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Tuesday, 30 November 1999

Results are the Best Image-Builder, Vajpayee

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)


Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself as farce. Atal Behari
Vajpayee needs to take note, for the initial direction of his
government gives the impression he believes that it is not a 1998
model BJP-led sarkar but a recycled version of the 1950 Nehru
government. Sadly, neither does the BJP enjoy the majority in
Parliament and the state assemblies that the Congress party had
during that time, nor is the country a freshly independent one
eager to be moulded.

Instead of expending effort on determining ways of getting
bread—and—butter legislation passed in a fractious Parliament, the
Vajpayee government is cogitating over major Constitutional
changes. Fifty years have gone by since Independence, and
during this time the Constitution has evolved in incremental
steps rather than in the sudden leap implied in A. B. Vajpayee’s
proposal. Moderation is preferable to the chop and cut of less
stable polities. Pakistan, for example, has moved from
Westminster-style democracy to Basic Democracy to Bhutto
Populism to Martial Law to Islamic State. Hopefully, this country
will be spared such turmoil. Instead of setting up (yet another
expensive) commission, what needs to be done is to bring
forward in the nominal course limited proposals for changes in a
few clauses.

In another display of a subliminal belief that India got
freedom only after he was sworn in as Prime Minister a month
ago, A. B. Vajpayee - through his parliamentary affairs minister
— would like to appoint a Delimitation Commission that would
make Lok Sabha seats proportional to population.

This would reward the least efficient states with more
parliamentary clout, and make them the masters of the federal structure, 
rather than equal partners with the rest. Tensions 
would get created that would exceed those in 1965, when it was      
proposed that English be abolished by 1967. Should M. L.   
Khurana go ahead with his plan, the regional parties would    
swiftly withdraw support, and he and his chief will get plenty 
of leisure to write articles on constitutional  and political reform. 
   
If the Vajpayee government insists on spending more money   
on Parliament, then it should come forward with legislation that    
increases the number of Lok Sabha seats proportionately in all    
the states. This would insure against damage to the federal    
principle, and avoid punishing those states that effectively    
implemented family welfare programmes. Along with this, 
measures should be taken-to break up states with populations     
larger than 50 million. As the anarchy in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar   
has shown, regional governments are as yet unable to handle a
population size in excess of 50 million. New states should     
therefore be the priority, rather than risking the destruction of 
the regional balance within the country by upsetting the present   
proportions between the states in the matter of Lok Sabha seats. 

Along with rewriting the Constitution and changing the   
regional balance to make four states dominate the  country’s 
politics, A. B. Vajpayee would also like to take the path trodden   
by the two previous Cleans, Rajiv Gandhi and Vishwanath   
Pratap Singh. Apparently, Pramod Mahajan has yet to inform his   
boss that the many meetings and campaigns organised by the 
BJP were not entirely funded by widows and orphans. As a   
result, Sedapatti Muthiah was nudged out of the government, 
setting in motion a process that has now claimed Buta Singh and    
is likely before long to affect Ram Jethmalani, besides several      
others. Indeed, with assets a mere Rs. 40 lakh more than his   
income, Muthiah is a relative pauper in high-level politics. 
chief minister of a state where the BJP is an alliance partner is    
worth ten times as much, even according to the records.    
Fortunately, there is no Karunanidhi there to uncover such    
indiscretions.  

However, now that the Tamil Nadu chief minister has shown 
the way, others will be tempted to investigate and get cases filed    
against more VIPs. This can only benefit the public in India,   
where thus far there has  been very little accountability in the  
political class, who have mostly adopted the Maharashtra model   
While the Mr. Clean mantle is likely to be as much an
albatross around A. B. Vajpayee's neck as it was on the others
who tried to use it, the country may yet benefit from the flurry
of investigations that the Muthiah decision will provoke. Now
all that the Congress and other Opposition parties need to do is
to get investigated charges against Cabinet ministers, and press
for a charge-sheet, thus making politics in India as hazardous as
it is in the United States.

While A. B. Vajpayee’s (large) band of friends may delight in
his Clean image, the voters are more concerned that he become
Mr. Results. Rather than the sublime issues that apparently
fascinate him so much, the Prime Minister needs to concentrate
on basic essentials such as growth and security, For example,
Sikander Bakht can privatise key public sector companies,
auctioning 76 per cent of the equity to the public and reserving
24 per cent to the employees at a heavily subsidised rate.
This would give the workers an incentive to support reform
of PSUs, rather than see it as a threat. Missile flights should be
resumed, while nuclear tests should take place unless the United
States makes available data that can enable a reliable deterrent
to be made.

A. B. Vajpayee should also begin taking steps to implement
those sections of the BIP manifesto that speak of making laws
transparent and non-oppressive. The Budget should retain a low
direct tax structure while raising customs duties to the levels
sanctioned by the WTO, except in cases where a lower duty
promotes exports. New export processing zones need to be
created in the Northeast and the Andaman islands, while ports,
power, roads and other infrastructure should have liberal entry
conditions.

The state governments should be given discretion in FDI and
other project sanctions, while legislative measures need to be
taken to prevent delays due to the filing of PILs. These days,
most embassies and other agencies have their own stable of
friendly NGOs that can file PILs, hold seminars and organize
press conferences to push alien commercial and political interests
clandestinely.

Sonia Gandhi's error in backing unpopular leaders and their
policies, and Congress's repudiation of its nationalist heritage,
has given the Vajpayee government more leeway than newspaper
headlines would indicate.

Rather than get lost in philosophical diversions, the Prime
Minister needs to craft a practical agenda for the forthcoming
Lok Sabha. Only if the country sees him and his team getting
down to business will it generate for the government the good-
will needed to prod Parliament towards passing legislation
needed for prosperity.

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