IN the end, it was what the prime minister's supporters had been waiting for. Their leader, Atal Behari Vajpayee, acted. Beginning with his completely unexpected announcement early last week that he would "not contest another election", and followed up with a series of decisions and actions over the past week, the prime minister seems to have made it clear that not only does he have a mind of his own, he is also willing to act on its dictates. That is the message. The method has been far more subtle.
Senior BJP leaders were left scratching their heads in collective disbelief by his statement in the Lok Sabha last Tuesday when he let out that he was through with electoral politics—"kabhi kabhi man khatta ho jaata hai, tabiyat bigad jaati hai" (one does get upset and feel disillusioned at times). BJP leaders insist that the barb was directed at the Opposition which was being "uncooperative and unfair" and practising "confrontationist politics". While that may be true, it is equally clear that Vajpayee's comments and decision is also being viewed as being directed, at least in part, at sections of the Sangh parivar.
But this decision is looking more and more like only the first step taken by an embattled Vajpayee to shake himself free of pressure groups. The context, however, is equally important.
From the moment he took over as prime minister, he had been forced on the defensive. First, there was the fiasco over the allocation of the finance portfolio. Then came a sustained attack from the Opposition, both in Parliament and outside, for his party's propensity to look to the RSS for its agenda, "hidden" or otherwise. And despite repeated assurances to the contrary by the prime minister, things didn't change much. In fact, the contradictory messages sent out by statements made by senior leaders on the economy, swadeshi, Hindutva and the contentious issues in the BJP manifesto, only succeeded in complicating matters.
Simultaneously, the party machinery began preparing for an organisational revamp, keeping in mind that a new president has to be elected. But the names doing the rounds were those of Kushabhau Thakre for party president, K.N. Govindacharya for general secretary (organisation) and even the unlikely S.S. Bhandari as a "compromise" candidate for the top post. All of whom do not enjoy the best of relations with Vajpayee.
Vajpayee supporters, not all of them necessarily in the BJP, point to the fact that his announcement came on a day when he promised the nation on the floor of the House that the principle of secularism would be robustly upheld by his government. And put forth a semi-defence of the RSS calling it "not a bad organisation... which inculcates discipline and promotes patriotism even if there are differences." A classic example of Vajpayee-speak where he admits the link, but differentiates in the nature of the connection. Quite different from the majority of the BJP leadership which is rather gung-ho about what has been termed the "moral authority" wielded by the RSS over the BJP.
For a man who has not only survived in Sangh parivar politics for close to 50 years but has been a front rank leader of the party, nobody knows the importance of symbolic acts better than him. Especially in an organisation where the political idiom is loaded with symbolism. In fact, party sources concede it's the beginning of a larger ideological tug-of-war, at the centre of which is the definition of the RSS-BJP relationship. But they insist that it's too premature to term it a "battle" yet.
The 'liberal' view is that given the current scenario, the mandate for the BJP-led coalition is essentially that for Vajpayee as PM and to provide good governance while implementing the policies outlined in the national agenda with its allies. "No more, no less," says a member of the BJP's national council. The BJP's agenda outlined in its manifesto or the RSS world-view are peripheral to this school of thought at the moment. And the desire is that the party, which they want to strengthen, should both understand and accept this.
The opposite view is that while it can be accepted that the current scenario and mandate is not suited for the party agenda to be implemented by the government, there should be no hesitancy in either raising the issues dear to the party or speaking of the link with the RSS. As Vajpayee himself put it in Parliament while promising to implement the national agenda: "We will not betray the people, otherwise they will not forgive us."
For 'hardliners', one of the tasks to be accomplished now that the BJP is in power, is to try and end the untouchability tag bestowed upon the RSS. "Certainly, we would like the RSS and its role to become part of the mainstream discourse; wherein there can be disagreement with them, but they should not be portrayed as evil incarnate or their existence as a threat to the nation," says a party general secretary.
IT is in terms of realpolitik, however, that the Vajpayee announcement is seemingly being followed up rather assiduously.First, there is the move to gain acceptability for Rajasthan chief minister and Vajpayee-admirer, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, for the post of party president. While the drubbing the BJP got in his state in the Lok Sabha elections seemed to have stymied his chances, over the past week Vajpayee supporters have upped the ante again. It is being pointed out that his organisational and administrative experience is impeccable, and that the prime minister needs a party president he can work with.
The unsaid implication is that the same may not be possible with Thakre, the fron-trunner for the post. It is well-known in party circles that Vajpayee and Thakre have had a rocky relationship going back to their Madhya Pradesh days. The other possible contender—though party sources are emphatic that he lost his chance for the top position in the early 1990's when Murli Manohar Joshi beat him to it—senior BJP vice-president S.S. Bhandari, is said to have a similar less-than-perfect rapport with the PM.
Sources also indicated that while Govindacharya, tipped to take over as the organising secretary if the post is revived or at least general secretary (organisation) the post Thakre currently holds, seems unstoppable, the troubles for him have already begun. Senior leaders of the Bihar unit of the BJP last week protested to the party's central leadership, accusing Govindacharya, under whose charge the state is, with promoting factionalism. A senior Bihar BJP leader told Outlook that such a move would not have been possible "without a nod from the top". And has provided more ammunition against the man who almost single-handedly introduced the word 'mukhauta' (despite his denials) into the saffron lexicon.
The unprecedented appointment of BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan as political advisor to the PM (with Cabinet rank), on the insistence of Vajpayee, is another move, according to party circles, to assert his authority and have the team of his choice. More so, because Mahajan is one of the younger crop of BJP leaders known for his dynamism and comparisons, if not rivalry, with the other prominent second-rung leader, Govindacharya, is inevitable. For some, he is a counter to Govindacharya.
While Mahajan himself has dismissed such speculation as "nonsense", there is a general consensus within the party that Mahajan, an Advani protege, seems to have become the point man for the PM.
The other leader close to Vajpayee who lost the elections, Jaswant Singh, has been appointed Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, and is also expected to attend Cabinet meetings; a clear signal that Vajpayee will have his way after all. BJP sources disclosed that Jaswant Singh is also being seen as a front-runner to head the proposed National Security Council when it is constituted.
As for Advani, there is nothing to suggest that despite the perceived quibbles, the long-standing understanding between him and the PM has been breached. As yet.
Using the moral force of his decision to quit electoral politics after his current term, Vajpayee has begun the attempt to give shape to both his government and party. In the process, some feathers have been ruffled. Some feel that this sort of announcement would give rise to speculation and give the Opposition and the media a talking point; which it has. Despite the PM's indication, after great pressure from senior party leaders, last Thursday in the Rajya Sabha that he would not contest again "after these five years". Not the clarification the BJP top brass had hoped for but at least a talking point. "This means if the government falls before, then his decision doesn't stand," insisted a BJP leader.
His personal circle also points out that there is no need for speculation as Vajpayee will be close to 80 when his term as PM ends. Cynics in the party feel that the move is a ruse to engender sympathy for himself and his government—the last hurrah of a silver-haired statesman. But while BJP leaders may dismiss the prime minister's reaction as an "emotional, spontaneous gesture" by the "poet in the PM" to the current, rather antagonistic, state of affairs in the polity, one thing is certain. For all his easy-going manner and affability, Vajpayee is not known to be the kind of person who acts without thinking. Or reason.