Under Patil’s Allure

By Sushil Kutty, Hardnews, Delhi
 From Sardar Patel to Shivraj Patil, it has been a long and hard plough for successive Union home ministers of India. But if Sardar Patel took to the task with an intensity and purpose that brooked no delay, Shivraj Patil, with his appetite for dawdling, has ensured that when it is time to write the history of our times, he would cut a sorry and inadequate figure ranged against that first and ‘toughest' of stalwarts to have graced the office in free India- - the original ‘Iron Man'. Surely, not the pretender to that title who strutted the stage much later.

The ‘Sardar' went about consolidating India's territorial integrity with a zeal and purpose that found a match only in the ambivalence of his colleagues in the cabinet, a trait that present incumbent Manmohan Singh appears to share and celebrate as a routine, notwithstanding that "tryst with destiny" call. That destiny now appears to be in jeopardy, essentially because of personalities like Shivraj Patil, who, for worse rather than better, are not fashioned in the mould of Sardar Patel.

Home ministers need to have an ear to the ground, but for all purposes and, by all accounts, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil seems to have an ear to the ground only on real estate that houses 10 Janpath. For the likes of Patil, the annual hike by the hundreds to the Amarnath shrine -- which is at the root of the crisis now holding India's territorial integrity to ransom -- can take a hike as long as nothing comes in the way of their daily yatra to pay obeisance at 10 Janpath.

The uncharitable view is that Patil owes his ‘No. 2' standing in the Union Cabinet to 10 Janpath. This view says he owes this proximity to the fact that he was Speaker of the Lok Sabha- - and before that the deputy speaker and speaker of the Maharashtra Assembly -- and that the chairperson of the UPA, "unlettered" as she was in "matters of Lok Sabha", took a fancy to his grasp of all things Lok Sabha, and the "teacher" was anointed Union home minister! Stories like these abound, even as they confound. But if there were lessons to be learnt from this mode of ‘recruitment' of cabinet ministers, they are only now becoming apparent with Patil's "goof--ups" getting to be a habit with him, and his "ostrich-like attitude" stretching nerves on both sides of the Parliament divide, not to speak that of those who make up the ranks of the vocal hoi polloi. It's the nation that is suffering. And, let us not forget the bloodletting.

Shivraj Vishwanath Patil is a Lingayat who was born on October 12, 1935 in Latur district of Maharashtra, the same Latur which was rocked by a devastating earthquake of 6.3 on the Richter scale. It had left in debris scores of villages in the two districts of Latur and Osmanabad and over 7,500 dead.

Patil's foray into politics saw him become deputy speaker and speaker of the Maharashtra assembly although his performance in either of those positions was nothing as earth--shattering, or rocking, as the Latur quake. In 1980, he was elected to the Seventh Lok Sabha and by 1999 he had won seven successive Lok Sabha elections. Elected Speaker of the 11th Lok Sabha, he is largely known for introducing the Outstanding Parliamentarian Award, an honour that is unlikely to come his way considering that he failed to make it to the Lok Sabha in 2004 and especially not with the record he has had in his latest stint as a cabinet minister.

Patil, as home minister, has been accused of being "clueless", "inept", "inadequate in dealing with issues of internal security", "not alert" and unable to take "hard decisions". This singular lack of decisiveness is now glaringly on show in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), which has been on the boil for over two months now, even as Patil Nero-like fiddles. Apparently, Patil is game to let things lie and linger for as long as they could be safely allowed to lie and linger! This peculiarity came to the fore on more than one occasion when dealing with "issues of internal security". His dapper personality and the poker face with the gravelly voice is at odds with the glaring hollowness of his statements that have more than once turned reality on its head -- unbelievable statements, especially from a Union home minister.

Asked (by no less than the ‘Devil's Advocate') if Naxalism was not the single biggest threat to the country, Patil had said famously, "I don't think so." His reply was directly at odds with his own prime minister's assertion - that Naxalism posed the biggest threat to the nation. (What about other threats - - religious fundamentalism, VHP fanatics, organised corruption, the Mafiosi?) Patil rattled out figures to support his thesis that Naxalism had taken a beating in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, and that even if there was a problem in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, the "sum total is not different".

Patil would have made an excellent defence lawyer: "There are various ways at looking at the Naxal problem," he said. "If one said 10 states were affected, then it would mean 30 per cent of the country. If one went by 130 districts affected, it would mean 25 per cent affected. But if one took into account the number of police stations, it would only give a picture of 3 per cent."      

Ingenious! But cut to the core, the hollowness made the airwaves crackle. His solution to the issue was as simple as "asking the states to strengthen the police force and improving the police--population ratio". So, did the problem disappear with those steps taken, if at all they were? Well, the prime minister never disputed Patil's statement, and has since been on record that the nation's biggest problem is "energy shortage", which the 123 agreement would take care of.

So much so, both of them seem to have completely switched off their radar on J&K -- and let us not even remind them of inflation or farmer suicides. Ditto on bloody events and people's protests against SEZs etc, during their tenure: the murder and rape of Manorama in Manipur allegedly by Assam Rifles men, the killings and rape of Nandigram allegedly by CPM goons, the bomb blasts...

So, as Patil remains the least hands--on of all Union home ministers India has had -- even a master--at--waiting--it--out LK Advani (from whom Patil picked up the baton without a break in stride) leaving him stranded on the starting blocks -- he continues to be given a free hand in handling the internal affairs of this nation in turmoil. J&K is burning, with the ‘J' refusing to see eye to eye with the ‘K' and vice versa. Scores of lives have been lost in police firings, and separatists have taken to the streets and clamoured for "Azaadi", with Pakistani flags outnumbering the tri-colour in the Valley. Some ‘intellectuals' have even made calls to "let go Kashmir".

What has been Patil's response? He has graced several all--party meetings on the issue, during which -- if reports are to be believed -- his performance was thoroughly thrashed, and nothing more. The only conclusion that comes to mind is that the UPA is completely Under Patil's Allure, blind and deaf to the immense damage this dawdling and incompetent Union home minister has been doing, and continues to do, to India and her people, those in the Valley included.