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Advantage Advani Or Game Vajpayee?

Vajpayee will still call the shots but Advani's deputy prime ministership sets the record straight for succession

Advantage Advani Or Game Vajpayee?
Jitender Gupta
Advantage Advani Or Game Vajpayee?
When L.K. Advani was elevated to the post of deputy prime minister, the political grapevine was rife with speculation that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee would take the backseat. It was also predicted that the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) would have a lesser role to play than before. If the political pundits were to be believed, this part-devolution of authority had left a beleaguered prime minister quite happy and relieved, if grudgingly so.

But contrary to this surmise, a senior PMO official told Outlook that Advani's elevation as deputy PM has been influenced more by political motives rather than the considerations of better work management. The anticipation that the deputy PM will be asked to deal with the weighty responsibilities of the prime minister has not been borne out. It is true that Vajpayee asked Advani to reply to the adjournment motion on Kashmir in Parliament but he has not been given any key areas currently handled by the PMO. In fact, three insignificant transfers of departments to the newly-created office is what the deputy PM has for now. In addition—as a member of the cabinet and not as deputy PM—Advani has been given temporary charge of the coal and mines ministry, an offer earlier made to Mamata Banerjee.

The senior PMO official told Outlook: "There has been no department from the PMO which has been handed over to the deputy PMO except for Jammu and Kashmir which was already with the Union home ministry. All other departments that have been allocated to the deputy PMO have been picked up from various other ministries."

The Special Security Bureau, which was so far a part of the home ministry, and the Disaster Management Cell that was a part of the agriculture ministry, are the only other departments that have been shifted to the deputy PMO. Advani has been allocated more financial powers to modernise the Border Security Force, Central Reserved Police Force and Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

The PMO retains control of all decision-making in the external affairs ministry and will have the final say in economic decisions, infrastructure development and disinvestment. The second round of reforms will be pushed by Vajpayee's office. The PMO will also have full control over the all-important National Security Council, contrary to press reports that it would be shifted to the deputy PMO.

According to officials in the PMO, there are no immediate plans to provide the deputy PM a separate office. A staff of two bureaucrats has been mooted for this additional portfolio. Of these, one would be the official spokesperson while the other would act as secretary to the deputy PMO. The PMO has also prepared a list of five other IAS officers from which Advani could select an officer if the need for more staff members arises. But the appointment will have to have Vajpayee's okay.

Again, contrary to reports, Advani's role in the appointment of bureaucrats in the deputy PMO will be the same as what governs appointments in other ministries of the government. The Cabinet Committee on Appointments would be the final adjudicator in this matter. Advani's role would be limited to selecting the candidates. The final assent for appointment would have to come from the head of this committee. And Vajpayee, being the head, will make his decision in consultation with the finance ministry.

The PMO is reportedly keen to keep many of Advani's confidants out of the deputy PMO. The PMO source told Outlook that the reason Advani will be provided with two bureaucrats is to try and discourage some of his associates from throwing their weight around in the deputy PMO. Says the source: "The PMO will leave no stone unturned to keep the deputy PMO free from external interference. Although the deputy PMO has not been allocated any important portfolios, bringing in any people from outside the civil services could harm the image of the PMO and the deputy PMO."

There is no doubt that Advani was elevated to the deputy PM's post by Vajpayee himself. But his new role is less to assist Vajpayee and more to make him a legitimate NDA candidate for prime ministership after the 2004 general elections when Vajpayee is likely to call it quits. There is, however, another reason as well.

Speaking to Outlook, BJP sources say the appointment of Advani as deputy PM has nullified the competition, mainly from party colleague Jaswant Singh and Samata Party leader and defence minister George Fernandes—precluding them from staking a claim. It was Vajpayee himself who conveyed the decision to make Advani his deputy to the NDA allies last month. While the DMK opposed the idea, the Janata Dal (United) too expressed its displeasure. Both, however, left the final decision to Vajpayee. It was a decision which Vajpayee had anyway been deferring for a long time due to anticipated opposition from NDA allies. But under tremendous pressure from the RSS, he finally relented.

The worry, both in the BJP and the RSS, was that George Fernandes was gaining in stature in the NDA thanks to his acting as troubleshooter in crisis after crisis. Jaswant Singh's proximity to Vajpayee was the other factor that the RSS thought would propel the former external affairs minister towards prime ministership.

The Sangh factor thus is critical in putting Advani in his current position. The parivar had been bearing heavily on Vajpayee after the electoral debacle in UP, Uttaranchal and Punjab. The poor showing was attributed to the party moving away from hardline Hindutva and it's Advani who enjoys the support of the hardliners. With assembly elections in nine states next year and Lok Sabha polls in the year after that, Advani would also take on the role of a party mascot. The post of the deputy PM, it was felt, will give him more credibility when he approaches the voters.

According to PMO sources, Advani's role as deputy PM transcends the administrative function and is more of a political gameplan. They point out that the question of who—Vajpayee or Advani—wields more power is irrelevant. According to sources close to him, Vajpayee, till the end of his tenure, will call the shots. Says a PMO official: "It is another matter that Vajpayee wants Advani to succeed him. But while in office, he'd like to prove that he's not as ineffective as Time magazine has painted him to be."
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