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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 49, November 26, 2011

Congress Party and the Irrepressible Mani Shankar Aiyar

Sunday 27 November 2011



Mani Shankar Aiyar is not new to controversies. Indeed, over the years, he has perfected the art of creating and courting controversies. It is really intriguing to note the absence of diplomacy or, for that matter, euphemism in his verbal attacks, notwith-standing the fact that the better part of his antecedence was occupied by diplomacy. How come a person who has been a career diplomat for about 26 years and who has been in politics for more than two decades be so undiplomatic and so ‘politically incorrect’ in his utterances?

Aiyar’s intemperate castigation of the Sangh Parivar and BJP is understandable, given his abhorrence of communalism which, according to him, the Right-wing organisations epitomise and propagate and which is fraught with the risk of jeopardising the unity and integrity of the country. But even while attacking the BJP and Sangh Parivar, he goes overboard, gives short shrift to any iota of proportion. In 2004, as a Cabinet Minister, his remark that there was no difference between Veer Savarkar, a Right-wing revolutionary, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah stirred a hornet’s nest. It led to the paralysis of Parliament and later the Prime Minister had to dissociate himself and his government from Aiyar’s view. However, the fact that secularism is an article of faith and communalism an anathema for him is more than obvious from the perusal of his book, Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist.

Earlier, at a party, he got involved while in a verbal and physical brawl with Amar Singh, then belonging to the Samajwadi Party. According to Amar Singh, Aiyar used the choicest abusive words to provoke him for the physical fight. This incident again caused enormous embarrass-ment for the Congress party. A la Aiyar, Digvijay Singh, the controversial General Secretary of the Congress party, has also developed a peculiar knack of dropping bomb-shells while attacking his political opponents He has repeatedly charged the Sangh Parivar of being the new face of terror in the country; to some extent, this charge has since been corroborated and vindicated by the investigative agencies. However, his allegation against Arvind Kejriwal, that the latter’s NGO had collected lakhs of rupees through dubious sources, has found few takers.

However, unlike Digvijay Singh, Aiyar’s acerbic tongue is akin to a double-edged sword; it can cut both the opponents and friends alike. Again, among many leaders within the Congress party, who would criticise one another within the privacy of living rooms and even surreptitiously pull the ground from under the feet of their party colleagues but would not dare to go public lest the High Command take umbrage to their public outbursts, Aiyar stands out. He goes the whole hog and gives free and public vent to his views, feelings, angst, desires, ambitions and frustrations, joining issues with his party colleagues, not even sparing Prime Ministers and Ministers belonging to his own party. Thus he had no compunction in holding the deceased P.V. Narashima Rao responsible for the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 when the latter was the Prime Minister. Of course, many people do accuse Rao of having relied too much on the UP Government headed by Kalyan Singh of the BJP, and of laxity in decision-making when the Babri Masjid was being razed to the ground. It is somewhat strange because the same Prime Minister has been lionised by a large section of the media, political class and India Inc for having taken a momentous decision to usher in far-reaching economic reforms in the country.

So, what does one make of Aiyar’s unsubstantiated charge against the late Prime Minister? There could be two interpretations for his open allegation against Rao. One, it could have the tacit support of the top leadership in the Congress party. After the destruction of the 16th century mosque by a group of frenzied Hindu fanatics, the minorities, particularly the Muslims, had deserted the Congress party in droves. So, blaming Rao for the demolition of the Babri Masjid must have been a part of the strategy of the Congress leadership to find an easy scapegoat so as to retrieve the lost ground among the minorities, in whose perception the Congress could not escape its share of blame for the tragedy at Ayodhya. It could also be an expression of Aiyar’s frustration because he was not accommodated in Narashimha Rao’s Cabinet notwithstanding his victory from the Mayiladutharai constituency in the 1991 general elections and, no less importantly, his proximity to the late Rajiv Gandhi.

IN the recent past, Aiyar has become more indiscreet in his remarks, sounding more like a member of the Opposition party than as member of the Congress party on whose ticket he won the 1991, 1999 and 2004 parliamentary elections. Indeed, he has even been nominated to the Rajya Sabha after his loss in the 2009 parliamentary elections. Maybe he is not satisfied with his rehabilitation. Otherwise, how could he have criticised the incumbent Prime Minister on the Baba Ramdev episode given the fact that he was accorded the privilege of being a Cabinet Minister for the first time in UPA I under the present Prime Minister? Of course, the government was widely criticised for using the police force to disperse the crowd at the Ramlila Ground in New Delhi, who had gathered there at the exhortation of the popular ‘yoga guru’, Baba Ramdev who himself had to flee the ground in the garb of a female attire to escape the ‘lathi’ charge of the police. However, the cowardly escape on the part of Baba Ramdev from the Ramlila Ground shifted the spotlight from the government’s high-handedness to Baba Ramdev. The death of a woman in a hospital in Gurgaon who had been seriously injured at that Ground will only put the government on the backfoot.

On every issue in recent times, where the government has been cornered by the Opposition, Aiyar has not missed any opportunity to see that the government is driven to the wall. Rather than defend the Congress-led government besieged by various scams and the pulls and pressures of its alliance partners, Aiyar has confounded the problems of the beleaguered UPA Government at the Centre. In particular, on the organisation of the Commonwealth Games, Aiyar’s criticism has been exceedingly harsh and trenchant, raising questions on the propriety of organising it and pointing to the shoddy arrangements and rampant corruption. By the same token, rather than commiserate with the predicament of the government in the Anna Hazare agitation, he disparagingly commented on the initial crisis-managers in the government, who first arrested Anna and then released him in a huff. No wonder, Ayiar, given his penchant for ‘politically incorrect’ statements, has been featured, alongside the veteran journalist, Swapan Dasgupta, in a NDTV talk show, appropriately captioned, “Politically Incorrect”. The talk show is currently being shown at 9.30 pm.

But Ayiar’s recent war of words with the incumbent Sports Minister, Ajay Maken, crosses all bounds of political decency and smacks of the worst kind of megalomania and snobbery on the part of this pedantic diplomat-turned-politician. Aiyar has openly cast aspersions on Maken’s ability to use words like “dichotomous” which, according to Aiyar, “a BA (Pass) graduate from Hansraj College” could not know. Of course, the provocation for Aiyar’s invective came from a letter written by Maken to the Prime Minister in which he had blamed Aiyar for playing an “obstructionist” role in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games that led to cost and time overruns. True, Aiyar’s concern with regard to the corruption in the organisation of the Games did have a lot of validity. But beyond that, his statement was not only demeaning for the past and present students of Hans Raj College, for which the students of Hans Raj rightly accosted him, and the management of St. Stephens, his alma mater, disapproved, it also reflected an erroneous understanding of the dynamics of life on the part of this distinguished Stephenian. Nobody can deny that in the pecking order, St. Stephen’s is at a higher pedestal than Hans Raj. This is because students seeking admission in St. Stephen’s have a better grade and are generally from an elite school back-ground when compared to students seeking admission in other colleges of Delhi University.

Surely, Aiyar ought to know that admission in the so-called elite institutions is no guarantee for future success in life just as admission in the so-called ‘inferior institutions’ is no recipe for future failure in life. There are umpteen examples to prove this point. If only Aiyar were to introspect and juxtapose his position with that of Maken, he would realise that while he is sulking in the Rajya Sabha, Maken is in charge of the Sports Ministry. Indeed, there are other notable cases of supercilious alumni of St. Stephen’s in politics who have been shunted or cut down to size because of their egregious utterances and conduct. Shashi Tharoor, another distinguished Stephenian, had to be admonished for his stay in a five-star hotel after winning the parliamentary elections and for his rather churlish comment for the people travelling in economy class, describing them as members of the “cattle class”. Ultimately, of course, he had to pay the price of ministerial power for his business foray into the IPL (Indian Premier League). Another illustrious and articulate Stephenian, Kapil Sibal is still sulking after he found to his chagrin and dismay that a 74-old, seventh-pass Gandhian, Anna Hazare, could easily deflate his ego.

The larger question still remains: how is Aiyar able to get away with his critical comments against his party colleagues and some of the policies of the government without being asked to keep mum, let alone inviting punitive action for flouting party discipline? Is there an exception being made in the case of Aiyar, given his past proximity to the Gandhi family, particularly to the late Rajiv Gandhi for whom he wrote speeches and even advised him on crucial policy issues? Or is it a whiff of new glasnost in the grand old party? Or, does it reflect a new disarray, which afflicted the party during Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s absence and Rahul Gandhi’s inability or unwillingness to take charge of the situation? It remains to be seen how the Congress deals with the new crisis, with the needle of suspicion pointing to Chidambaram in the 2G scam and a hint of rivalry and infighting between Chidambaram and the veteran crisis manager of the party, Pranab Mukherjee.

Dr Sanjay Mishra is a Reader, Department of Political Science, MMH College (under the CCS University, Ghaziabad. He can be contacted at

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