IT took just one statement from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to come tumbling down from his lofty pedestal, to undermine his own dream of being remembered in history, to lose his aura and seeming invincibility. Last fortnight saw the Opposition exploit his controversial statement—that the Ram mandir reflected a national sentiment—to tear to shreds Vajpayee's reputation of being a liberal and secular and more important, a reasonable politician. No longer will he be perceived as different from others, as a liberal man within. A reasonable character among rabid dramatis personae.
So, when Congress leader S. Jaipal Reddy described the PM as "thick-skinned Vajpayee", the Opposition did understand the implications of last fortnight's politics. Later, Reddy told reporters: "Never in his life has he been attacked like this. Earlier, when everyone attacked the party, we used to say, 'Atalji you're different'. But now this doesn't hold good."
Even Vajpayee's spin-doctors concede that the PM's secular and statesman-like image has suffered. Yet they argue that the damage isn't irreversible. "Has anybody asked for the prime minister's resignation? The tdp ANd the Trinamul have made noises on the floor of the house but they have to do this to reassure their votebanks. It's political showcasing. Don't read too much into it," said a pmo OFficial. In fact, the spin put out by bjp LEaders is that the PM is probably the only leader whose image can withstand such a setback.
VAJpayee himself hasn't gone back on his Ayodhya statements. But in his reply to Parliament, he invoked his past in an attempt to neutralise the fallout of his statement. He said: "My 40 years in Parliament are there before you all. Never have I raisED any communal issuE. When these have come up, I have tried to stop them. Never have I encouraged any kind of extremist views..." It seemed the PM was affirming his liberal credo by playing up his past record vis-a-vis a couple of statements he made on Ayodhya, which he claimed had been quoted out of context.
VAJpayee's friends say that he is hurt by the criticism and that too much has been made out of his statement to the press. Asks a minister: "Is he going to be judged by one sentence which has been quoted out of context or by his 40-year-old political life?" Unfortunately for the prime MINister, the belief in his liberal credentials stand eroded.
THOse close to him are naturally angered. Says law minister Arun Jaitley: "I don't agree with this. People can resort to abuse if they want to. That does NOt mean anything." Queries a senior bjp leader: "When the prime minister gives concessions to his allies such as rollbacks, doesn’t that hurt his image? Farooq Abdullah announces his decision on autonomy without even waiting for the prime minister to come back from a trip abroad! The bjp is also part of nda. Why can’t he give concessions to his own party as he does to his allies? This PM has survived Kargil and Kandahar. This is nothing.
In fact, there is a view that by constantly deferring to Mamata Banerjee and Chandrababu Naidu’s secular pretensions the prime minister had acquired the image of a soft, pliant leader. Now, by staking his prime ministership for his party and his ministers, his image can only have gained, said a Vajpayee aide. He adds: For argument’s sake let us concede that the PM’s image has suffered. But look at what he has gained. Parliament has met and taken a vote on the issue of the three chargesheeted ministers. Each year, the Congress raised this and gained political mileage. Now this has been taken to its logical conclusion and the Opposition cannot raise it again next year. More importantly, the allies have voted along with the bjp on this issue.
It was V.P. Singh who caught on to this first. He pleaded with the Opposition not to play up the Ayodhya issue and to attack the government on the economic front. Aap ladai unke akhaade mein le jayenge (You will take the fight into his arena), he warned.
In the pmo’s balance-sheet the prime minister has gained, not lost. He has reiterated his position as the leader of the bjp. On the debit side, the PM has shown the green light to the Sangh parivar to go ahead with its mandir agenda—this in the long run could alienate the bjp from its allies and could even destabilise the government.
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