Laloo Prasad Yadav’s trip to Pakistan was a rare moment when the United States of America’s mass media went up in the estimation of this columnist. His antics across the border brought back memories of Jesse Ventura, the six-feet four-inches, 120 kg wrestler, who was governor of Minnesota until a few months ago. Ventura, who is known by the nickname “The Body”, issued press passes with the label “Official Jackal” to reporters covering his office.
Comparing reporters to jackals, Ventura’s staff told media outlets in his state three years ago that their reporters would have to display those badges if they wanted to cover the governor. This part of the story is intended only to show that Ventura is an American version of the man who is still the de facto chief minister of Bihar.
Laloo’s trip to Pakistan brought back memories of Ventura because the Minnesota governor too made a similar visit just across America’s borders during his last year in office. American citizens are barred from visiting Cuba, but Ventura went to Havana with a big delegation from his state.
In Cuba, he met Fidel Castro. The reception which the mercurial Minnesota governor received in Havana was very much like what Laloo got in Pakistan this month. But unlike the coverage which Laloo’s visit was given in the Indian media, American newspapers and television networks treated Ventura’s presence on the Marxist island with a sense of perspective. They did not go overboard, although it was a story that was colourful enough.
Earlier, in May last year, former president, Jimmy Carter, visited Cuba and called for lifting the 40-year US embargo on the Caribbean island. Carter was the most high profile American to go to Cuba since Castro came to power in 1959 and Washington declared the island as its enemy. Before Carter, the last US president — serving or retired — to go to Cuba was Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
Carter’s visit was treated as news in the US media, but once again it had perspective. Reports about Carter’s demand to end sanctions were balanced by equal space for state policy, often carrying a quote from a state department or a White House official. Coverage was not anywhere as overboard as the prominence given to Laloo in India’s media.
The US is not under any threat from Cuba, unlike the way India is threatened by Pakistan. Not a day passes without Indian blood being shed because of Pakistan — either in a terrorist act or in cross-border firing or in a communal incident which has some link across the border. India cannot afford to be even fractionally more liberal than what the Americans are in dealing with those whom they perceive as their enemies.
When Laloo crosses the border back into India and pronounces that General Pervez Musharraf is someone he can trust, there will be millions of Biharis and a few others who will take him at his word. Regrettably so. In the states bordering Pakistan, too, there will be some people who will be swayed by Laloo’s arguments. India has a porous border with Pakistan. What is more, in some parts of the border as in Rajasthan, the Pakistanis have created networks of informants which are a major threat to India’s security.
Military intelligence accounts tell of instances where unscheduled military movements around Pokhran, for example, are communicated to Rawalpindi even before the military headquarters in New Delhi hears of them. Such border states can do without a Laloo who can exert even peripheral influence in those areas on issues related to Pakistan.
In recent years, after decades of having very little contact with the other side of the border, new generations of Indians in these states have accepted the reality that Pakistan is different from India. Those born in these states before independence and others who have crossed over from the other side tried to perpetuate the myth that India and Pakistan are one nation. But after three wars, unceasing cross-border terrorism hitting Coimbatore to Mumbai to Srinagar and a limited conflict in Kargil, the views of a new generation of Indians are rooted in the belief that India and Pakistan are not one and the same.
Logic and common sense support the view that India and Pakistan do not make one nation. It is very simple: if Indians and Pakistanis are the same, why is it that there are two countries — actually three — in what was British India'
So when some journalists and rootless politicians, who came to India as refugees during Partition and continue to be nostalgic about Government College in Lahore, carry candles to the Wagah border year after year, they can be tolerated — and suitably dismissed for their irrelevance.
They cause no real harm, although it must be said that at the time they started their circus at the Wagah border, they did get coverage in the Indian media that was disproportionate and similar to what Laloo got in the Indian print and visual media when he was in Pakistan. But unlike the Wagah peaceniks, Laloo is capable of harm. The likes of Laloo who make common cause with Pakistanis have either not noticed or deliberately chosen to ignore some significant developments in Calcutta and Thiruvananthapuram.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee handled the home portfoilo for four years before becoming West Bengal’s chief minister in November 2000. Bhattacharjee and Kerala’s A.K. Antony are now staunch proponents of steps aimed at defending India against the threat of low intensity destabilization from abroad.
So much so that the commitment of these two men to the security and territorial integrity of India sometimes comes into conflict with the narrow, short-sighted vote bank politics of their respective parties. Why, even the late Indrajit Gupta was a changed man after serving, albeit briefly, as Union home minister, during which time he was exposed to the true nature of India under siege.
Why is it that the truths which have influenced Bhattacharjee and Antony and the late Gupta have passed Laloo by' One explanation is that Bihar’s Yadav chieftain does not want to see beyond his nose. A more charitable explanation is that the agencies through which classified information about terrorism and other threats are often communicated to leaders, including chief ministers and home ministers, would not care to tell someone like Laloo anything. This is very much in the realm of the possible. After all, when Mulayam Singh Yadav became defence minister in H. D. Deve Gowda’s government, K.A. Nambiar, then defence secretary, fled from his job in 24 hours. He pleaded with M. Karunanidhi, who was part of the Gowda-led coalition and then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, to take him back into the state’s service. After Karunanidhi obliged and Nambiar was overnight made Tamil Nadu chief secretary, it took quite an effort for the Centre to find any officer who was willing to be defence secretary under Mulayam Singh.
For that matter, intelligence agencies never told I.K. Gujral the whole truth when he was prime minister. Instead, they worked with like minds to ensure that the so-called Gujral doctrine came to nought. Any number of officials in India’s intelligence community have told this columnist in recent years that if Sonia Gandhi ever became prime minister, they would hesitate to tell her “everything”, since they consider her to be a foreigner.
If the Supreme Court had not overturned the ruling of the special court in Ranchi, which is hearing the fodder scandal cases, and released Laloo’s passport, he would not have gone to Pakistan. James Traficant, a congressman from Ohio who was expelled from the US house of representatives for corruption last year, is often compared to Laloo by Indian Americans. He is now in jail. It is difficult to imagine any US court allowing Traficant to travel for a people-to-people meeting in Cuba or Libya.
India’s independent judiciary is a blessing, but the US experience after September 11 is that judicial decisions are not taken in a vacuum. American judges have ruled in recent months that the accused in terrorism cases or their lawyers cannot have access to classified documents on the basis of which they have been charged. In some cases, they have even ruled that the accused have no right to know details of what the charges against them are.
The Americans lost just about 3,000 of their nationals in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But there is a national consensus in the US which cuts across political parties, the judiciary, the media et al that another attack on American soil like the one on September 11 must be prevented, even if the preventive steps mean more enemies for the Americans abroad. Nothing is to stand in the way of achieving this national consensus — not civil liberties, not political correctness, not even democracy if it comes to that.
India has lost more than 50,000 of its citizens since terrorism became a national challenge. Unlike the US, India does not seem to have an agenda to deal with. If there were a national consensus on this problem as in America, Laloo would not have found himself performing on Pakistani streets recently. It may be cold comfort to supporters of Laloo that some other Indian politicians who travelled to Pakistan for the meeting sponsored by the South Asian Free Media Association, did not do any better. Ram Vilas Paswan, for instance, told a Pakistani TV channel that many of the terrorists operating in Jammu and Kashmir were local people and not foreigners. For the Pakistani establishment, that one statement alone from someone who was until recently a Central minister would have made the SAFMA conference worthwhile.
Which raises a more fundamental question about the advisability of people-to-people contacts with Pakistan. Indians should not forget that the Soviet Union was a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious society like India. The Helsinki accord, which allowed the West to develop people-to-people contacts with the Soviets, was effectively used to dismember the Soviet Union.