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The PM's Fatal Choice

The NDA is already down to 287 in the Lok Sabha. The danger is that the TDP and JD(U), neither especially friendly towards Fernandes, account for a vital 49 MPs.

The PM's Fatal Choice
Atal Behari Vajpayee is perhaps the only person in the nda who qualifies to be considered not merely a politician, but a statesman. That is why his behaviour over the Tehelka exposures is becoming more and more perplexing. For today, he is about one inch short of throwing away the first stable and purposeful government the country has had since December '94, and destroying India's hope of pulling itself out of the trap of rising fiscal deficits, deepening industrial stagnation and skyrocketing unemployment. And he is risking all this out of a completely misplaced loyalty to one man. That man is George Fernandes.

Just look at his record. In 1999, after Fernandes' questionable and unprecedented dismissal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, when Jayalalitha asked him to drop Fernandes from the cabinet, Vajpayee refused. The government fell. Last month, when the Tehelka videotape hit the headlines, Mamata Banerjee—who was already discomfited by Yashwant Sinha's hard budget before a vital election, and couldn't afford to lose any more ground in West Bengal—asked him to secure Fernandes' resignation from the cabinet. Vajpayee promised an inquiry into the allegations but delayed getting the resignation. An nda meeting was held and the convenor announced when it was over that Fernandes had offered his resignation but the offer had been turned down. The convenor was George Fernandes and another member of the nda revealed to the press that he had made no such offer, but had concocted the press release himself. Fernandes was forced out a day later, but by then it was too late. Mamata had resigned and the slide of the nda towards the precipice had begun.

Vajpayee did try to turn the scandal into an opportunity to cleanse the system of its endemic ill. In his March 16 telecast, he promised an all-party meeting to find a lasting solution to the root cause—the need of parties for funds to fight elections and run their daily business. His party leaders, however, had other ideas. Spooked by the Congress' attacks in Bangalore, they went on the defensive. They balked at reminding the Congress of Bofors and hdw, not to mention scores of other defence deals it secured through middlemen in its days. Instead, in a move reminiscent of the Congress' attacks on V.P. Singh's integrity in 1987, it set out to discredit Tehelka, to defend Bangaru Laxman and, inevitably, to defend Fernandes. Regrettably, and inexplicably, Vajpayee has gone along.

This myopic strategy is rapidly widening the rift between the bjp and its principal allies in the nda. It surfaced first at Hyderabad, where tdp leader Chandrababu Naidu (a steadfast associate if not member of the nda) refused to share the platform with Vajpayee and Fernandes. This forced Vajpayee to avoid the rally too. As I write, the story is about to be repeated in the rally planned for Bangalore. R.K. Hegde, the most powerful leader of the jd(u) in Karnataka, has made it clear that he too will not share a platform with Fernandes. What's more, he's likely to be joined by Sharad Yadav, a minister in Vajpayee's government. Hegde has made no secret of the fact that in 1998 he had already been tipped by Vajpayee for the defence portfolio when Fernandes came up with the ultimatum that he would pull the Samata Party out of the then ramshackle nda alliance and prevent it from forming a government, if he was not given that portfolio. Coming on top of that, the Tehelka revelations confirm the darkest suspicions in peoples' minds.At any rate, they have provided sufficient ammunition to the Congress and the Left to make the nda's partners begin to rethink the wisdom of continuing where they are.

Between them, the tdp and the jd(u) have 49 MPs. The nda has already lost four MPs in Tamil Nadu, and 10 in Bengal and has been reduced to 287. The defection of either of the above two can now trim it to a minority. This has already reduced the nda's capacity to take hard decisions. If it can't quickly find a way to prolong its bonding with these parties, and to convince them that the nda as a whole has a future in politics, Vajpayee's government will again find itself paralysed by fear of blackmail.

If Vajpayee allows things to drift, the consequences for India will be awful. India is beset with economic problems and faces a threat of a Pakistan/Afghan jehad in Kashmir the likes of which it has not known since the days of Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali. Both require a strong central government to handle. Coping with industrial stagnation, and soaring unemployment requires cutting the fiscal deficit and reviving investment. The budget had unveiled a strategy that, over three years, would've brought down the central deficit to between 2 and 3 per cent of gdp and given the economy a chance to revive. The rift in the nda has severely jeopardised the government's chances of pushing the budget through, and put a question mark over its capacity to survive the three years.

Facing the jehadi onslaught requires the government to form a tacit alliance with the Kashmiris. This is only possible if it talks to their leaders. The Tehelka exposure has forced this onto the backburner—so much so that Kashmiris have finally lost all faith in the Indian government and have turned in despair to religious pirs and saints to free them from the terror they live under.

Vajpayee is too seasoned and canny a politician not to see that the danger to his government and to the country both stem from his refusal to cut his links publicly with Fernandes. Yet he prefers to put his own government and the future of a billion people at risk rather than drop one man from the nda alliance. One doubts whether history can show a comparable example of such misplaced loyalty.
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