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Behind govt, BJP’s new attack on Ansari, an old tension

Hamid Ansari, who was a career diplomat, was picked for the Vice-President’s post by the UPA and is only the second person after Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan to have held the second highest constitutional post in independent India for two, successive, full terms.

Written by Manoj C G | New Delhi |
Updated: January 29, 2022 5:37:33 pm
Three years of Ansari's second tenure, which ended in 2017, were under the Modi government.

The External Affairs Ministry’s criticism of Hamid Ansari for his remarks expressing concern over “the rising trend of Hindu nationalism” in India was not surprising since the government and the former Vice-President shared an uneasy relationship even when the former was in office.

Ansari, who was a career diplomat, was picked for the Vice-President’s post by the UPA and is only the second person after Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan to have held the second highest constitutional post in independent India for two, successive, full terms. Three years of his second tenure, which ended in 2017, were under the Modi government.

Addressing a recent virtual panel discussion organised by the Indian American Muslim Council, along with four US lawmakers, Ansari said: “In recent years, we have experienced the emergence of trends and practices that dispute the well-established principle of civic nationalism and interpose a new and imaginary practice of cultural nationalism… It seeks to present an electoral majority in the guise of a religious majority… It wants to distinguish citizens on the basis of their faith.”

In its response, the MEA said the track record of the event organisers was as well-known as “the biases and political interests of the participants”. “The claim that others need to protect our Constitution is presumptuous and preposterous.”

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In his autobiography By Many a Happy Accident, released after his retirement, Ansari wrote about how disagreements between him and the Modi government began soon after it took over. He says that a demand was raised “by the government floor managers that a Bill may be allowed to be passed (despite) din in the Rajya Sabha”. “It was pointed out… that while there were instances in the past when Bills were indeed passed in the din, that happened with a necessary precondition that the government had a majority in the House… However, in the current case, the ruling NDA did not have a majority (in the Rajya Sabha),” Ansari wrote.

He added that while he had taken the same position when the UPA was in power, the Manmohan Singh government had taken cognizance of his “principled stand”. “The NDA, on the other hand, felt that its majority in the Lok Sabha gave it the ‘moral’ right to prevail over procedural impediments in the Rajya Sabha.”

In the last few years, the Opposition has often accused the government of rushing through Bills in the Rajya Sabha and passing legislation in the din. The controversial farm laws, for instance, were passed amidst a din in 2020. Eight MPs, who protested in the Well, were later suspended.

Ansari also wrote in the book about Modi dropping in at his Rajya Sabha office and telling him, “there are expectations of higher responsibilities (for) you but you are not helping me”. He said Modi also complained about Rajya Sabha TV coverage, and that he pointed out that he had no editorial control over it.

Things took an ugly turn when, in December 2017, campaigning for the Gujarat Assembly elections, Modi accused Pakistan of interfering in the polls and talked about former PM Manmohan Singh and Ansari being part of a “secret meeting” at Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s residence in which some Pakistani officials were present.

Following an uproar in Parliament, the government clarified in the Rajya Sabha: “Let me categorically state that the Prime Minister did not question nor did he mean to question the commitment to this nation of either Dr Manmohan Singh or Hamid Ansari.”

Ansari’s consistent remarks on secularism and insecurity among minorities appeared to also rattle the government. Just before his retirement, speaking at the annual convocation of the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru, Ansari expressed concern over “enhanced apprehensions of insecurity amongst segments of our citizen body, particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians”.

At a farewell speech for Ansari in the Rajya Sabha soon after, Modi, apparently striking back, said: “You were associated with West Asia for a major part of your career as a diplomat. You spent many years of your life in that circle… in that thought, its debate and amid such people. For a major part after your retirement, whether it was in the Minority Commission or Aligarh Muslim University, you remained in that circle. But for 10 years, you got a different responsibility. Every moment, you had to remain confined to the Constitution and you tried your best to fulfil that responsibility… It is possible that there was some restlessness within you as well, but from today you will not face that crisis… You now have the joy of being liberated, and the opportunity to work, think and speak according to your core beliefs.”

In a reaction to Ansari’s recent remarks, the BJP’s Shahnawaz Hussain hinted at the old rancour. Hussain said Ansari should not have agreed to join the online event organised by the Indian American Muslim Council “which is known for anti-India propaganda”. “Even as Vice-President, Ansari had stirred controversies for which people of the country have not forgiven him,” he said.

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