What the VP Ansari controversy tells us about our political climate

The attack on former Vice-President Hamid Ansari, based on the comments of Nusrat Mirza, a…

The attack on former Vice-President Hamid Ansari, based on the comments of Nusrat Mirza, a Pakistani journalist, is a manifestation of India’s current political culture. A significant characteristic of this culture is to rush to attack without considering the veracity of information or the bona fides of the informant.

Besides, the traditions and norms of governance or the implications of the attack on the polity, or that it is founded on unsubstantiated charges are often ignored. Charges are also sometimes levelled to coincide with political events or to bolster or divert attention.

All sections of the political class have, in some measure, contributed to the making of the country’s political culture. The use of intemperate language is also an attribute of political culture. Aimed at capturing public attention, it is fanned by the mass media. In addition to the liberal use of innuendo and invective, the motives of political adversaries are liberally questioned. This is in sharp departure from past practice when only policies were attacked. A fine illustration of this norm was witnessed in 2014 when Rajnath Singh, then home minister, speaking at the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth anniversary, said that he personally had differences with some of Nehru’s policies but could never doubt his motives or intentions. Rajnath Singh also extensively praised Nehru’s contributions to the making of modern India, including in establishing its democratic foundations. Singh showed great grace and courage, qualities which are declining, if not extinct, in contemporary political culture.

The genesis of the present controversy involving former Vice President Hamid Ansari stems from a 50-minute-long video interview of Nusrat Mirza to Shakil Chaudhary that was uploaded on July 10. Mirza as a journalist evokes little respect either in Pakistan or among serious Pakistan watchers in India. The video shows that Mirza is out to prove himself as an expert on India and it is in this context that he states he visited India five times from 2005 to 2011. This included a visit in 2010 when Hamid Ansari was the Vice-President and when he attended a conference which discussed terrorism. He said that he visited 15 Indian states during his visits and learnt a great deal about India. During these visits, he says, he gave interviews to “10-20 TV channels”. The implication is that these were to Indian channels.

Mirza emphasised in the interview that his ability to understand India was because he was a Mughal and “we have ruled there” and “we understand India’s conditions and culture and we know its weaknesses”. And, the understanding he displays throughout the interview are standard Pakistani positions and prejudices. There are also gems such as that there are now 67 independence movements going on in India, or that India is out to take revenge for 800 years of Muslim rule, or that during Nehru’s time India studied how Spain ended Muslim rule so that it could undo the Partition.

During the interview, Mirza claimed that Khursheed Kasuri as Pakistan’s foreign minister got him a special visa which permitted him to visit seven Indian cities and on his return to Pakistan, he gave Kasuri information on his India trip. This was transmitted to the ISI. A Brigadier called him to seek more such “information”. It is not unusual in the world of diplomacy or espionage to seek impressions gathered by travellers, including media persons, about the countries they have visited. But such persons have to be insightful. Indeed, if the ISI really relies on information which conspiracy theorists like Mirza feed it, they should be given permanent visas for India! It is also for consideration if a trained ISI agent would ever voluntarily reveal his identity.

Should a man like Mirza become the basis to target a person who has spent his life in the service of the republic? That is a question the political class should ask itself as it should also ask if the time has not come to abandon the use of charges such as Prime Minister “chor hai”.

Political contestation should also never overlook the fundamentals of the structure of governance in India. It prescribes that the political executive take policy decisions and maintain an oversight over their implementation undertaken by civil servants who apply it to individual cases. With respect to visas for Pakistani nationals, the policy pursued by successive Indian governments for decades was based on the belief that the promotion of people-to-people contacts was in India’s interest. This was premised on the belief that visits to India would give Pakistanis a correct impression of India and would help abate misinformation and prejudice conveyed by the Pakistani officialdom and sections of the Pakistani media about India. Traditionally, it was Pakistan which was wary of giving visas to Indian nationals. Naturally, security checks as mandated were carried out before visas were given. Thus, neither then nor now could political leaders or constitutional authorities be held responsible for the grant of individual visas by diplomats unless there was clear evidence that they had ordered a specific visa application to be cleared.

It is time that the leaders of the political class confer with each other to return to a culture where its members could fiercely oppose each other but in doing so never doubted each other’s patriotism, integrity or motivations. Rajnath Singh’s 2014 address on Nehru is a guide for all.

The writer is a former diplomat