Indiscreet history, astute politics

One wonders why Defence Minister Rajnath Singh attempted to wade into the choppy waters of history that once claimed his illustrious predecessors — L K Advani and Jaswant Singh. His invented apology/explanation for V D Savarkar’s mercy petition was disingenuous (Savarkar, along with many others, proffered mercy petitions to the British when he was in jail.  Mr Singh said he did this in response to urgings from Gandhi. This is only partially accurate). A few days later, the defence minister spoke at a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) con­ference on women in India&rsq.....
One wonders why Defence Minister Rajnath Singh attempted to wade into the choppy waters of history that once claimed his illustrious predecessors — L K Advani and Jaswant Singh. His invented apology/explanation for V D Savarkar’s mercy petition was disingenuous (Savarkar, along with many others, proffered mercy petitions to the British when he was in jail.  Mr Singh said he did this in response to urgings from Gandhi. This is only partially accurate). A few days later, the defence minister spoke at a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) con­ference on women in India’s defence and freedom, and, recognising the role of Rani Lakshmibai and Madam Cama, he also said: “India’s former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi not only led the country for a number of years, she also did so during the time of war. And more recently, Pratibha Patil was president of India and the supreme commander of the Indian armed forces.” Again, unexceptionable. But BJP workers, in the midst of counter­ing Priyanka Gandhi’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh, are mildly irritated that the defence minister of India should have resurrected ghosts.

Are these aberrations? Mr Singh, an erstwhile teacher of physics, is better acquainted with politics than history. His indiscretions on the history front are often compensated by his astute politics. There can be no leader in the BJP who has been as much of a rock to the organisation or successive BJP leaders as Rajnath Singh. And sadly, he hasn’t got enough credit for this.

 
The temptation is to describe him, as Atal Bihari Vajpayee often was, as the right man in the wrong party. Mr Singh has often said the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) should not be construed as a move to give a religious bias to India’s citizenship laws — it was a response to the problems of the Hindus in the neighbourhood. This was to counter fears among the Muslims and other minorities that the next step would be to ship them off to some camp if they were unable to produce proof of citizenship. When his constituency Lucknow was in the throes of anti-CAA violence, he wrote to the chief minister, asking him to intervene.

The fact is the space for Mr Singh in Uttar Pradesh politics has shrunk after Yogi Adityanath appeared on the scene. Although Mr Singh has always reacted angrily at being described as a “Thakur” leader and strongly contests such a characterisation (he memorably lost his temper even with Mr Advani on the issue), the reality has to be acknowledged: There is no room at the top in the UP BJP any more for another Rajput. So Mr Singh has fallen back on graciously accepting Adityanath’s position. At a recent event at Maharajgunj, after paying handsome compliments to Adityanath as an administrator, he said in his youth he had seen the movie Ram aur Shyam (in which Dilip Kumar plays Ram, the timid and seemingly simple-minded son of a millionaire industrialist, as well as Shyam, a sturdy yeoman brawler with an appetite like that of Bheem). “In that the actor played a double role. But I’m seeing Yogi Adityanath in not just double, but multiple roles,” he said. The audience, a bit flummoxed initially at the parallel, responded heroically.

With the role of the venerable elder thrust on him in UP, Mr Singh has had to attune himself to the politics at the Centre. During Narendra Modi’s first term as prime minister, Mr Singh found himself at the Centre of political intrigue when rumours about his son Pankaj began swirling. His response was: “Main aisi rajneeti ko thhokar maarta hoon” (I detest this kind of politics), threatening to resign. The BJP had to issue a clarification. Later he was dropped from some important cabinet committees, only to be reinstated later. To that he did not respond at all.

As BJP chief, Mr Singh had to take some unpleasant decisions and propel some others. After the BJP’s 2009 defeat, when vice-president Yashwant Sinha resigned from all party posts, Mr Singh had to take the unprecedented step of issuing orders that those going public with complaints about the leadership would be dealt with sternly. As a BJP leader put it, it was a clash between “the coterie advising L K Advani and the rest of the party, with Rajnath Singh trying his best to retain some measure of authority”. When the Goa meeting of the party saw Mr Modi publicly throw his hat in the ring for the top job, it fell to Mr Singh to make the decision palatable to the party, especially Mr Advani, who attacked him in a public letter. Mr Singh responded as an Indian boy would to an irascible family elder, accepting Mr Advani’s criticism with head bowed.

As defence minister, he has left it to others to make political use of the surgical strikes. When the Indian Army and the PLA were ranged against each other on the Sino-Indian border, his statements were measured. “It is true that people of China are on the border. They claim that it is their territory. Our claim is that it is our area. There has been a disagreement over it. A sizeable number of Chinese people have also come (Aur acchi khasi sankhya mein Cheen ke log bhi aa gaye hain). India has done what it needs to do.” Few know that soon after, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi conveyed to Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar his gratitude for Mr Singh’s restraint. This was repeated to India’s ambassador in Beijing, Vikram Misri.

India might be lauded by the world for strategic restraint. But at home, Rajnath Singh epitomises it.


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