In his five-plus decades of political life, Atal Bihari Vajpayee served a little over two years in the Morarji Desai Cabinet during 1977-79, if we exclude his 13 days as prime minister following the 1996 Lok Sabha poll. Almost all his active life has been spent in the Opposition, and it shows. Today, the prime minister has fashioned around him a team that is great for boosting the (ever-flagging) ego of an Opposition politician, but is a handicap now that he is in charge of the government.
While P V Narasimha Rao, H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral (to name a few) selected trained administrators as their principal secretaries, Vajpayee nominated Brajesh Mishra, who even while in service had the political instincts inherited by him from his father, the Madhya Pradesh political strategist Dwarka Prasad Mishra. Thus Brajesh has been unable to carry the bureaucracy along with him in his -- it must be admitted -- energetic drive to improve the functioning of the government.
In a system where inaction is rewarded by absence of controversy and the reputation of a "sound" officer (as witness the famous Ajit Kumar, who is known within South Block for delaying even a decision as to whether he should delay taking a decision), the rasping of order staccato-style cannot generate the chemistry needed to persuade the babus to carry them out. Thus, despite working even while ostensibly at play (amazing what these cell phones do!) poor Brajesh is falling hopelessly behind his agenda, a lack that is reflecting on his tolerant boss.
Apart from behaving as though he were in the armed forces (where unthinking obedience was the norm till the dynamic George Fernandes teamed up with do-nothing Ajit Kumar in the defence ministry), another problem concerning Vajpayee's principal secretary is that he behaves as though he were the prime minister, with "Atal" (his term for the prime minister) as his deputy. Several non-BJP ministers are smarting at the manner in which they have been treated by Mishra.
Among the many delightful habits of this old friend of the prime minister is his habit of using civil servants to block proposals by Cabinet ministers. Clearly Brajesh is in the wrong country. He would have been an excellent chief of staff to a president of the United States whose cabinet members serve at his pleasure.
Unfortunately for Vajpayee, his is no residential or Gandhi Family government, with single-family rule and a brute majority in both houses of Parliament. While the Samata Party ministers dance to their constituencies in Bihar, the AIADMK ministers have not Vajpayee but Jayalalitha as their commander. By acting as though he were D P Mishra advising Indira Gandhi, Brajesh Mishra could very soon cost the prime minister his job. Of course, that may make poet Atal secretly happy, as Opposition politics did not prepare him for the hellish grind that being in power is during these democratic times.
Just as Inder Kumar Gujral never made an appointment unless the individual concerned had won his affection over a leisurely series of meals, Brajesh Mishra cannot look beyond his cronies when he (in the name of the prime minister, of course) fills up even sensitive appointments such as the National Security Council. The only common thread linking this disparate (and now desperate) team is that they are all personally known to the principal secretary.
Small wonder that the Pokhran bang appears to be dissolving into a Babel in which Vajpayee may follow Narasimha Rao in scuttling missile and nuclear weapons programmes to please an NRI family that has close social and other connections with an organisation based in Langley, Virginia, in the United States. Rather than operate through cutouts, it would be better for this charming family to openly step forward and take over the top posts in the government, seeing for example how they have delayed the launch of Agni II.
The Vajpayee government survives because of the support given by the AIADMK and its remaining ally, the DMK. Yet a minister in the government goes to every district in Tamil Nadu spewing personal venom against AIADMK supremo Jayalalitha. Clearly dear Vazappady Ramamurthy wants to show his gratitude to the Puratchi Thalaivi for insisting in March 1998 that he be appointed petroleum minister.
For reasons that Vajpayee evidently finds difficult to understand, Jayalalitha objects to a Cabinet minister abusing her and wants him replaced by another individual who does not share Ramamurthy's repertoire of Tamil curses. The same prime minister who went to Lahore to meet a Nawaz Sharief who daily clamours for Kashmir to get delinked from India does not feel it right to agree to such a demand. No doubt he will be surprised if one day the AIADMK supremo tells the President of India in writing that she and her 18 MPs no longer support the Vajpayee government.
Were Ramamurthy a paragon of virtue or even efficient as a minister, one can understand the prime minister's hesitation. But to put his very survival at risk for the sake of a single MP indicates the depth of the love that has blossomed between himself and the vociferous petroleum minister. In personal relationships, however, there is no accounting for tastes. Raksha Mantri George Fernandes for instance counts P Nedumaran as a very close friend. Nedumaran is an ardent follower of that inspiring leader of the masses, Velupillai Prabhakaran of the LTTE, whom he knows well. Just last week he was in the capital, discussing with his friends in the Cabinet how India should follow a more supportive policy towards that spirited group in northern Sri Lanka.
Once an individual is in government, s/he needs to undergo a process of rebirth, in which some old ties get loosened, and an effort be made to locate professionals who may not be pleasant company in the evenings, but who can get a job done. Fernandes the Firebrand can declaim on Myanmar and China. Raksha Mantri Fernandes should never forget that China and Myanmar combined can make the North-East a hellfire that is far more difficult to douse than Kashmir was.
By continuing to patronise rebels with Myanmarese and other connections, George Fernandes is putting the security of the country at risk for his friends. Certainly he has a right to do so, but only after he resigns and becomes Citizen George Fernandes again. If the defence minister of India promotes Tibetan independence and the urban development minister calls for full statehood for Taiwan, it will (to put it mildly) be difficult to persuade Beijing to stop the transfer of nuclear and missile technology to Islamabad.
Only the locking-into of China into a strategic alliance with India will show China that India is a far better partner than Pakistan. Till now Beijing had been cultivating Washington by spurning the Primakov Theorem of an India-Russia-China strategic alliance. However, on March 24, the Chinese envoy to New Delhi declared before an audience of Indian military officers that a link-up with India would benefit "all mankind". Three days later, guests at a party hosted for visiting AIADMK supremo Jayalalitha witnessed a long and friendly exchange between China's Ambassador Zhou Gang and Prime Minister Vajpayee. The next day, the prime minister declared his support for the Primakov Theorem.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee as external affairs minister between 1977 and 1979 presided over the re-entry of Pakistan into the Commonwealth and the entry of that state into the Non-Aligned Movement. In both fora Islamabad has since continued its vituperation against New Delhi. Thus, Vajpayee's generosity proved almost as much of a mistake as Indira Gandhi's generosity was at Simla in 1972, when she handed over 93,000 prisoners and captured land in exchange for a grimace from Bhutto that was interpreted as a smile by those who convinced her to give away the gains won by the armed forces so that a Nobel Prize for Peace could be won. One of the key actors of that drama told this correspondent in 1986 that this was the 'clinching" argument that got her to sign the one-sided, smile accord, which was broken by Pakistan after it got the land and prisoners back.
Today, if Pakistan is a little less belligerent about India than it has been since 1947, that is because even the ISI recognises that in the process of trying to avenge the 1971 defeat, Pakistan is itself creating the conditions for a repeat by 2015, in which Sindh, Punjab, Baluchistan and Pakhtunistan break away into independent republics on the Yugoslav model. The danger in appearing too conciliatory towards this fundamentalist state is that it may encourage the (many) hotheads there to launch a fresh offensive in Kashmir on the 1989 model. Pakistan needs to be firmly told that Kashmir is Indian and will remain so. At best the Line of Control can be frozen, as has taken place with China. Sadly, the noises coming out of the Vajpayee government on Pakistan do not appear to reflect this reality.
Hopefully, the prime minister will ignore the advice of those who drafted his infamous letter to Bill Clinton (that pointed explicitly to China, rather than make a general argument about the need for security in a tough environment) and follow his own instincts about making Primakov's formulation a reality. Together, India, Russia and China can in a short time reverse the aberration of the past 500 years, when Europe dominated over Asia rather than the other way about. Of course, none of these three countries seeks to dominate Europe the way Asia was colonised, they seek only to ensure their proper diplomatic, security and economic space.
If he is to survive as prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee needs to select not cronies but competent professionals to man his PMO and PMH. One of the current few who qualify is Nandu Singh, secretary to the PM, who has silently pushed for a modern economic agenda. Foreign policy is a fog, with a rabid anti-China group at war with a pro-America faction who are even more slavish followers of Washington than the British. Sadly, all these are "Vajpayee men".
Atal Bihari Vajpayee is a sensitive, brilliant human being with a sense of mission for India. He needs to forget his cronies and think about his obligation to History. He needs to create an efficient PMO and functional structures in both domestic security policy and external defence. Today, his worst enemies are his friends, most of who have got into comfortable positions thanks to his high personal comfort level with them. The promise of this administration can only get translated into reality if he realises that the Nehru era has passed, and exchanges his Nehruvian pals for those in tune with Superpower India 2020. If he does not, he should not blame the rest of us for moving away from a man who could not break out of the limitations of crony administration.