Thursday 27 May 2004

Vajpayee Fades Out at Last (UPI)

M.D. Nalapat 

MANIPAL, India, May 27 (UPI) -- Former Indian prime ministers A.B. Vajpayee and P.V. Narasimha Rao are close friends, but while Vajpayee is low on intellect and superb in chemistry, the father of economic reform in India is the opposite -- high on IQ, low on EQ.
Meeting Vajpayee is a delight. The man always smiles and looks at you in a way that makes you feel that his existence was spent waiting for you. Every now and again, there is the emotion-laden hug that warms you to the man. Each of Vajpayee's gestures give off a soft glow but the words actually spoken by him are seldom Einsteinian. They usually consist of self-evident homilies such as, "peace is better than war" or "progress does more good for humankind than stagnation."
Useful propositions perhaps, but not entirely unknown. Going through the thousands of speeches made by the Bharatiya Janata Party regime's prime minister, it is difficult to locate any that deal with issues in a manner other than goody-goody.
The 79-year-old Atal Behari Vajpayee has been blessed by the angels all his life. They allowed him to lead the existence of a lotus-eater, continuing even in his just-concluded job as a relaxed man-about-town who has thus far remained untouched by controversy.
It is not that he ducked when exposes were flung his way; there has never been any need for such exertions, despite the reality that the Vajpayee government was the most graft-ridden that India has seen since 1947.
The explanation for the impenetrable Teflon lies at least partly in his ability to win friends, especially among media tycoons, and the way state-controlled media paid hefty honorariums to top editors to produce talk shows that nobody watched.
It also is based in his ruthless suppression of the few publications that ran exposes, such as, the Internet newspaper whose financiers were packed to jail after it ran a series on graft in defense purchases.
Until he took office for 13 days in 1996, Atal Behari Vajpayee had never had to handle governmental responsibility, and during the six years (1998-2004) when he presided over the government of India, there were trusted people close at hand to take over the actual work of running things.
In fact, those wanting favors seldom disturbed Vajpayee. Indeed, they would have found it difficult to meet the man in a one-to-one setting, so jealously was access to him guarded. They would need go to Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra or to Vajpayee's son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya, to negotiate for a favourable decision. Every few days, Mishra would go to the prime minister and get him to sign dozens of orders in the space of a few minutes.
Vajpayee would then go back to his favorite pastime, shooting the breeze with intimates, often intimately. The man's appetite for life's goodies has never been a secret.
Ever since he ascended to significant political influence in the 1950s, Vajpayee's routine revolved around many daily sessions of leisurely conversations with those who he felt comfortable with. As the man is uncomfortable with English, preferring to speak in Hindi, this has meant that only those with fluency over this language have penetrated his inner circle. Almost no one in his circle represents India's developed south.
Vajpayee is a man for whom intimates can do no wrong. He appointed the head of his granddaughter's school to the chairmanship of the National Commission for Women, one among a slew of appointments from among his personal favorites. He is an intensely personal human being, who values relationships above all else, which is one reason why so many cronies found their way to key positions from 1998 to 2004.
He wants those around him to have a chemistry that is pleasing to him, which is why it is mostly good news that he has gone. Even while the country was turning away from the BJP and its allies, those around him told him how much he was loved, how indispensable he was in the eyes of the voter. That is why the defeat of May 13, 2004, came as a surprise.
Like former U.S. President Richard Nixon, Vajpayee shies away from direct confrontation with individuals. He prefers to leave that work to subordinates, most notably Mishra, who has picked up numerous enemies for faithfully implementing the prime minister's wishes, much like former Nixon Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman.
The man has an instinct for the soft option, which is why he personally ordered the surrender to terrorists that took place at Kandahar in January 2000, after an Indian Airlines Airbus A-300 was hijacked in Kathmandu. Tough action is something that the poet and pacifist rebels against.
Small wonder that he went ahead with measures such as the twice-extended unilateral cease-fire in Kashmir in 2001 that gave the terrorists operating there a huge boost in their ability to conduct lethal attacks.
The Teflon always remained in place -- even while his hand-picked generals slept on their watch and permitted the Pakistanis to begin infiltrating into Kargil during the winter of 1998. Far from being blamed for this, Vajpayee reaped an electoral harvest as a "man of action" in the 1999 elections when he was really just getting back territory that had been grabbed by the Pakistanis thanks to Indian negligence. It was hyped up as a major victory.
Three out of four ministers in Vajpayee's Cabinet came from the most backward states in India, and it showed. Although hailed an a reformer, the reality is that after the Narasimha Rao era (1992-1996), it was the brief period in office of H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral (1996-1998) that saw the introduction of almost all of the reforms for which Vajpayee later took the credit.
This included the opening of infrastructure and power to private enterprise, and the freeing of telecom from state monopolies. The measures undertaken during Vajpayee's six years (1998-2004) have been modest, with both the patents bill as well as labor reform still left to be done.
The petroleum sector is mired in controls that have made petroproducts in India the most expensive in the world, after Cuba and North Korea. The economic sectors that have taken off -- such as information technology and biotech -- are precisely those that got incubated from 1995 to 1997. Indeed, in these the (usually hidden) role of Vajpayee's government has often been negative, backing players known for their denotations to his party.
In information technology, the Vajpayee government seems to have tried to help favorites against companies such as WIPRO, a professionally managed enterprise that refuses to shower cash on the political class.
An emasculated media has ensured that only credit has flowed to Vajpayee, not blame. Of course, the encomiums have come from what may be called "Cocktail Alley," the clubby mesh of officials, diplomats, businesspersons and journalists that the Foreign Correspondents Club in New Delhi mistakes for "Indian opinion." This is the only section of society that Vajpayee feels at home in, as indeed does his friend Sonia Gandhi.
Despite his origins in the lanes of the small town of Gwalior, Vajpayee is principally a man of India's capital city. It is in New Delhi that he has spent practically his entire life, collecting goodwill and other useful bric-a-brac from individuals.
There is little that Vajpayee prefers more than spending an evening with the beautiful people, exchanging confidences with them, delighting in their small talk. While such interaction was frequent during the decades outside government, for a while -- in the 1998 stint -- Vajpayee's interaction with the beautiful world of the creative got sharply reduced.
Since the 1999 election returned him to power, Vajpayee has spent most of his time doing what he does best -- socializing.
His artistic temperament makes it a chore to attend meetings, where he is silent except for an occasional witticism, which invariably sends those assembled into peals of laughter even while they are unable to hear just what it is that he has said. A leader without any inhibitions about delegating power, Vajpayee left the nitty-gritty of running the party and the government to his permanent deputy, L.K. Advani, and to Brajesh Mishra. In the past, former Finance Minister Jaswant Singh was part of this core group, which also contains former Law Minister Arun Jaitley.
A man comfortable only with the cosmic, Vajpayee is impatient with those who bring thorny issues before him for a decision. He expects those working for him to present him not with problems but with solutions that he can then speedily and cheerfully endorse. A look at his calendar will show repeated meetings with the same, small group of intimates, and huge amounts blocked off for personal time.
Vajpayee is a mirror that reflects those he is in the process of meeting.
The man can appear to agree with any of those interacting with him. Thus, he can nod sagely at an activist of the Viswa Hindu Parishad who wants the immediate construction of a temple on the site where the Babri Masjid stood, and minutes later sob in anguish to a Muslim leader who recalls the day when the structure was pulled down in the presence of Vajpayee in 1992.
There is, however, a darker side.
Under his rule, governmental agencies were used by people acting in Vajpayee's name to fix their critics. As the just-defeated prime minister never accepts criticism of his intimates, they have the freedom to act at whim and do.
During the past six years, even junior functionaries working in his office have used the name of the prime minister for favors ranging from securing jobs for stenographers to admission in engineering colleges.
Under Vajpayee, the prime minister's office was once again as all-powerful as it was under Indira Gandhi, a person he admired almost as much as he did her father Jawaharlal Nehru.
Fortunately for those indulging in money-making activities, opposition parties were generally silent on the doings of his associates. In contrast, Narasimha Rao was repeatedly hauled over the coals, even after he left office.
There is no chance that any such persecution will follow Vajpayee or his men, who have been careful to keep open excellent lines of communication with the other big party, Congress. Mishra, for example, is close to both Natwar Singh as well as Arjun Singh, two confidantes of Sonia Gandhi.
Under Vajpayee, economic liberalization did not come in big leaps as it did under Manmohan Singh, but on a case-by-case basis. There has been little "big bang" liberalization, such as the transfer of powers to the state governments or the introduction of a value-added tax, measures promised "within a year" in each of the last five.
As for foreign policy, India under Vajpayee has come into the radar not because of any action of his but because of two factors: the rise of China, which has made many in the U.S. eager to develop India as a counterweight, and the boom in software and IT services.
It is the "ordinary" Indian rather than his team that has made a part of India shine, a development for which Vajpayee's poll managers tried to grab the credit and failed.
For years he indulged Sonia Gandhi, seeing her as the guarantee of his continuance in office, protecting her from prosecution on charges ranging from the smuggling of antiques to the taking of funds from the KGB.
He believed that so long as Sonia Gandhi was the leader of the Congress Party, BJP rule was safe. The 2004 election proved this to be wrong.
For the first time since he took over the leadership of the BJP (then the Jan Sangh) 53 years ago, Vajpayee's veneer has begun to disappear. His own party has decided that he does not have the fire in him to make a good leader of the opposition.
The Manmohan Singh government is facing a daunting task, and it is the job of the opposition to ensure that it is brought to account whenever it goes off course. A man of Vajpayee's forgiving and forgetful nature is not up to this, even were he physically capable of doing so. Hopefully, this darling of the fates will retain his dignity before history by saying a graceful goodbye to public life.
-(M.D. Nalapat is professor of geopolitics at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India.)

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