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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. 

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