February 22, 2020
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A Man Dwarfed By His Shadow

The clouds over Vajpayee's fate may have blown over but hitherto friendly voices—from within the BJP and the NDA—are getting more strident and openly critical

A Man Dwarfed By His Shadow
A Man Dwarfed By His Shadow
Being Prime Minister of India is no easy job. The situation becomes even more difficult when the incumbent offers to quit in the face of criticism. And if that offer comes at a time when Parliament is in session, one has all but vacated the post. Atal Behari Vajpayee did just that last week. The usually composed prime minister lost his shirt and his political balance. In offering to throw in the towel for the third time in as many years, ironically, Vajpayee managed to confirm that he was the unchallenged king of the nda. What he also confirmed for the first time was that he had as much flair for political histrionics as some lesser-known actors and that the stability plank, the thread supposed to be holding the nda together, had been stretched beyond its elastic limit. His partymen blamed it on 'quixotic behaviour'.

Being swept into office along with his allies by the tidal wave of rhetoric like 'good governance' and 'a party with a difference', Vajpayee is having to defend his own family against charges of corruption and nepotism on the floor of Parliament and fend off the most savage attack yet on any pmo. The alliance realpolitik dictates that this is not the first time, nor the last, that coalition partners would sock one under the jaw. And as the uti saga continues unabated, chances of more revelations and names cropping up cannot be ruled out. The key question is, how will the prime minister react then?

If the Tehelka revelations, the Agra fiasco and sundry other misdemeanours were not enough, along came the uti scam—a saga of financial mismanagement and deceit, rife with details of the alleged involvement of some of his key aides and foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya. This in turn opened up a floodgate of personal attacks and bawdy sloganeering. The vitriol and barbs came not from the Opposition parties—which luckily for Vajpayee are moribund—but from within the much-touted disciplined Hindutva phalanx. The immediate provocation: Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Nirupam's frontal attack on the prime minister.

BJP parliamentary party meetings are usually staid get-togethers where lesser-known bjp mortals are encouraged to let off steam, which is regarded healthier than stealth dissidence. This time it was Vajpayee who was ventilating his grievances. In the middle of a bjp member's complaints against telecom minister Ram Vilas Paswan, Vajpayee smoothly cut in saying he was under attack, that he was too old to manage the nda and would someone else head it instead. He walked out, leaving the air thick with suspense.

Of course, the immediate crisis has blown over and the resignation threat withdrawn, but Vajpayee has not emerged unscathed. The damaging allegations against Ranjan have not been satisfactorily explained. The Shiv Sena is far from placated. It has a long list of grievances. So, despite conciliatory noises, Bal Thackeray continued to blow the bugle: "The Sena has three ministers at the Centre. We are not asking for a fourth. But we demand that the ministers we've be given important portfolios," he told mouthpiece Saamna. And Nirupam is not pulling his punches either: "Why is the prime minister overreacting? I'm just asking for a probe into the uti and its links with the pmo."

So, while the nda reasserted its weight behind Vajpayee in a regulation voice vote in the Lok Sabha, several MPs feel the resignation itself was "high drama and low comedy" and smacked of emotional blackmail. As a tdp MP said: "It conveys a message of instability".Said jd(u)'s D.P. Yadav, "Aaapas ka jhagda hai (It's their internal matter)...why are they dragging us into it?" The proposed code of conduct also infuriated some other members of the nda. "Only the speaker in the House, or the leader of the party outside the House, can dictate a member's conduct. How can the bjp prescribe a code of conduct?" asks Yadav.

How much has the UTI and the prime ministerial drama affected the coalition? That Vajpayee may not be as strong after the latest caper could be best reflected in his allotting MoS Digvijay Singh the addition portfolio of railways after the latter refused to attend office when railways was taken away from him in the minor cabinet reshuffle last fortnight in which he replaced Omar Abdullah in the commerce ministry—the latter was made the minister of state for external affairs. Privately, some leaders say they are aghast. Says an MP: "This is no way to handle criticism." According to him, the middle class—the bjp's main support base—had been at the receiving end of all the government's decisions, whether it was the cut in ppf interest rates, the uti scam, the cut in lpg subsidy or loss of jobs because of disinvestment. Admits bjp economic cell chief Jagdish Shettigar: "Our voters may become indifferent."

BJP president Jana Krishnamurthy, while expressing his apprehensions at the national executive last fortnight, reportedly also said: "The uti scam has affected the middle class the most. Somewhere the government has erred. We can't believe that the government did not know about it. We have to take steps to win back the confidence of the people." Papers presented at the meeting had expressed serious reservations over the direction the government was taking. Already twice in the past, once with Sangh hardliners criticising the government over economic reforms and when some Sangh MPs protested over attacks on Christians, has Vajpayee offered to quit?

BJP MP T.N. Chaturvedi is equally trenchant: "Our economy is in difficulties. The investment scene is poor, savings have fallen because we have cut interest rates. The common man was investing in mutual funds like the uti. And the money he put there is gone". Textiles minister Kashiram Rana was even more critical. "An attempt is being made to paint a rosy picture through figures. But the truth is that factories are closing down. Farmers are not getting full price for their produce. They are committing suicide. If their purchasing power is not improved then how can the economy prosper?"

Vajpayee has been at the receiving end of some unkindly barbs, some of it very personal. The government came under attack on Agra as well, with MPs saying that Pakistan had come off better in the whole episode. Malkani had the last word: "Musharraf hamarey mooh pey moot key chala gaya (Musharraf urinated on our faces)."

All this could have led to the PM's resignation drama. Thus far, his functioning had never been criticised in an open forum. Disgruntled noises were restricted to the sjm, the rss and other wings of the parivar. The "letter campaigns" launched by MPs like Shatrughan Sinha (see box) were an open secret. But now MPs have openly begun voicing their distress in party fora. By threatening to quit, the PM is hoping to silence criticism and reinforce the tina factor.

Off the record, NDA partners say he may no longer be indispensable, given the beating his image has taken in scam after scam with one common element: a member of his family being the target of allegations.A poor performance in UP could well be the last nail. The growing affinity between Advani and Chandrababu Naidu has not escaped the notice of the nda partners. The bjp MPs may fall at Atalji's feet and plead with him too lead them till eternity, but in private they smirk at the PM's weakness and his admission of old age. As Kalraj Mishra, the Uttar Pradesh leader, says with a smile: "Atalji hamaren varisht neta hai. Lekin humari party me doosre number two neta bhi hai (Atalji is our senior leader, but we also have a number two)."

What followed after Vajpayee's latest threat to quit was a chorus of pleas that he must continue. According to those who attended the parliamentary party meeting, there was stunned silence with some members headed by Pramod Mahajan making a dash for the PM. Senior leaders L.K.Advani and Jaswant Singh were not present but were informed immediately. bjp MPs rushed to tdp MP Yerran Naidu and apprised him of the PM's threat. They begged him to request Chandrababu Naidu to intervene. The mdmk's Vaiko accompanied Yerran Naidu to the PM's office, where they found a morose Vajpayee sitting with Union ministers Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Jaswant Singh, and being harangued by Mahajan. So engrossed were they that they did not even acknowledge the visiting leaders. After a few minutes, the PM addressed them. He praised the tdp's role in providing stability to the nda despite not being a member of the coalition. Vaiko assured him of the nda's "respect and love" for his leadership. Yerran Naidu, borrowing a cellphone from a tdp MP, spoke to his chief and said that bjp leaders wanted him to intervene and speak to the PM. Chandrababu obliged and there was no further talk of resignation.

The Congress, it seemed, was on the warpath. Party chief Sonia Gandhi wanted her cohorts to go hammer and tongs at the nda on the uti issue, using any and every means, including the allegations made by Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Nirupam. Chief whip Priyaranjan Das Munshi claimed the party had "explosive material" on the uti scam, including "tapes and transcripts" directly implicating a member of the prime minister's family. While Das Munshi refused to reveal his source, he is yet to come up with any damning evidence.

Das Munshi's claim seemed credible because the comprehensive list of telephone calls made by Subhramanyam, and doing the rounds in Parliament, had at least three numbers which were purported to be those of Ranjan. But for some unknown reason the Congress opted for an adjournment motion instead of a discussion under rule 193. The fact that it preferred adjournment, which calls for a division, to an extensive discussion, appeared to indicate that the Congress did not wish to push the matter too far.

Even on August 2 afternoon, before the debate commenced in the Lok Sabha, the bjp was worried. The previous evening, at a meeting with Mahajan, senior Congress leaders had decided not to concentrate their attack on the PM's family. But the bjp was wary. But the fear was unfounded. The attack, when it came, was watered down. Barely 65 to 100 MPs attended the House during the debate and Das Munshi's opening speech was distinguished only by its blandness. The Opposition remained largely disinterested. On August 3, however, speaker G.M.C.Balayogi announced that the jpc probing the stock scam would also look into uti.

With no immediate threat from the Opposition one would think that the clouds have blown over, but the code of conduct that Vajpayee has proposed is another contentious bone.Party spokesman Vijay Kumar Malhotra insists "this is not a gag order". But Nirupam, the MP who stirred up all the trouble, retorts: "Does this code apply to the convenor of the nda. Soon after talking about the code George Fernandes criticised the bjp's moves in Manipur (which led to the fall of the Samata Party-led Koijam ministry)."

The bjp is now busy calculating whether the nda will survive a Vajpayee exit. The calculation now is that all the allies can be managed. Individuals like Sharad Yadav and Ramvilas Paswan have nowhere to go and have a vested interest in remaining with the coalition. The Samata is firmly anti-Congress and one of the bjp's staunchest allies. The dmk wants to be part of a government at the Centre to fight its state-level battles with the mighty lady of Poes Garden.

The tdp remains a question mark? But after its poor performance in the Andhra panchayat polls and its growing paranoia over the Telangana issue, the tdp's choices too are getting limited. Their immediate interests are best served by not allowing this government to fall—with or without Vajpayee.

But in coalition politics there is many a slip. And the bjp has not forgotten the experience of losing a government by one vote in 1999. The question is whether Vajpayee will throw in the towel under pressure? If that were indeed to happen, then it is easy to visualise the subsequent sequence of events. The bjp parliamentary party is likely to choose Advani as its leader. And then the hard bargaining will begin with the allies. Advani's acceptance may not be as difficult as is generally thought. That, however, still remains a futuristic scenario. Vajpayee, after all, is in the chair.

Bhavdeep Kang and Saba Naqvi Bhaumik

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