Ram, whom the Sanghi media, at the instance of the BJP, had condemned as the most corrupt politician and who going by these reports had bundled off telecom licences cheaply to these operators for monetary considerations). Now the same telecom operators rushed to Sushma and pleaded that Sukh Ram had in fact made them pay more than their earning capacity and therefore she should revise the decision of a previous government whose term ended in 1996 because in between there was the UF government. It took no time for Sushma to see reason in this argument and their offer of revenue sharing, adjusting their auction money against this revenue sharing exercise. She promptly wrote to the Prime Minister forwarding their plea and seeking the PM’s views on the issue. In between came Delhi elections and Sushma had to go as Delhi chief minister to lead her party in the Delhi assembly polls. She was replaced by Jagmohan (BJP MP from New Delhi), a man of unparalleled personal integrity in financial matters. When the file reached him, he was furious and recommended instead that the telecom operators should be penalized, their auction money forfeited, and they should be blacklisted for making such a preposterous suggestion. He calculated the loss to the exchequer in the vicinity of Rs 50,000 crore. He sent the file for legal opinion to the then Attorney General Soli Sorabjee, another Sanghi crusader against corruption, who sent in a note agreeing with every word of Jagmohan’s observations. Obviously the PM did not like such an attitude towards his corporate friends. He bundled Jagmohan off to the Urban Development ministry and Prime Minister Vajpyee himself took charge, clearing the telecom operators’ proposals, after seeking a fresh opinion of Solijee who now did a complete somersault, fully agreeing with the telecom operators’ proposal. Such was the integrity of our much touted crusader against corruption. So within no time it was obvious that this Government was no less, if not more corrupt than all the previous governments BJP had been calling names. But even though most of this was reported in the newspapers and on TV channels, there was no cry of outrage, witnessed against the previous governments or say against Lalu Prasad about the same time. The first NDA government fell within 13 months, not because of any extra effort of the Opposition, which was too badly divided and dispirited. It fell under its own weight and through the machinations of L K Advani, who could not digest Vajpayee occupying the PM chair, which he rightfully considered his. It was early part of April of 1999 and this was the first national executive of the BJP outside Delhi in Goa, Panaji, after coming to power. Jayalalitha was getting fidgety because of this Government’s inability to let her off the hook in the FERA violation case and had started making threatening noises. But Vajpayee was handling the volatile Jaya with utmost care through intermediaries like Pramod Mahajan and George Fernandes. But in the meantime P R Kumaramanglam, popularly known as Ranga, who had joined the BJP just before the 1998 elections and had accepted Advani as his patron saint in the BJP was egged on by Advani before the reporters to derisively discuss Jayalalitha’s incessant demands on that government. Within hours of this while the TV channels were playing this Advani took a flight and joined other BJP leaders in Panaji for the national executive and there recounted to the media with a grin on his face and a glnt in his eye all that happened in Delhi barely two hours earlier endangering the survival of the first BJP-led government. Incidentally Vajpayee and George had come to Panaji a day earlier for Naval exercises. Pramod too was already there to supervise arrangements and till Advani flew down, he was effectively the Government in Delhi. After this for the next two days they all behaved as if nothing had happened even as TV kept reporting about Jaya’s fuming and fretting. In fact K N Govindacharya, still the BJP organizing general secretary did laugh away the possibility of Jaya withdrawing support, in effect mocking her and daring her to do that. Earlier, in February Vajpayee launched his diplomatic offensive, extending his hand of friendship towards Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by inaugurating a bus service between Delhi and Lahore and traveling personally in it to Lahore, creating tremendous bonhomie and camaraderie between the two neighbours. But this move did not go down well either with Advani led hawks of RSS/BJP variety on this side of the border or with the jehadic/Army/ISI establishment in Pakistan. Within days that April, Jayalalitha announced withdrawal of support, forcing Vajpayee to seek a vote of confidence which he lost by one vote and had to tender his resignation. The secularists were again in raptures over the prospect of the formation of an alternative secular government, this time with Jayalalitha support. But it was very short-lived. Mulayam Singh Yadav went and committed to his one time comrade George Fernandes and Advani in George’s house, right opposite Mulayam’s bungalow that he will not allow any government with Sonia Gandhi, who now presided over the Congress party. Simultaneously Sonia, at the instance of Arjun Singh also refused to lead a coalition government because Arjun Singh warned her of the consequence of inducting Subramaniam Swamy in such a government which appeared inevitable. At the end of the day no government could be formed and Sonia was ridiculed for going and telling President K R Narayanan that she had the requisite 272 to stake a claim. That very first political move by Sonia bombed and her detractors wrote her off right away. The move having backfired, fresh elections became inevitable and were ordered to be held within six months. The twelfth Lok Sabha was dissolved on April 26, 1999 and the thirteenth was constituted on October 10, 1999, allowing Vajpayee to continue as PM till the fresh elections. Within a week of the dissolution of Parliament, Indo-Pak war in Kargil broke out which carried on till July 26, providing the BJP a lot of nationalist ammunition to whip up patriotic emotions in the people, all set to go to polls. Defence Minister George Fernandes imported special coffins from abroad at exorbitant cost to send the body of each soldier home which earned him and the NDA government bonus points while keeping the nationalist temperature at boiling point in the country. Exactly three months later on 26 July 1999, hostilities on Kargil front ended with Pakistani troops persuaded by the then US President Bill Clinton, deciding to withdraw from the occupied posts and this was proudly hailed as a great victory of India over Pakistan, proclaimed by the Government as ‘Operation Vijay.’ Naturally this helped Vajpayee, his party and the entire NDA alliance’s prospects at the hustings. While the BJP was whipping up nationalist passions, Sharad Pawar, Purno A Sangma, who had come into prominence as a very able and competent speaker of the eleventh Lok Sabha, Kesri’s confidant Tariq Anwar and some other non entities suddenly woke up to Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin and split the Congress to float their Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) on this excuse. It is another thing that post elections the NDA did not need the NCP and so it went ahead and aligned with the Congress to form a Government in Maharashtra and since 2004 in the Centre as well. I am personally aware how some of my Sanghi journalist friends led by A Surya Praksh, Swaraj Thapa, Girish Nikam and Bhavdeep Kang worked on Sangma till the wee hours of morning after heavy drinking sessions at his official residence to impress upon him how he had the potential of emerging as the first Christian tribal from North East to occupy the Prime Minister’s chair if he broke off from Italian Sonia Gandhi and proved his nationalist credentials. Poor Sangma is busy doing the same to date, without going anywhere in life. But my Sanghi friends achieved their objective of weakening the Congress enough to facilitate BJP victory in the 1999 general elections. Meanwhile since AIADMK broke off from the BJP, DMK was persuaded to join the NDA and now this time the BJP piggy backed DMK in Tamil Nadu and notched up its tally to five seats from that state. Similarly in Andhra Pradesh too the TDP-BJP alliance swept, with 30 seats for TDP and seven for the BJP leaving the Congress with just seven seats. It also benefited in Odisha by aligning with Nveen Patnaik’s BJD. Yet in its traditional saffron stronghold of South, Karnataka, it suffered huge losses and was reduced from 12 in the twelfth Lok Sabha to just six in the thirteenth. Soon after the fall of Vajpayee’s 13 month government the Janata Dal split yet again with Deve Gowda, Madhu Dandavate and Surendra Mohan going their way to form Janata Dal Secular (JD-S) while the Bihar contingent of Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan aligned with the Samata Party-BJP alliance to sweep Bihar for the NDA this round. For all these right moves and riding piggy back on winning partners, it had plateaued at 182 and for all the Kargil, and splitting the Congress party, it failed to win one more seat than what it won in the twelfth Lok Sabha. But all these machinations did work against the Congress which was reduced from 142 in the twelfth Lok Sabha to 118 in the 13th raising a question mark on Sonia’s ability to lead the Congress back to power. And thus the last year of the century seemed destined to end on a happy note for the BJP and its allies having returned with larger numbers to rule for another five years. But even as the BJP and its supporters were busy celebrating the onset of the new millennium under a saffron rule in India, almost at the end of the year, across the border, BJP’s friend Pakistan Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif who had hosted Vajpayee in Lahore was deposed by General Pervez Musharraf, the architect of the Kargil aggression and that was an ominous sign for India, which proved true when suddenly on Christmas eve the world came crashing down for Vjpayee’s Government with Pakistani terrorists boarding Indian Airlines flight IC 802 from Kathmandu to New Delhi and midway flying over Lucknow announced that they had hijacked the plane with 176 passengers aboard and tried to force the pilot to fly the plane to Lahore in Pakistan. Curiously at the time the hijackers announced their intent and the pilot informed the air traffic control accordingly, the plane was flying above Varanasi and incidentally both the Prime Minister and the then Civil Aviation Sharad Yadav returning from Patna were flying right above this aircraft, but none made any urgent moves to check the hijackers to proceed to Lahore. The pilot pleading low fuel did succeed in landing in Amritsar but the NDA government both at the Centre and in Punjab was outwitted by the hijackers who succeeded in flying the aircraft off to Lahore, refueled it there flew to Dubai and then landed in Kandahar where under the protection of the Taliban government they succeeded in forcing the Indian Government to release and Jaswant Singh escorted safely Hizbul Mujahideen chief Maulana Masood Azhar and Ahmed Said Sheikh, who later killed Daniel Pearl. Thus while the Government succeeded after full seven days to get back the passengers aboard that aircraft on New Year eve, December 31, 1999, but only with tremendous loss of face.Eom