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Sushma Swaraj – Dignity personified

Sushma SWARAJ was one of the prized newer generation leaders of the BJP. She functioned as the chief minister of Delhi, later as Minister of Information & Broadcasting (I&B) and Parliamentary Affairs under the Vajpayee government and as Minister of External Affairs (MEA) in the Modi. She vested these portfolios with a high degree of dignity. Her eloquent speeches in the Parliament served as a model for many legislators, particularly women.

She contested the Lok Sabha election in 1999 against Sonia Gandhi at Bellary and lost. She picked up Kannada in quick time and addressed dozens of meetings in the local language and became a darling of Kannadigas. She could take credit in part for the ascent of the BJP in Karnataka. Both as Minister of I&B and MEA Swaraj did not make a mark. I recall the Expenditure Reforms Commission recommending a drastic pruning of the I&B ministry, but Swaraj sat over it. The MEA was run by Modi.

Swaraj provided the humane touch. Effectively utilising Twitter, she was responding quickly to distress calls. In 2014, 46 Keralite nurses were held in captivity of ISIS militants for 23 days. They were stranded in a hospital in Iraq when the civil war between the ISIS and the Iraqi army intensified. Swaraj’s diplomatic efforts led to their safe return to their homeland.

Swaraj (66), who suffered indifferent health, gracefully opted to move out of electoral politics. She had the satisfaction of applauding the Modi government for the passage of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill moments before she breathed her last.

Jaipal Reddy – a master of English

Jaipal Reddy was elected to the Lok Sabha for five terms, to the Rajya Sabha twice and served as MLA in Andhra Pradesh for four terms. He was known for his impeccable diction and mastery over English. Reddy served as the Union Minister of I&B, of Science & Technology and of Oil & Natural Gas. He was a spokesperson for different parties, moved from Congress to Janata Dal and returned to Congress and his last assignment was Minister of Oil & Natural Gas in the UPA. He had to quit on the issue of his resistance to increase the price of natural gas paid to Reliance.

In Reddy’s demise, a colourful Parliamentarian is lost. He found compromises inevitable in politics. After all, politics is an art of the possible.

In 1996 P Chidambaram was the Finance Minister in the I K Gujral ministry and Reddy the I&B Minister. I recall my comment on the huge increase in salaries and pensions that was triggered by the implementation of the Fifth Pay Commission’s recommendations in 1996.

The Commission headed by Justice Pandian, recognised the need for a more than three-fold increase in the salary structure of top echelons of civil service, but a modest increase for Class III and Class IV employees; the Commission also pointed to the bloated nature of civil service and suggested a 30 per cent reduction in staff strength over ten years and a drastic cut in the number of public holidays. The impact on the Centre was estimated around Rs 12,500 crore.

There was understandable opposition from the employees at the lower rung. A cabinet committee was constituted to look into the recommendations. It was dominated by those with leftist leanings and pro-labour elements led by then Home Minister, Indrajit Gupta (from the CPI) and comprised among others, Madhu Dhandavate, Ram Vilas Paswan, Jaipal Reddy and P Chidambaram. Of these, PC was the only one directly concerned with and worried over the financial implications.

The decision was not easy and there was dithering. I suggested at the Economic Editors’ Conference 1996 inaugurated by the finance minister P Chidambaram that he could have taken the stance to accept the recommendations of the Pandian Committee in toto.

Of course, It was not politically feasible. PC opted to move out of Delhi leaving the decision to his other politically stronger cabinet colleagues.
The next evening Jaipal Reddy, the minister of I&B, arrived late by an hour for a dinner he was hosting for economic editors at the Ashoka Hotel. He announced with glee that the cabinet committee had decided on the Fifth Pay Commission recommendations conceding even more the demands of Class III and Class IV employees.

There as a compelling reason for the cabinet to decide the issue with speed: I K Gujral was scheduled to leave in the next few days to address the UN; the government employees threatened a nationwide strike from a couple of days before his departure. The cost of Gujral’s trip and UN address was humongous, of around Rs 7000 crore: the final award cost the Central government alone around Rs 19,500 crore.

 

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