Friday 21 January 2000

Brajesh and Jassu repeat their Kargil triumph! (Rediff)

Ever since Kargil, this columnist has been critical of the activities of Brajesh Mishra and Jaswant Singh, two amateurs who have been given control over both national security and foreign policy by the BJP's absolute leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Several scrollers reacted angrily to such views, convinced that they represented a "hidden" Congress agenda. After the surrender of three terrorists in Kandahar, hopefully at least a few of such critics will realise the truth of the charge against the national security advisor and the external affairs minister, that they have acted in a manner that weakens India's response to terror and have made the country behave in a servile manner when confronted with overseas threats.

There will be more instances to demonstrate the harm being done to Indian interests by Vajpayee's loving indulgence to this deadly duo.

It is not that either can truly be blamed. Jaswant Singh Rathore had zero foreign policy experience when given this sensitive portfolio in 1998, if one excludes periodic contacts with backpackers roaming across Rajasthan. Newspaper columns and bookshops can be scoured uselessly for decades without coming across traces of Jassu's views on foreign policy during his initial decades in public life. And yet, it is to such a man that the external affairs portfolio was given.

As for Brajesh Mishra, if he has had any exposure to security issues, it is only by going through the security checks at airports all over the world, in the course of his travels.

It is to such neophytes that the very keys of the country's safety were handed over. Atal's health and habits being what they are, in effect this pair runs his administration. Both have taken care to exclude any other individual from the matrix. Today, whether it is nuclear policy or trade, it is Jassu's team and not the armed forces or the commerce ministry that formulates and conducts policy, thanks to Jassu's control over half the prime minister's mind.

The owner of the other half, Brajesh Mishra, has fashioned a system in which ministers are reduced to ciphers, with departmental secretaries directly reporting to him and taking decisions on the basis of such consultations. That such decisions are often delayed -- and flawed when they are made -- does not seem to worry dear Brajesh or his nominal boss, who gives sound bites that he will not compromise with terrorists the very day in which Jassu takes off for Kandahar with his newfound pals, the three ISI operatives released by benevolent Uncle Vajpayee.

It is only in India that the perpetrator of an offence is himself the judge. Uncle says that there will be an enquiry into the "entire" hijack episode. Who will conduct the interview? Brajesh and Jassu. Whom will they investigate? Brajesh and Jassu. Certainly a unique definition of accountability.

The doctors at Sloan-Kettering have not yet released their findings about Uncle, but the prognosis cannot be excellent, judging by the sprouting of efforts to ensure that Jaswant Singh Rathore gets anointed as the successor to Uncle Vajpayee, a transfer that will have the same consequences for the Union of India that the nomination of Mikhail Gorbachev had or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Uncle's men hope that the external affairs minister will edge out the ever-faithful, ever-silent Lal Kishen Advani from the BJP's prime ministerial sweepstakes, when the time comes.

If Vajpayee is Rama, Advani is Lakshman, always content to follow in the footsteps of his all-powerful elder. During the hijack crisis, if those close to Uncle are to be believed, the home minister maintained a glum silence, even in Cabinet. He allowed the steering wheel to pass from his hands to those of Brajesh and Jaswant. Rather than these two, it was the Union home minister who should have acted as the pointperson for the government on the hijacking. Instead, he was reduced to the status of a bystander.

By his silence, by his dittoing of all that Vajpayee's two favourites do, the Union home minister may make the mistake of becoming unelectable thanks to a total identification with the Vajpayee court. Any boy of twelve can raise his hands on every cue, if that is all that is needed. The many who respect Advani expect him to do a little more, to use his own mind rather than rely solely on the two power-of-attorney holders of Atal. They expect him to balance the reckless disregard of national interests seen most lately in the hijack episode with his own track record of advocacy of rational policies. If he does not do this much, Advani does not deserve even the office he now holds.

Apart from the geriatric reaction time of the "Crisis Management Group" to the hijack, and the babu-like attitude of the National Security Guard, which were went aloft only after the ISI agents had taken off towards Lahore, there is a significant point which -- naturally -- has been missed by a media well cared-for by Jassu and Brajesh. This is the entire approach of the Vajpayee government to the hijacking. From the time when the tired old men who run this government got (what was left of) their wits about them, the CMG's approach has been that India is a state with near-zero ability to protect its interests, except for plaintive appeals to more powerful countries. Such a stance has made India look like the Maldives.

Just as (then US assistant secretary of state) Robin Raphel signed the death warrant for the five Al-Faran hostages some years ago by publicly exonerating Pakistan of any role in the affairs, the Vajpayee team ensured success for the ISI by praising the two countries that organisation controls, Pakistan and Afghanistan. On the other hand, had New Delhi declared the culpability of both from day one, and warned of "serious consequences" to both were the hostages to be harmed, pressure would have mounted on the hijackers from their Pakistani masters. Instead, by doling out good-conduct certificates to Kabul and Islamabad, the Vajpayee team gave the ISI confidence that its perfidy could be hidden, thus shoring up its resolve.

Instead of this suicidal credulity, New Delhi should have put the focus -- and the onus for safety --squarely on Musharraf and his Taleban slaves. It should have put its forces on the western borders on alert and begun exercises. The Line of Control ought to have been activated through artillery barrages against ISI camps in PoK. Without such a holistic strategy, Indian efforts were doomed after the aircraft was allowed to take off from Amritsar and the UAE authorities made it depart from the al-Minhad air base. After that, the hijackers were on home soil, and only a policy that targetted their masters would have been effective. Not only was this not done, Jassu actually lauded the ISI's team.

Kargil has come back to haunt India, just as predicted. Then, the Pakistanis were given the bonus of India voluntarily refusing action except along the 143 kilometre stretch of territory across which the infiltration took place. This time, by tactically treating the hijacking as the work of isolated thugs rather than as part of the strategy of a sovereign state, the Vajpayee team refused to take those steps that were needed to make Pakistan realise that this time, India would make it pay.

The very "avoiding of broader tensions" that the pro-ISI Clinton administration praised the Vajpayee team for became the coffin of Rupin Katyal and the Advani policy towards foreign militancy in Kashmir. How long before Atal realises the harm that his two power-of-attorney holders are doing to the BJP, the party that has laid itself at his feet? How long before he realises that Bill Clinton will praise him only when he sells out Indian interests, and not when he defends them?

Of course, Clinton has been seeing a lot to praise recently. Now the ISI's favourite American is slavering at the mouth, waiting for India to deliver the promise made by Jassu in an article for a US journal, that India would sign the CTBT as a "gesture of goodwill" towards an administration that is implacably hostile to its interests. Poor Vajpayee does not realise that a signature on CTBT in these conditions would further damage not just Indian interests but those of the BJP.

How long can Atal depend on the Sonia factor to see him through? True, the AICC president is the best ally the BJP can have, forcing millions of Indian voters who otherwise would have supported Congress to go the saffron way. True, her incompetence has made it possible for Vajpayee to escape 90 per cent of the odium for Kargil and 70 per cent of that for Kathmandu. However, should the Congress fare disastrously in the February state election, it is likely that even Congresspersons may realise just how big a liability Sonia Maino is, and dump her.

Should that happen, the clock will begin ticking for Vajpayee, as his coalition partners are furious at the way in which the PMO is riding herd over them. Brajesh believes that he is in a Nehru Family regime, where ministers are mere clerks. This makes him bypass them and deal directly with officials, creating tensions that could soon explode, exactly as the AIADMK did just a year ago.

In his Lakshman avatar, Advani is no check at all to such misdirected policies. As for Kushabhau Thakre, his is the case of a good man lost in big-city alleys. The BJP president is evidently one with the rest of his flock in being too terrified to speak out against the boss, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, even to the extent of requesting the master to please find better power-of-attorney holders than Jassu and Brajesh.

The joke in Washington is that the Indian foreign minister is available on the phone to any janitor in the state department who does time pass by calling him. As for Brajesh, Clinton's contempt for his minion got manifested in a recent White House visit, when he was made to wait for 40 minutes before being allowed to see a sub-Cabinet official. Naturally, the ever-faithful Brajesh pocketed the snub meekly.

In 1999, the BJP lost vote share despite Sonia, despite the propaganda victory at Kargil. A year more of Jassu and Brajesh, and they will sink to current UP levels nationwide. The two paralysed faithfuls, Advani and Thakre, better start praying that someone will wake Atal up before this. They, clearly, are unable to.

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