Friday 30 April 1999

The enemy within (Rediff)

The silver lining in the fiasco that saw the country being pushed into yet another general election is that politicians in the 13th Lok Sabha are likely to be supercautious rather than frisky. The post-defeat inability of the anti-BJP parties to form an alternative government shows up the dangers of adventurism. This, plus the 'Narayanan Precedent' of asking for written evidence of a majority before swearing in an alternative team, is likely to prevent a short life for the next Lok Sabha.

President K R Narayanan is now the subject of an intensive whispering campaign, centred around his and his wife's friendship with the Nehru family. It is being claimed that Mrs Narayanan -- allegedly because she follows the Christian faith -- wanted Sonia Gandhi to succeed in her Operation Topple, and therefore used her (considerable) influence on the President to rig decisions against the BJP.

As evidence, these critics point to the President's immediate order to the prime minister to prove his majority; his indulgence in giving Sonia Gandhi several days to win over recalcitrants; and his refusal to give the Vajpayee government a second chance to prove its majority after the Congress's bid for a Sonia ministry collapsed.

Such comments are unfair to a deeply sincere and straightforward individual. Usha Narayanan's faith is not relevant to the political discourse. Even if she were Christian, the fact remains that the Christian community in India has done wonders in the fields of health and education. The faith is an Asian one, even though these days most believers come from Europe and the Americas. One of the unfortunate side-effects of Sonia Gandhi's pell-mell rush to become prime minister (a process she began in 1995, with the attack on Narasimha Rao) is a backlash against the innocent Christian community in India. These individuals have nothing to do with the Maino family's shenanigans, and should not be made political pawns. To target them is as unfair as it was to target the deeply patriotic Sikh community for the murder of Indira Gandhi, or to blame the Hindus for the killing of Gandhiji.

President Narayanan has one way of showing to the nation that he is not bound to the apron-strings of 10 Janpath. This is by speedily allowing the prosecution of Madhavsinh Solanki in the Bofors matter. By sitting on the file for nearly two months, the President has generated avoidable controversy over his motives, just as a similar tardiness over the Shiela Kaul file did some months ago. True, the President knows both Solanki and Gopi Arora personally -- the latter more than the first -- but such personal considerations will never come in the way of national interest where Kocheril Raman Narayanan is concerned. Clearly, the President was waiting for the political weather to clear before giving his assent, lest he be accused of partisanship. Now that stage one of the storm is over, it is likely that he will soon give assent to the prosecution of Solanki.

It is a national disgrace that several countries have got back huge amounts of kickbacks from Swiss banks, even though India has (deliberately) failed to make much headway on Bofors. Part of the reason is the open linkage between the Swiss authorities and 10 Janpath. Recently, the President of Switzerland made it a point to call on Sonia Gandhi at her government-provided residence, thus giving a clear signal of the Swiss government's determination to protect her. In the same way, the Malaysian government under Mahathir Mohammed is protecting Ottavio Quattrocchi from extradition. Clearly, both Switzerland and Malaysia can be expected to put the personal interests of 10 Janpath above the need for justice.

In this, they are joined by several bureaucrats in the HRD, home and finance ministries in India who have secretly been working overtime to protect Sonia Gandhi. Thanks to the influence of an NRI business family, the Prime Minister's Office too has thus far served as the highly effective office of Sonia's defence team. Vajpayee has paid with his job for listening to this NRI family and following the footsteps of Narasimha Rao in protecting Sonia, even to the extent of pulling up Human Resources Development Minister M M Joshi for looking into the various government-funded Nehru trusts, all of which are illegally controlled by Sonia and her children.

Hopefully, at least now Prime Minister Vajpayee will not block ongoing probes into the Nehru trusts and into the armaments and pipeline deals that made a family in Italy super rich. During the 1980s, both the brothers-in-law of Sonia Gandhi -- Walter Vinci and Jose Valdemoro -- became affluent, by means that numerous identifiable public officials in India are anxious to keep secret. Sadly for Sonia's sisters Nadia and Annouscka, both their husbands divorced them as soon as they became rich. As a result, they moved to Delhi to live in 10 Janpath, along with their mother Predebon. India being a rich country and Italy a poor one, New Delhi can certainly afford to pay for the telephone, transportation and housing charges of the Maino family, as it has been doing for years, without complaint.

Indeed, a host of visitors from Italy descended on Delhi a fortnight ago, eager to watch as their relative formally took possession of the family inheritance, the Government of India. Hopefully when the results of the next election get announced, these friends can return to watch Orbassano's first-ever prime minister get sworn in. After that, Sonia can more openly reward her friends and punish her critics, all out of taxpayer's money.

It is noteworthy that the country to which the Hope of the Nation still looks for inspiration -- and airline and telephone bills, as well as the roster of mealtime guests will confirm this -- is among the 19 pounding Yugoslavia to dust. If there should be a conflict between NATO and Indian interests, where will Sonia's preference lie? Will she be able to order missile strikes that can hit targets in Italy? More to the point, why has she so far not uttered a word of condemnation of the barbaric bombing of an independent country from bases in Italy? These are questions that should interest strategic planners in India as much as the dog that did not bark caught the attention of Sherlock Holmes.

However, it is not only in Europe that Sonia has backers. One of the worst-kept secrets in Delhi has been the interest of the Communist Chinese in a Sonia-led government. Natwar Singh needs to reply to suggestions that he indicated a willingness to implement a freeze on Agni and on nuclear tactical warheads when he spoke to Chinese officials in Beijing. All Natwar needs to do is take a lie detector test to disprove such charges, spoken by unhappy left cadres who secretly say their comrades in China forced them to back Sonia Gandhi as prime minister. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that a CPI delegation was in Beijing at about the same time as Natwar was.

The Chinese need to realise that they should not interfere in domestic politics. The hotheads in the PLA have already done much future harm to China's long-term interests by helping Pakistan develop strategic muscle. They should not convert a future ally -- India -- into an enemy by their reckless adventurism. India and China must work together, but this is not possible so long as China gives nuclear and missile secrets to Pakistan and dabbles in Indian politics.

NATO's new doctrine of the 'divine right' of the (European-race) alliance to intervene militarily anywhere in the world means that India needs to expand the range of Agni to intercontinental levels, and to refine weaponry. This is the only deterrent to some idiot in London or Washington who may seek to duplicate a Kosovo in Kashmir.

The East Timor agitation is being fuelled by NATO in order to set up a protectorate in a volatile region. Both India and China have to concert to block these efforts, by supporting Indonesia in protecting its territorial integrity. Here too, Sonia Gandhi is silent. Perhaps she, like NATO, favours an 'independent' East Timor that will serve as a NATO base

Kashmir in India, Tibet in China, East Timor in Indonesia and Chechnya in Russia are all examples of how NATO seeks to use ethnic differences to weaken states that are likely to emerge as superpowers. The NATO-subservient regimes of Yeltsin and Habibie have thus far not been able to oblige their patrons, only because of strong public opinion. The friends of Indonesia and Russia need to convey forcefully to Moscow and Jakarta to retain the multi-religious nature of their states, and not succumb to NATO pressure.

Hopefully, instead of being a dupe of NATO, China's leaders will join with India in creating a multi-polar world order. The worst enemies of India have always come from within. The Mughals and the British could never have subjugated the land without the support of hundreds of traitors. Even today, the loudest voices against India framing sensible economic policies or creating a minimum credible deterrent come from within. In the Jawaharlal Nehru University, for example, the joke is that there are professors to spout the Chinese, the German or the American line, but none who support the Indian one. The trouble is that this is no joke. As the fawning supplication before Sonia Gandhi (and by implication her backers) has shown, we have a long way to go before being free.

Wednesday 21 April 1999

Congress: Dreamland or reality? (Rediff)

In a very short while, the entire country is likely to follow the Congress party to bliss. Sonia Gandhi, nee Maino, will be the leader of the government, just as a year after she took over formally as Congress president. No doubt many wise commentators will write about her 'reluctance' to assume office, and about how circumstances forced her into South Block despite her misgivings.

However, history tells a different tale. This is of a lady who decided in 1995 that she wanted to take back the family jagir from the benami who had taken control of it in 1991, Pamulaparthy Venkata Narasimha Rao. She made it clear to Rao that "in the party's interest" she expected him to announce that he would not be contesting the 1996 Lok Sabha poll, but would hand over the baton to the proprietor of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi.

Bad luck for Rao, he did not oblige. While ensuring that her control over public funds via the family trusts continued, and that inconvenient investigations into various deals were killed off, Narasimha Rao consulted his cardiac specialist -- a young and brilliant doctor from Andhra Pradesh with political traditions -- and decided to attempt a second term. This meant a declaration of war.

Soon various public spirited individuals began filing PILs and circulating documents about Narasimha Rao. His road to prison began to get prepared, using both the criminal charges track and the other tack of getting a Justice Jain to dream up a conspiracy theory in which everybody other than the Tamil Tigers were responsible for the Rajiv assassination. Justice Jain, however, did not dwell on those Congress leaders who insisted in June 1991 that Rajiv should visit Tamil Nadu, despite a clear warning that there was danger.

Even on the day of his death, angry Congresspersons operating from 10 Janpath insisted that Rajiv should fly to Chennai. Indeed, one particular office-bearer of the AICC insisted that Rajiv spend the night in Sriperumbudur in the home of a businessman with Singapore links. However, the security staff vetoed this order. They did not, however, raise serious objections to the Sriperumbudur programme, despite the clear warning from the Tamil Nadu government against the visit.

Justice Jain did not ask too deeply how Dhanu was allowed into the inner cordon, and who got her in, such questions would have led to embarrassment -- for those close to a Madhya Pradesh leader who has since 1995 been Sonia's chief advisor. Thus the good Justice ignored the complicity of Congress dignitaries close to the MP politico, and went off instead in pursuit of the real target of the 'investigation,' Narasimha Rao. Had Justice Jain been a wee bit more credible, there may by now have been a trial in which it would have been argued that Rao killed Rajiv to become prime minister. That Rao, in effect, knew that the Congress would get a poll boost from the murder, and that Sonia Gandhi would back him for the top post. Which is what she did, believing that he was the most temporary of stopgaps.

Since 1995, the Sonia people in the Congress began trying to wreck the party, setting up candidates against it in most states, often even helping BJP candidates to defeat Congress nominees. Today, those who worked so actively against the party in the 1996 polls have taken it over, because they acted at Sonia's behest. Today Arjun Singh, Shiela Dixit, N D Tiwari, Natwar Singh, M L Fotedar, Mohsina Kidwai, Manish Tiwari and others dominate the Congress party. Conversely, those who were loyal to it during the Rao period have got pushed into the rathouse (the doghouse being too good for them).

If in 1998 the Congress under Rao was 'weakened' by the exit of the Sonia brigade, by 1998 it was effectively led to the polls by the lady herself, with the entire charisma of the Tiwari Congress added to the scales. Despite this, the party did worse than in 1996. The explanation given was that it would have got 'obliterated' but for Sonia, small wonder that the ingenious Arjun Singh is a favourite at the Sonia Court.

After taking over as AICC president on the strength of his supplications before Narasimha Rao, Sitaram Kesri had periodically mouthed the mantra that Sonia should take over. On March 7, 1998 he declared at a press conference that Sonia was needed. As fate decreed, Sonia evidently watched Kesri's performance on television and decided to make the old courtier happy by agreeing to his request. A week later, both A K Antony and Ahmed Patel suddenly told Kesri that it was time for Sonia to take over. Confident that she would not, Kesri agreed.

On 14 March, 1998, at a Working Committee meeting, most of the members demanded that Kesri step down. An angry Kesri stormed out with Tariq Anwar, confident that the CWC members would run after him asking him to stay. Instead, they went to 10 Janpath and brought back Sonia Gandhi just 17 minutes after Kesri had left. The 'reluctant' lady thereupon assumed charge as AICC president. It must be torture for her to wait longer before claiming the other part of the Nehru inheritance, the Government of India.

It was their exclusion from power that irritated Congress MPs enough to support first Kesri and then Sonia (via Arjun Singh) in bringing down the Gowda and Gujral governments. Today almost no Congress MP wants a repetition of 'outside support.' They want to serve the country by becoming ministers. Sonia too wants to serve the famished millions of India by being the first Orbassano-born individual in history to ever become a prime minister. Ideally, Sonia and her flock would like to see a Congress ministry supported from outside by the other parties. In other words, exactly what that other great strategist, Sitaram Kesri, had in mind when he toppled Deve Gowda in 1997.

The problem is that Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav and others who voted out the BJP a few days ago are not sanyasis. They will not be happy to provide the majority for Sonia and her 141 Congress MPs to enjoy the fruits of office -- sorry, suffer the burden of being in power. They, being generous souls, would like to share the burden with their Congress friends. Thus, any setup that relies on outside support of the allied parties will be as stable as an aircraft with one wing. Unless the Congress party enters into an equitable power-sharing arrangement with its now allies, its stint is likely to be brief. And the impact of the disaster will be reflected in the polls that follow. The Congress will need strategic alliances with SP/BSP in UP, RJD in Bihar and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. Excluding them from power will not enhance the Congress chances of getting a good deal then.

If the Congress believes that it can get 300 seats in the next poll courtesy the charm and dash of Sonia Gandhi, a reality check is needed. The odds are that coalitions are here to stay. That being the case, it would be better for the party to accept a full-fledged coalition on the Kerala model rather than seek to go it alone. It can then see just how capable Sonia Gandhi really is in facing Parliament and in keeping a non-docile flock together. Unlike the modern Congressman, who is indeed proud of his or her servitude to the Nehru family, Mayawati, Laloo and Mulayam will expect to be treated not as retainers but as equals. This will be a culture shock for Sonia, who has left her origins far behind, and singlehandedly pushed her family up the social ladder.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, stability would be best served by a coalition that has a non-Congress prime minister. It is relevant to recall that the most stable ministry in Kerala was the one headed by Chelat Achutha Menon between 1970-77. Although the Congress was the largest party in the coalition, it was the CPI that was given the chief ministership. Should the Congress show a similar magnanimity at the central level in 1999, there is a good chance that the resulting coalition will be stable. However, this would mean a shelving of Sonia's burning desire to serve the masses by moving back into 7 Racecourse road. This time as both the de facto as well as the de jure prime minister of India.

The chances are that a Sonia regime would be just what the BJP needed to get back into the reckoning. Apart from Laloo and Mulayam, large sections of the Left are likely to quickly realise that the best way to boost the BJP presence in Bengal and Kerala is to support a Sonia-led government that is not even a coalition. It would be suicide for the Left to accept this, no matter that Jyoti Basu (whose love for Europe is no secret) feels differently. All allies of such a government would lose large chunks of the nationalist vote to a resurgent BJP.

By trying so hard to grab power just for herself, Sonia is making the same mistake that the hardline faction in the BJP made when it cut a secret deal with the DMK to launch a hidden attack on Jayalalitha. The hardliners were unhappy at having to run a minority government, and sought to behave as though the BJP had 280 seats rather than a hundred less. Thanks to the clumsy diplomacy with the AIADMK, Jayalalitha got alienated. Thanks to the Kalyan Singh episode, Mayawati became a foe. Thanks to shoddy handling, Chautala walked away. That Vajpayee had a very incompetent set of crisis managers must be clear even to him. Indeed, the Vajpayee team created rather than doused fires. However, Sonia's kitchen cabinet is no better. In weeks, they are likely to plunge her government into disrepute.

The BJP is down, but it is not out, despite the best efforts of Sonia Gandhi. Unless the Congress adopts a practical and realistic approach, it is likely to see a BJP-led government emerge out of the wreck of the confidence motion. Sonia Gandhi does not have the cards Arjun Singh has made her behave are hers. 1998 proved that, 1999 will, once again.

Sunday 11 April 1999

If Vajpayee prepares to leave in a blaze of glory, he may yet stay (Rediff)

At the outset, let me state a bias in favour of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The prime minister has set in motion the process of converting India's largest political party into a moderate outfit where all religious can feel comfortable. He has sought peace with Pakistan, though hopefully not at the expense of strategic concessions. More importantly, he has implicity accepted the strategic power of a Delhi-Moscow-Beijing triangle crucially, he has sought to implement economic reforms designed to free the country from the shackles of Nehruvian dogma.

It will be, therefore with some regret should the Vajpayee government fall, as now appears likely. However, the episode has important lessons, chief among them being the reality that junior players can often exercise great influence over events. If the Vajpayee government is in extremis today, the credit for that should go to two individuals, Tamil Nadu BJP chief L Ganesan and former defence secretary Ajit Kumar.

By continuing his close relationship with Karunanidhi, and helping the latter push his agenda in the BJP, Ganesan has made relations between the AIADMK and the BJP almost untenable. As for Ajit Kumar, by goading George Fernandes into sacking Vishnu Bhagwat, the civil servant has done a great favour to the Congress camp. Hopefully this will be remembered when that party enters government.

Machismo is seldom a good tactic, whether in personal or in political situations. However, thanks to the goading of their followers, who thrive on panic and instability, many political leaders adopt aggressive postures that make reconciliation difficult.

Govindacharya is an example. In pursuit of a sound byte that makes him look bold, the BJP ideologue frequently provokes both BJP office-bearers as well as that party's allies. Every -- repeat, every -- party collects funds. Neither the BJP nor the Congress nor the revolutionary CPI-M finance their party machine through hot air. It needs cash, and lots of it. It is therefore hypocritical to mutter about the venality of certain parties, just because the media has made certain formations and individuals whipping persons.

Most Indians cannot keep a secret, and journalists follow the trend -- sorry, market. In private conversations with them, top BJP leaders have often been scathing about AIADMK supremo J Jayalalitha. Not surprisingly, many of the recipients of such confidences have been quick to convey the same to Chennai.

By a strange coincidence, scribes known to frequent the Advani household have been the most vociferious in denigrating Jayalalitha. Not the best way to win friends, but very good tactics if the plan is to bring down the Vajpayee government, hope for a shaky coalition under Sonia Gandhi, wait for that to fall, and sweep back to power in the ensuing election on the back of another Toyota rath.

Certainly L K Advani is too much of a gentleman, too disciplined a soldier, to intentionally cause the Vajpayee government to fall. However, by their barbs and their machismo, many of his supporters are busily ensuring just that. Should the Vajpayee government get defeated in the coming trial of strength in the Lok Sabha, hopefully the BJP will not take it as the defeat of the Vajpayee doctrine of moderation.

Hopefully, he will continue to lead the party, this time again as leader of the Opposition, and continue to take it towards a moderate stance on social issues. Only thus can the BJP break through from the 20% to the 30% vote level and emerge as a political superplayer with long-term viability.

Any regression to fanaticism will cost not just the party but the country dear. The fall of Vajpayee will not be because of the prime minister, but despite him. It will have been caused by the hotheads and the hardliners that the prime minister has thus far been unable to distance from both his government as well as his party.

As for the Congress party, it too needs to take both a long view as well as one that takes into account national considerations. This implies it should get the Yashwant Sinha Budget passed, even if the BJP-led government is defeated in a no-confidence vote. This will show the world that the Indian polity has matured and that political instability will not impact upon economic expansion.

Sonia Gandhi will need to talk to AIADMK supremo Jayalalitha and other leaders to ensure that the Budget gets passed, over the certain objections of the Left and perhaps the Laloo-Mulayam duo. Should the Congress leave the Budget to the hurly-burly of the coalition that will follow the defeat of the current government, it will commit an act not just of folly but of irresponsibility.

Indeed, the same irresponsibility now being shown by the Vajpayee government in refusing the demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the circumstances connected with Admiral Bhagwat's sacking. Crooks and cheats flourish in the dark, fetid atmosphere of secrecy. A democracy needs no fear of transparency. An example is the United States, where there are open hearings into several sensitive matters.

The superb system of parliamentary oversight that prevails in the United States ensures that bureaucrats are unable to compromise national interests for gains that may be as petty as arranging a scholarship for a son in a foreign university or landing a job at an international institution.

Thanks to the obsessive secrecy that surrounds government decisions in India, everyday policies get followed that would not bear scrutiny. India too needs a rigorous system of parliamentary oversight into the activity of government departments.

Bureaucrats, however, resist this. Even matters such as the appointment of non-official directors to the boards of public institutions are held up for years, on the ground that such directors would interfere with the efficiency of the unit. In reality, the fear is that such individuals would probe into the cosy symbiosis between bureaucrats and suppliers. In a democratic system, the presence of individuals who have either been directly elected or who are selected by those who have been directly elected is needed for efficiency and to ensure a system of checks and balances.

George Fernandes was completely housebroken by his defence secretary. As a consequence, his relationship with armed services officers deteriorated to a level that they had to give a written complaint about their inability to meet him. Going to mountain peaks or sharing a soldier's lunch will not compensate for the destruction of service traditions and morale.

As defence minister, George Fernandes has behaved as though he were interested in the votes of the troops, rather than in creating a climate through which their needs are effectively met. Even the much ballyhooed changes in the higher defence administration have not taken place.

The bureaucrats still retain a strangler's hold over the armed forces. Only the Japanese system, in which armed forces officers fill key slots in the defence ministry, will help matters. Another requisite is to set up a dedicated cadre in the defence and the home ministries -- as indeed in all other key ministries -- on the lines of the ministry of external affairs. The standards of entry into the central services have fallen so much that such on the job specialisation is essential if the civil service is to promote -- and not retard -- national interests.

Prime Minister Vajpayee has been calling for a blue-ribbon committee that would focus on changes in the Constitution of India. Fortunately, this idea has gone unimplemented. Unlike Pakistan, which has changed its constitution every few years, the admittedly imperfect document put together by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and others has thus far served us well. There is no need to go the Pakistan route and undertake major surgery on it.

Rather, what is needed is to pay more attention to procedures. So that efficiency can be generated through more transparency. It is unfortunate that instead of replicating Ram Jethmalani's proposal for opening up files to public scrutiny, the urban development minister was himself prevented from carrying out this very desirable change in procedure.

What has happened to the Freedom of Information Act that both Mr Vajpayee and Mr Advani were harping on when they were in Opposition? It has obviously gone the way of their commitment to an official media freed of governmental interference.

These may be the last few weeks of Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister. He needs to spend them undoing much of the shackles of the dogma of the past. He needs to follow Jaipal Reddy in freeing the official media, and Ram Jethmalani in opening government files. He needs to call for a consensus on the Budget even as he steps back from the present refusal to investigate the Bhagwat sacking. If he prepares to leave in a blaze of glory, he may yet stay. 

Sunday 4 April 1999

Vajpayee's 'friendly' enemies (Rediff)

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.