Tragi-comedy

Print edition : November 29, 1997

The basic political truth is that in a situation where the polity is divided three ways and no one has (or is likely to have in the near future) a real mandate to rule India, the party that used to be top dog in national politics finds life outside government difficult to bear. So it constantly looks to seize the main chance. However, the main chance - for the second time within nine months - has turned out to be a mirage.

The Congress(I) seems to have learnt no lesson at all from its experience of targeting, and bringing about the collapse of, the first United Front Ministry - for no sensible reason. On the incompetent (and long-expected) findings of the Jain Commission about the circumstances that were responsible for the horrendous assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by an LTTE squad at Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991, the Congress(I), and its many leaders and factions, have worked themselves into a great mental haze.

Their loyalty to Rajiv Gandhi's memory would be touching were it not mixed in with so much inconsistency, unfairness and self-serving ambition. Early on during the makings of this crisis, the party seemed to be on a high, convinced that this was its main chance for the conceivable future and specifically that the assassinated leader's widow, the reluctant Sonia Gandhi, would turn out to be a deus ex machina. The game plan was always vague and ill-formed. Right now, the party seems to be afflicted with a failure of nerve over the game plan.

Sonia Gandhi in whose hushed name the Arjun Singhs, the Jitendra Prasadas, the Vijayabhaskara Reddys, the Karunakarans et al recklessly raised the stakes, compelling a supine Sitaram Kesri to mime a declaration of war against the United Front Government, is apparently unwilling to step out and take the enormous political risk that the game plan calls for. Meanwhile, there is every indication that public opinion in Tamil Nadu and round the country refuses to swallow the Jain Commission's interim findings; instead it seems overwhelmingly to blame the Congress(I) for provoking the crisis.

To judge by its conduct in Parliament and the desperate feelers its many leaders have sent out for a face-saving way out, the Congress(I) appears to have developed a great fear of a free-for-all parliamentary discussion on the Jain Commission report. It is clear then that what the party, in a delusional haze, thought was its brahmastra has boomeranged (as DMK chief and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi points out in a hard-hitting interview that forms part of this cover feature).

After initial vacillations and despite certain divisions, the United Front has handled the blackmail from the party by whose leave it stays in government with sobriety and dignity. Rejecting the demand for the expulsion of the DMK from the coalition government (on account of what the LTTE did between 1981 and May 21, 1991, a decade during which the DMK was in power for a mere two years), defending V.P. Singh's conduct as Prime Minister (vis-a-vis Rajiv Gandhi's security) and holding the blackmailer accountable for the consequences is the only honourable way. With the Bharatiya Janata Party watching gleefully from the sidelines, the stage is set for elections early in the new year.

Under the circumstances, the best course open to the Gujral Government was to pre-empt the Congress(I)'s formal withdrawal of support by recommending dissolution of the Lok Sabha to the President, who would have certainly acted on that advice as the Constitution would seem to require. The next best option is ensuring a full discussion of the report in Parliament before bowing out in a vote of no confidence.

The 17 volumes of the Jain Commission's Interim Report provide much background material of use and interest to students of India's honourably motivated but schizoid and benighted encounter with Sri Lanka's ethnic crisis. The schizoid character of national policy, which took shape under the Indira Gandhi government and was inherited and developed by the Rajiv Gandhi administration, lay in this. On the one hand, the policy promoted a moderate and just negotiated political solution offering substantial autonomy for the Sri Lankan Tamils within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. On the other hand, the policy provided sanctuary to, armed, trained and funded the Sri Lankan miltant groups - and especially the LTTE. This was done under the impression that the militant activities would be able to put pressure on the negotiating process and could be controlled by the Government of India to achieve the first objective - with active help from the AIADMK State government headed by M.G. Ramachandran, who was known to be close to the LTTE supremo, V. Prabakaran.

The Jain Commission took it upon itself to document and analyse India's post-1981 Sri Lanka policy in its entirety. The material it offers is all about the profound contradiction within the policy, which ended tragically for all the moderate and democratic elements involved. But in the face of all the evidence, it is necessary for Jain's agenda to assert that "there was no dual policy of the Central Government," that the policy was "consistent" and perfectly sound, that the training given to the various militant groups on Indian soil was "essentially for self defence and not for launching military operations," and that neither the Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi Central governments nor the MGR State government can in any way be held responsible for the environment, circumstances and events that led to the Sriperumbudur tragedy. Jain's selectivity, contempt for evidence and logic, and approach to causation are breathtaking.

But what is outrageous is the slur recorded on the entire Tamil population in the concluding section of Volume VII (p. 925): "The assassination of Shri Rajiv Gandhi would not have been possible the way it has materialised without the deep nexus of LTTE operatives with the Tamils in Tamil Nadu and tacit support from the State authorities and the law enforcement agencies" (emphasis added). No amount of explaining away by AIADMK leader J. Jayalalitha or the Congress(I), which has claimed in Tamil Nadu that Jain recorded no such observation, will reduce the value of this political campaign gift to the DMK.

Jain's basic thesis is that any support to the LTTE and other militant groups from 1981 to October 1987 was all right since what was supported was not "anti-national"; but any softness or support to the LTTE after it began fighting the Indian Army in Sri Lanka amounted to aiding and abetting "anti-national" activities that culminated in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. In pursuing his agenda within this framework, he contradicts himself many times over; glosses over what MGR did before and after the hostilities broke out; glosses over Rajiv Gandhi's very soft and compromising dealings with the LTTE in the post-October 1987 period and especially in early 1991; and makes a mess of his pseudo-judicial report.

The Jain Commission also took it upon itself to do what it had no business to do, namely traverse the ground covered by the Verma Commission relating to Rajiv Gandhi's security and why it was breached at Sriperumbudur. As the U.F. Government's Memorandum of Action Taken points out, the Jain Commission "has arrived at conclusions in Part II of the Interim Report regarding the adequacy or otherwise of the assessment of threat to late Shri Rajiv Gandhi and of the security provided to him and the issue of withdrawal of SPG protection."

Karunanidhi on the actual policy towards the LTTE and ground realities in Tamil Nadu between 1981 and May 21, 1991, and V.P. Singh on Rajiv Gandhi's security post-November 1989 have offered material facts and arguments that demolish Jain's interim findings and seem unanswerable.

But there was never any doubt about the character and purpose of the Jain Commission exercise. It was a witch hunt with the targets determined six years ago - the DMK and V.P. Singh. It is part of the definition of a witch hunt that it cannot be supported by evidence that will stand up to any rational evaluation, let alone a proper investigation and trial before a court of law.

It is a cruel joke on the people of India that at a time when, after enormous good work by the police investigators and prosecutors, the judge in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case has reached the stage of delivering judgment, wild accusations along totally contrary lines and ever wilder hints of conspiracy are allowed to be fielded by the system. The indications are that the Jain Commission, if and when it serves up its conspiracy findings and theories, will run the Thakkar Commission - which came up with preposterous and monstrously unjust conclusions regarding R.K. Dhawan's culpability in the Indira Gandhi assassination case - close.

Meanwhile, the people of India will have to pay the political, economic and moral costs of such irresponsible exercises.

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