COST OF AN INDIAN LIFE $500

Geopolitical notes from India

M D Nalapat

Friday, June 18, 2010 – Prime Minister Rajiv Ratna Birjees Gandhi’s political future was permanently darkened by the 1987 revelations about illegal payments made for purchase of Bofors guns. At the time, there were suggestions that the media frenzy in India was being fuelled by leaks from a competitor of Bofors that had lost the gun contract. Whatever the source, the information about illegal payments was so detailed that Rajiv Gandhi spent his last two years in office firefighting, his effectiveness eroded despite an overwhelming majority in Parliament. The Bofors wave resulted in the Congress Party’s defeat in the 1989 Lok Sabha (Lower House) elections,resulting in the formation of a government headed by Rajiv’s former Defense Minister V P Singh, whose main campaign slogan was that he would bring the guilty to book within a year.

Of course, nothing of the kind happened. As soon as V P Singh began to occupy the Prime Minister’s spacious office in South Block, his enthusiasm for Bofors died, perhaps because quite a few of his allies were also implicated in the scandal. Instead of seeking to clean up the administrative machinery of the Government of India (where people turn from paupers to billionaires in a year’s time), V P Singh decided to let loose caste fury across the country, by pushing for a higher reservationfor “Backward Castes” in government jobs. This group ranks just above Dalits in the traditional Hindu hierarchy (which incidentally is largely followed by Christians and Muslims as well, who are each divided into “high”, “middle” and “low” castes, although not on paper. The resultant uproar led to his resignation and replacement by political rival Chandra Shekhar, who in his turn was quickly overthrown by Rajiv Gandhi, who sensed that his party could return to power in the elections. The Congress Party did get close to a majority in 1992,but this was due to the sympathy wave that followed the assassination of the young leader by the LTTE, in revenge for his having sent an Indian military force to Sri Lanka four years earlier.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s passing, it was his “apolitical” widow Sonia Gandhi who emerged as the heir to the Nehru family’s controlling stake in the Congress Party. The novelist Aubrey Menen (an uncle of this columnist) once said that in Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party, “there were only clerks or peons”, no matter how glorified the titles of the numerous flunkeys. All, whether Cabinet Ministers or state chief ministers, had to follow the orders of the Family, with the “peons” simply conveying orders and the “clerks” given the right to sign on orders already written out for them. Within two years of the first non-Nehru Family PM in the history of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi began to cut away at P V Narasimha Rao’s support base, weakening him enough by having her followers level charges against him to ensure a Congress defeat in the 1996 polls. Although non-Congress PMs took office after that, each of them was very deferential towards Sonia Gandhi, going out of their way to help her. Indeed, when the BJP Culture Minister (M M Joshi) sought to remove Nehru family loyalists from the many (well-endowed by state funds) trusts and foundations, he was himself stripped of this portfolio by then Prime Minister A B Vajpayee, whose “adopted” daughter and son-in-law were close friends of the Nehrus.

Today, India is seeing a coming together of the Establishment that has ensured security for VVIPs no matter what party comes to power. Both the BJP Leader of the Lower House and the BJP Leader of the Upper House have cordial personal links with their Congress counterparts, which is probably why the BJP has been ineffective in channelling to its advantage the swelling public anger at revelations that Congress-led governments valued the life of an Indian citizen at only $500,that too paid to the families of the Union Carbide Bhopal gas victims after an average wait of 17 years. More than 15,000 people died because of the refusal of the US headquarters of Union Carbide to approve new systems that would reduce the risk of contamination. However, despite a clear paper trail, the then Union Government headed by Rajiv Gandhi allowed the company to go scot-free, even ordering the Madhya Pradesh chief minister to release Carbide chied Warren Anderson. Friends of Arjun Singh (who is today being sought to be made the scapegoat for the decision to allow the US company to escape penal consequences) confirm that a direct order came from the Rajiv Gandhi government to free Warren Anderson and not push for compensation. Later, the Indian Supreme Court fixed a value of just $470 million on the thousands of lives lost and hundreds of thousands maimed, while the Government of India prevented the victims from directly approaching US courts for fair compensation.

One reason why the so-called “opposition” party (BJP) may be pulling its punches on the Union Carbide controversy is the fact that some of its top leaders are on record as having argued for the company and its successor, as indeed have some Cabinet ministers in the present Manmohan Singh government. While he was Prime Minister, A B Vajpayee gave up efforts to bring Carbide chief Warren Anderson back to India to face trial. Interestingly, the Barack Obama administration has adopted a very different attitude towards Bhopal than it has over the BP oil spill, where far fewer lives have been lost. Clearly, they agree with a company spokesperson, who said in 2002 that $500 was fair compensation for the loss of an Indian life. While Obama is asking BP for $20 billion, his team has made it clear that the US liability for the world’s worst-ever industrial disaster is now zero. It is the Indian taxpayer who will have to pay, as per the judgement of the Supreme Court of India on compensation.

While the “ruling” and “opposition” parties scratch each other’s back (on business deals), there is growing public fury about the facts that are now beginning to tumble out about the way in which more than a million citizens were deliberately betrayed by their own governments over 26 years. It was only a few weeks ago, when a court issued a bailable sentence of two years for the Indians found guilty of negligence at Bhopal. US citizens, of course, have escaped, although they are the ones who refused to sanction funds to the Bhopal plant for systems that could have prevented a disaster that was beveling predicted by local journalists for two years before the Bhopal plant began spewing poison fumes in 1984.

Even though the Indian media have followed their usual line of being very protective of the Nehru family, yet enough bits and pieces are coming out that affect the credibility of the Congress Party and the family that runs the organisation. Who asked Rajiv Gandhi to spare the US nationals involved? Why was there no effort to get better compensation? Why were laws made that favoured not the victims but Union Carbide? Friends of the Desgnated Scapegoat, former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Arjun Singh say that – as in Bofors — the facts will keep tumbling out. Despite the strange reluctance of the BJP to talk advantage of the scandal, it seems to be building a momentum as deadly in its affects as Bofors was to Rajiv Gandhi. Finally, the dead of Bhopal may be getting some form of justice, something that has been denied to them all this while.

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