What made Nirmala so angry?

What made Nirmala so angry?

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s outburst at an official meeting to review the military’s rescue and relief operations in rain-ravaged Kodagu was undoubtedly in poor taste, but what caused her to explode in full public view?

Kodagu has contributed several of her valiant sons to the armed forces, including the first Indian Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal K M Cariappa and General K S Thimayya, and when the ex-servicemen of the district sought a meeting with the defence minister, it was readily granted. While it was assumed that the veterans would seek redress of some of their grievances, in the course of the meeting, Air Vice Marshal (Retd) K C Cariappa sought the implementation of the Kasturirangan report on Western Ghats, which touched many raw nerves. From then on, here’s how things went downhill:

When the K-word is uttered, former Speaker and BJP MLA from Virajpet, K G Bopaiah flares up, questioning the correctness of raising the issue when the immediate task is to provide succour to the victims. The Kasturirangan report is a very sensitive issue, with environmentalists demanding its implementation and elected representatives strongly opposing it on the grounds that it would adversely impact the livelihood of people in the Ghats. A visibly upset Bopaiah and his colleague Madikeri MLA Ranjan Appachu demand an immediate end to the meeting.

When Mysuru-Kodagu MP Pratap Simha tries to salvage the situation, the defence minister reprimands him, “Should I not spend time with these people (ex-servicemen).” While a castigated Simha withdraws, BJP MLAs seek district in-charge minister Sa Ra Mahesh’s intervention and even threaten to boycott the subsequent review meeting.

Mahesh approaches Sitharaman and politely requests her to move on to the next meeting. “The affected people and officers have been waiting for you for long. Please meet them for five minutes. You can then spend as much time as you want with the ex-servicemen.” With a cryptic “ok,” Sitharaman walks out. In the next few minutes, Mahesh would be the fall guy.

The defence minister is also rushed through the public interaction, and by the time she attends the review meeting, she is thoroughly irritated. When Mahesh requests her to end the meeting fast, she rebukes him, “Central minister follows the district minister here. Unbelievable!”  Sitharaman is unfazed when informed about the presence of media cameras and rudely remarks, “Let it get recorded,” before continuing her diatribe. To his credit, Mahesh refuses to join issue with Sitharaman and meekly submits, “Let Madam do as she pleases,” only to receive another tongue-lashing. By now, everybody present has lost interest and the meeting soon ends.

In his defence, Mahesh who has been camping in the district for a week leading the charge from the front, says he was trying to speed up the meetings as officers had to rush to the field for emergency rescue and relief work. “Considering the criticality of the situation, I requested the minister to hold the review first and then meet with BJP leaders and others, but she got angry with me,” he adds. Sitharaman, on her part, insists that she strictly adhered to the minute-to-minute schedule prepared by the district administration.

The episode would not end here, with Mahesh, who had maintained a dignified silence at the meeting, deciding to release his bottled-up feelings before the media. Sitharaman, being a Rajya Sabha member, did not understand the pain of the common man as she had never contested a direct election, he said, besides making some personal remarks against her.

Sitharaman was quick in her rebuttal, hitting out at Mahesh for his personal remarks which were in “bad taste” and accusing him of “utter lack of regard and knowledge of Indian polity”, besides lowering the dignity of the Rajya Sabha.

Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy, showing political maturity, has publicly expressed regret to the defence minister for the “inconvenience” caused to her during the Kodagu visit. “I believe this is the time for all of us to forget small differences and forgive each other and join hands for the rehabilitation of the flood-affected people in Kodagu,” he said in a letter to Sitharaman.

However, the defence minister has so far not reciprocated this sagacity by apologising for what many in Kodagu call her “uncivil” behaviour. Whatever the provocation, Sitharaman should not have breached the propriety and decorum expected of a Union minister at an official meeting, covered by the media. It is unfortunate that the minister chose to divert all attention to her own protocol issues while other pressing matters were waiting to be discussed. If she had a reason to be aggrieved, she could have taken it up with the concerned in private or through other official channels.

While one would expect Mahesh to make amends for his needless personal comments, it would also be imperative for Sitharaman to apologise for being completely insensitive at a time when the suffering people of Kodagu were looking for some empathy.

(The writer is a senior journalist)