It was a routine meeting last month between Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani. The only aide present was principal secretary Brajesh Mishra. Suddenly the prime minister complained to Advani. A journalist who moved in the inner circles of the bjp, he said, had told a powerful industrialist that the PM was in such poor health that he was no longer fit for office; the journalist proposed that the industrialist use his influence to persuade the prime minister to step down and anoint Advani his successor.
For the home minister, it must have been a very embarrassing moment. Too smart a politician to be associated with such a ham-handed effort to dethrone Vajpayee and instal himself, Advani merely responded that they should ask the journalist in question. The call was made right there and then; the journalist, naturally, denied the charge.
But the fact that Vajpayee was ruffled by the little backroom manoeuvres of a mere hack indicated that he is sensitive to the moves and manipulations against him. By raising the issue, Vajpayee was also making it amply clear that he would not brook any challenge to his leadership.
This response was surprising since Vajpayee has already set a record of being the country's longest-serving non-Congress prime minister. He has completed 30 months in office and there seems no immediate threat to his prime ministership and the power that he wields thereof. Next week, he completes the first year of his second consecutive term. Unlike the 13-day disaster in 1996 and the unstable innings in 1998, the past year has seen him grow in strength and bolster his own position.
Indeed, with the opposition in compete disarray, any challenge that has come has been from the Sangh parivar. The opposition to the government's economic policies has the blessings of the rss. And it is the parivar which is behind persisting rumours about the prime minister's health and deteriorating faculties.
In recent weeks, there has been a well-orchestrated whisper campaign that the prime minister is suffering from Parkinson's disease - a debilitating neuro-degenerative disorder. Vajpayee loyalists describe it as an old ploy to undermine the leader. Complains an aide in the pmo: "This is not the first time rumours about his health from within the party have been used to damage him."
The prime minister's camp hopes that many of the so-called symptoms which are being attributed to Parkinson's disease will disappear once Vajpayee recovers from the knee surgery, tentatively scheduled for October 10. Meanwhile, Vajpayee's performance in the US is being minutely examined to explain the poor showing in the first leg of the trip. Members of the inner circle reveal that the US-based nri physician, Dr Chittaranjan Ranawat, who will be operating on Vajpayee next week, had specifically asked the prime minister not to use any anti-inflammatory drugs before he examined him. Vajpayee was, therefore, in excruciating pain when he went on the public stage but there was a distinct improvement after the medical check-up. Says Sudheendra Kulkarni, who is currently with the pmo and is the PM's speechwriter: "It was an exercise in courage to see the PM go on in spite of the continuous pain."
EVEN in the face of such problems, Vajpayee in fact appears to be in no mood to slow down or delegate power. Next month, he will be laid up for close to three weeks after the knee replacement surgery at Mumbai's Breach Candy hospital on October 10. After a week to ten days in Mumbai, depending on the medical prognosis, he will return to Delhi, where his engagements will continue to be curtailed for a while - a relatively long period of convalescence for a head of state. Yet no arrangements have been made to delegate power. Says Ashok Tandon, who handles the media in the pmo: "What is the need to delegate power with all the modern communication facilities available nowadays?"
When Vajpayee travels abroad, a circular is issued stating that the Cabinet committee for security will be in charge. The committee includes defence minister George Fernandes, external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, finance minister Yashwant Sinha and is chaired by home minister L.K. Advani. Cabinet meetings are usually postponed when Vajpayee is out of the country. Only once, in October 1998, an emergency meeting of the cabinet was called to discuss the imposition of President's rule in Bihar while Vajpayee was in the US. That meeting was chaired by Advani. But this time around, the word is out that unless there is an emergency, no cabinet meetings will take place while the PM is indisposed. Clearly, Vajpayee does not want to delegate power.
On the surface, it's ironical: Vajpayee may be unsteady on his legs but he appears stronger than ever in the political arena. Unlike the past where a collective leadership took all the decisions in the bjp, Vajpayee's voice now carries the greatest clout. Most significantly, he appears to have gathered sufficient courage to challenge the Sangh on several issues. There are innumerable instances in the recent past of Vajpayee overlooking Advani and disregarding the diktats of the rss. As a member of his inner circle says: "Remember the manner in which he was forced to keep Jaswant Singh out of his first cabinet in 1998 because of the rss' objections. That sort of incident can never be repeated in 2000."
The assertive Vajpayee of the new millennium has caught many members of his own party unawares. The strategists of the Sangh parivar had always assumed that Vajpayee would be content to function as a sort of figurehead. For, in spite of greater involvement in organisational affairs, Vajpayee still derives his clout from public acceptability, not from any control over the party organisation.
When the bjp was founded in Mumbai in 1980, in the wake of the dual membership row that brought down Morarji Desai's Janata Party government, Vajpayee's presidential address played down the rss connection and instead focused on the socialist legacy of Jayaprakash Narayan. In 1980, Vajpayee's vision of the bjp was way ahead of its times. But he had never had sufficient clout over the party organisation to impose his political vision. That is why a senior bjp leader could get away unscathed after describing him as a mere mask of the party.
After a relatively stable year in office, Vajpayee finally appears to have realised the power of the popular mandate. With no scam or scandal tainting his prime ministership, his popularity remains undented and unchallenged after two-and-a-half years in office. Even his critics concede that he is enjoying a longer honeymoon than most prime ministers have before him. Clearly, for the first time, Vajpayee is in a position to impose his will on the party.
The prime minister would clearly like to be remembered as the leader who transformed the bjp from an ideologically rigid party to a more acceptable middle-of-the-road political force. If he had his way, it would be a case of the tail wagging the dog. There is little doubt that he has begun the process. It remains to be seen whether his health will permit him to complete the process.