Flirting With Controversy

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Though Sonia Gandhi is kind with her support to him, there is no saying how or when he will embarrass the Congress with his ferocious words and rhetorics

Rashme Sehgal

Rashme Sehgal

Rashme Sehgal began her career as a poet-cum-short story writer in 1970s. She then shifted to journalism and worked with several leading newspapers including The Independent, The Telegraph and The Times of India

In response to an edit piece written by Minister of Law Ravi Shankar Prasad in the Indian Express titled `Before and after four years ‘(of the Modi government), the irrepressible Mani Shankar Aiyar fired off another piece which opened in his inimitable style. “If Ravi Shankar Prasad cannot hear the bells tolling all the way from Kairana to Bhandara, he must be tone deaf. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. Ravi Shankarji, It tolls for thee.” He then goes on with devastating precision to show that the BJP-led NDA has done nothing in the last four years but recycle all the policies of the earlier UPA government.

Aiyar writes: “There have been two truths evident since 2014. First, it was not the BJP that won that long ago Lok Sabha election; it was the Opposition that lost it. For, the UPA quietly and patiently stitched together in 2004 by Sonia Gandhi to bring down the Vajpayee “India Shining” government, and then carried forward for an entire decade, started unraveling in the latter days of UPA-II. By the time 2014 came around, there was virtually no UPA left. NarendraModi and his team moved into the political vacuum.”

Aiyar goes on to further declare that “Alwar, Ajmer, Gorakhpur, Phulpur, Bhandara and Kairana have all shown that the Opposition has only to hang together to stop being hanged separately. There is no Modi magic, no unbeatable oratorical charisma, and nothing in the record of the last four wasted years but lies, fibs and dodgy statistics.”

Nothing can stop the irrepressible Aiyar from firing one fusillade after another even if many of his remarks and statements invariably end up landing him in trouble and embarrassing the Congress.

Love in Pakistan

When the controversy over the Jinnah photograph hanging at the Aligarh Muslim University erupted last month, Aiyar’s comments on Jinnah only served to spark fresh outrage. Responding to the attack by BJP for expressing his admiration of Jinnah, Aiyar went on to clarify, “I referred to Jinnah as the Quaid e Azam (when he was visiting Lahore ) and the hysterical Indian TV anchors are demanding to know how an Indian can go to Pakistan and say this. I know many Pakistanis who called MK Gandhi as Mahatma Gandhi, does that make them unpatriotic Pakistanis?”

When asked about his frequent visits to Pakistan Aiyar cocked a snook at the Modi government and said he received “much more hatred in India” than the love showered on him by people in Pakistan. Aiyar, who was in Karachi to attend a literature festival when he made this statement claimed that he was appreciated in Pakistan because he spoke of peace.

“Thousands of people, whom I don’t know, hug me, wish me. I receive much more hatred in India than the love I receive in Pakistan. So I am happy to be here. They are clapping for me because I speak of peace,” Aiyar declared.

During the Gujarat elections last year, Aiyar set off a political storm when he referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “neech aadmi” with no “sabhyata”. The word “neech” in Hindi is often used to denote a lower caste person.

Rahul Gandhi asked Aiyar to apologise, which Aiyar did. But he did so in his own inimitable fashion stating that his own grasp of Hindi was poor. “Do I apologise about the word low? No. Do I apologise about the translation low-born? Absolutely,” he said.

It was during these very Gujarat elections that Modi had accused Aiyar of colluding with Pakistan to defeat the BJP in Gujarat. He was referring to a dinner meet Aiyar had organised for former Pakistan foreign minister and attended by former prime minister Manmohan Singh, former vice president Hamid Ansari along with others.The Congress responded with an angry riposte.

Smart Alec

Aiyar has always had a way with words, but in Indian politics, his smart-alec remarks have often landed him in trouble.He is often arrogant and pompous and does not hesitate to deride anyone who he feels is intellectually inferior to him.

In 2014, he had called Modi a chaiwallah, inadvertently providing a fillip to the BJP’s campaign about the United Progressive Alliance being elitist and looking down at those belonging to `lower castes’.

A Doon School and Cambridge alumnus, Mani Shankar Aiyar came to politics via diplomacy. A 1963 batch IFS officer, he became close to Rajiv Gandhi when he was prime minister and during his prime ministership emerged as one of his chief speech writers. Aiyar eventually quit the civil service to join politics full-time in 1989 where he went on to serve as minister for panchayati raj, minister of petroleum and natural gas, and minister of youth affairs and sports.

Despite his penchant for embarrassing the Congress party, he has managed to get away with it because Sonia Gandhi has always been indulgent towards him. But there is little doubt that his outspokenness has come at the cost of his political career.

Two stories about him sum up the man. The first is one of Aiyar’s favourite which he loves to recount. He had been invited to a party when he began running down Sonia Gandhi to the embarrassment of his hosts. He would have continued when he was cut short by a familiar voice from the next room which said, “Mani … I am here.”

Congress leader K. Natwar Singh’s also loves to recount an incident when he and Aiyar had visited their alma mater, St Stephen’s College together. Making an entry in the St Stephen’s visitors’ book, Singh wrote “I am what I am because of the college.”

To which Aiyar countered below with this line, “Why blame the college?”

Ravaging Amar

Interestingly, while on a tour of the Andamans as a cabinet minister in 2004, Aiyar was quoted as saying at the Cellular Jail that there was no difference between right wing Veer Savarkar and Mohammed Ali Jinnah as they both shared a `divisive’ policy.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah seems to have been rehabilitated in Aiyar’s mindscape given the kind of Muslim bashing taking place today. Aiyar recently declared that the Hindu Mahasabha leader was the first proponent of the two-nation the ory and he coined the word Hindutva to create division within the society. He also ordered the plaque with a poem commemorating Savarkar to be replaced with a plaque with quotes from Mahatma Gandhi.

But despite his jibes, Aiyar was a committed minister who worked hard to ensure power was devolved to the grassroots level, and as panchayati raj minister, he had helped oversee the setting up of 2.5 lakh institutions of local self-governance, which in turn saw 3.2 million representatives participating in this process.

Blasting Modi

That is why Aiyar was extremely upset when he learnt that the Modi government planned to close down the panchayati raj ministry functioning under the ministry of rural development.

Aiyar told this correspondent, “First and foremost, the present government sees the ministry of panchayati raj as being a Congress scheme and therefore want to devalue it for petty political reasons.

By doing so, they want to undermine the Centre’s role in a Constitutional amendment. If they were to close down or devalue the ministry, it would confirm one’s worst fears about this government’s hypocritical approach to grassroots democracy.

This 73rd Amendment, passed virtually unanimously by both Houses in December 1992, was a significant step taken to ensure that democracy blooms at the grassroots level. But a government focused on centralisation (of powers) will find it difficult to understand decentralisation. The Gujarat government under Modi took the very reactionary step of financially rewarding any panchayat that did not hold elections. According to Modi’s development model, the panchayats are to be brushed aside in order to grab the land and give it to the Adanis.”

Slamming Modi further he said, “The man is personally a hypocrite. He wants to personalise his government. He wants to make everyone feel that he is all that matters. He believes all credit must go to him and if there is a debit, it should go to the others. He does not want equal partners.

He is against the women of India. Downgrading this ministry is a very retrogressive step because panchayati raj is aimed at empowering women.

Similarly, he is against Dalits, forgetting that the only way to get rid of poverty is to empower poor people so they can run their own affairs. Modi wants to project himself and therefore does not allow people to project themselves. The number of people participating in panchayati raj is unprecedented. As against around 5,000 elected MPs and MLAs, there

are about 28 lakh rural and about 4 lakh urban representatives, with about 14 lakh rural and urban women who have been elected.

We have more elected women in India alone than in the rest of the world put together. Representation has also been given to SCs, STs and OBCs.”

But when asked about the non-performance and misuse of funds

by elected members of panchayats, Aiyar snapped, “Who ran the most expensive election campaign in 2014?

It was funded by large capitalist

houses who Modi has gone on to

assist. He had declared that he would abolish corruption. Panchayats have been made responsible to gram sabhas in order to reduce despotism and to end corruption.

“This de-democratisation of local self-government would be aggravated

if a Cabinet minister for panchayati

raj was not available to advocate this cause with chief ministers and others in the states. We had gone on to prepare

a five volume, 1,500 page report titled the ‘Expert Committee on Leveraging Panchayats for Efficient Delivery of Public Goods and Services,’ which was released in 2013. I doubt whether Modi is aware that this report exists. It’s bad enough that in the UPA government, the ministry of panchayati raj got devalued.

I was the only independent minister. Montek (Singh Ahluwalia) and P Chidambaram were not in favour of it remaining under an independent minister and I did not enjoy the full cooperation of then prime minister Manmohan Singh. Congress President Sonia Gandhi remained completely supportive of our initiatives. To place this huge engine of social change to a minister of state is a disgrace.’

Tackling Modi

When asked how the Congress planned to tackle the Modi juggernaut, Aiyar was confident. “Nothing in politics is permanent. If we succeed in re-organising our party and establish a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance), then the Modi era will come to an end in 2019 and I am confident this will come to pass.”

Envious Congressmen can’t forget how, almost four years ago, party vice president Rahul Gandhi showered praises on Mani Shankar Aiyar.

At the AICC session in the capital’s Talkatora Stadium in January 2014, Gandhi singled out Aiyar, hailing him for his work in Panchayati Raj, a cause Gandhi said was close to the heart of his father, Rajiv.

If the former MP from Tamil Nadu’s Mayiladuthurai had stuck to his brief, he could have averted the ignominy

of being rebuked by Gandhi and

get suspended from the party in June 2018.

But Aiyar seems to have an irresistible urge to flirt with controversy, often creating one himself. Within two years of the UPA coming to power in 2004, he found himself shunted to the comparatively lightweight sports and youth affairs ministry.

Aiyar maintained that he was a misfit in the sports ministry as he had little interest in games. He publicly opposed Delhi’s bids for the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the 2014 Asian Games. He argued that instead of pumping money in Delhi for the CWG, the funds should be spent for building sports facilities across India.

He lost the 2009 polls but controversies didn’t leave him. When Aiyar’s successor in the sports ministry Ajay Maken shot a letter to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to complain about his “obstructionist role” that cost CWG heavily, Aiyar hit back and said, “A BA from Hansraj College” can’t write words like ‘dichotomous’ as mentioned in the letter.

That is in essence the problem with Mani. If you can attack a senior Congress leader from Delhi in this fashion, there’s no saying what you will say about whom.

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