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The Scapegoat Hunt
The day he was forced to quit as president of the bjp, Bangaru Laxman spent an evening of leisure. He went off to Delhi’s Sriram Centre auditorium to watch an Urdu play. Written and directed by D.P. Sinha, the convenor of the bjp’s cultural cell and chief administrator of the party headquarters at Delhi’s Ashoka Road, the historical drama Sidiyan (The Steps) tells the story of the ancient city’s most decadent emperor, the colourful but weak Mohammad Shah Rangeela. On the day that his long political career came to a shameful end, the former bjp president sat through the entire two-and-a-half hours of the play. It was a theme that held Laxman in rapt attention. As Sinha himself puts it, the historical saga has a strong contemporary message—"It vividly represents the decadence of the times"
Particularly embarrasing for the bjp is the fact that it is the highest office in the land which continues to be mired in controversy. Even before the Tehelka furore, the Outlook exposé Rigging the pmo, on business houses manipulating the prime minister’s office, had become a huge talking point in political circles. The rss in particular had debated the story in its inner circles. And the Tehelka tapes last week may have brought the nda government to the edge of a precipice.
What is even more devastating for the bjp, however, is the loss of reputation and its moral high ground. From the long-time rss pracharak who has served his ideology for little material reward to the young party volunteer who perceives the bjp as the natural party of governance in place of an atrophying Congress, the lament was the same: "In one stroke, a reputation built over 40 years has been destroyed."
Even worse for the BJP is that by the time the furore over corruption in high places dies down, the carefully sustained Vajpayee image would have taken a severe beating. Dirt finally appears to be sticking to the teflon-coated Vajpayee. And this time around, it is not just the Opposition which is throwing muck at the PM. Much of the mud-slinging is coming from within the Sangh parivar. bjp hardliners and rss strategists are using the corruption charges to rein in Vajpayee and curb the unbridled authority of the pmo.
For the last two months, even before the Tehelka story broke, stories about corruption in the pmo have been doing the rounds. Partymen believe that an ageing and ailing Vajpayee has increasingly become a prisoner of his foster family and a small non-party coterie which runs the pmo. rss and bjp old-timers say it is outsiders and non-party men who are bringing disrepute to the pmo—Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya, osd N.K. Singh and principal secretary Brajesh Mishra, who joined the bjp only in the 1990s.
Says a BJP general secretary: "All the individuals whose names have come up in the Tehelka scam and other corruption charges are the PM’s men." The pmo coterie is also accused of systematically alienating the PM from his old colleagues in the party and the rss. The hardliners are therefore using the current scandal to demand the ouster of Brajesh Mishra and curb the pmo’s powers.
Shocked and bewildered by the recent charges, partymen are openly venting their anger against the pmo. Says a party MP: "In most instances, a culture of corruption festers at the bottom and slowly makes its way to the top. In the case of the bjp, it came from the very top."
Take the case of Bangaru Laxman. When Vajpayee was promoting him for the presidentship over Advani nominees like Jana Krishnamurthy and Venkaiah Naidu, it was pointed out that Laxman had a somewhat unsavoury reputation in financial matters. But the PM chose to overlook this. From the very beginning, Laxman made it clear that he was an altogether different kettle of fish compared to his predecessor Kushabhau Thakre, who still lives in a tiny room in the party headquarters. Laxman first took over an additional room in the cramped headquarters for his staff and ordered a complete redecoration. He also set a new precedent when instead of a party worker, he kept a rank outsider from the corporate sector as his personal secretary. This was Satyamurthi, whose revelations to the Tehelka team proved even more damaging than Laxman’s demand for dollars.
BJP insiders also point fingers at the PM’s speechwriters. As a bjp vice-president puts it: "Take the case of the two journalists who were given jobs in the pmo and are privy to all the details of the state. Kanchan Gupta, who recently left the pmo, joined an organisation run by Ramesh Gandhi, who was arrested for being a part of the Dhanbad coal mafia. Gupta has been using his connections to get a good deal for his boss. Similarly, Sudheendra Kulkarni, who writes the PM’s speeches, was on the payroll of the Hindujas." For good measure, he adds: "Look at the characters in the pmo. They are all shady. And with people like them at the helm, many more scandals will come to the fore and it is people like us who have worked selflessly for the party who have to suffer."
Even as the power equations change in the ruling party, other nda constituents are playing the wait-and-watch game. With Mamata Banerjee’s departure and with the Samata Party refusing to retain any ministerial berth, the nda government is left in a very precarious position. Vajpayee will now be at the complete mercy of Chandrababu Naidu, whose tdp has 29 MPs and ensures the survival of the government by giving it outside support. It is the tdp’s advice to the prime minister that George Fernandes be asked to resign that made Vajpayee change his mind. As of now, Vajpayee can draw comfort from the fact that the tdp will not rock the boat as it views the revival of the Congress as a bigger threat to its interests in the state. The tdp’s Yerran Naidu also dismisses all efforts to revive the so-called Third Front. "We know from experience that any such formation will exist at the mercy of the Congress. Besides, we don’t want to risk another election." In fact, with the nda’s vulnerability increasing, the wily Chandrababu can be expected to extract the maximum mileage from the Centre.
Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, has landed between a rock and a hard place. With assembly polls in West Bengal in a month’s time, Mamata has certainly blunted the Left charges that she was part of a corrupt and totally discredited regime. But by walking out of the nda she has also deprived herself of the protection she would have gained in terms of additional central forces to combat the formidable Left machinery during the polls. The only manner in which Mamata can turn this messy situation to her advantage is if her parting of ways with the bjp can now result in an arrangement with the Congress and breakaway Left groups like the Saifuddin Chowdhury-led Party for Democratic Socialism.
Meanwhile, Mamata can draw some comfort from the fact that she has dashed the bjp’s hopes of putting up a respectable show in West Bengal. bjp vice-president Madan Lal Khurana concedes: "Without her, we will get nothing."
After the Tehelka expose, it is fast becoming clear to the bjp’s allies that there is electoral mileage to be gained in distancing oneself from the corrupt regime at the Centre. As of now Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi, who also faces an election this summer, has stood by the nda. But increasingly pressure is mounting from his son M.K. Stalin to strike a public posture which distances him from the Vajpayee regime.
There’s bad news for the bjp from Assam as well where polls are also due. The party had chosen not to ally with the agp to take on the Congress, which is seen as the frontrunner in Assam. The reason was that the agp regime was badly discredited. But in one fell stroke, the bjp moral high ground has gone and in the court of public opinion it appears as vulnerable to corruption as any other party.
For a political force that always claimed to be holier than thou, the bjp has taken a major beating. Even worse, its mascot, the unblemished Atal Behari Vajpayee, has also taken a tumble from that high pedestal.