Finance minister Yashwant Sinha was categorical last week when he stated there was no question of his quitting the Union cabinet. But that hasn't stopped the Sangh parivar from stepping up its long-standing, high-octane campaign against him. It has also encouraged the anti-Sinha lobby in the government and has put Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in a bind.
Sinha had complained bitterly to the PM about Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh founder-leader Dattopant Thengadi's verbal assault on him last month, saying he might as well quit if the attacks were to continue. Thengadi, referring to the controversial amendment in the Industrial Disputes Act proposed by Sinha in his Budget speech, had charged the FM with having committed not only a constitutional impropriety but a crime. The bms honcho had said that Sinha had no business bringing up a matter under the purview of the labour minister (who had opposed the move) in the Finance Bill.
In a recent meeting of the Sangh leadership, Thengadi refused to retract, saying: "Don't go by the word (criminal), go by the content (of my speech)...I could not find a more appropriate word to describe him (Sinha)." Rumour has it that Thengadi's choice of words was prompted by the fact that he'd been furnished with documentary evidence against the FM in a matter being investigated by the cbi.
Vajpayee, however, reportedly reassured Sinha that the attacks were against the government as a whole, not specifically against him. For the PM to drop Sinha would be extremely difficult, given the fact that he is perceived as not only doing a pretty good job but implementing the agenda of the government. Industry as a whole would take a dim view of his exit. On the other hand, post-Tehelka, Vajpayee is under a lot of pressure from the Sangh and its auxiliaries needs to mollify its leadership (the departure of controversial bureaucrat N.K. Singh from the pmo is being seen in that light).
It is in this context that the PM mooted a meeting between Sinha and the top Sangh leadership last week, to be attended by home minister L.K. Advani and Thengadi. However, despite efforts to arrive at a compromise, observers feel the ding-dong battle is likely to continue, with sops being handed out to the Sangh parivar's frontal organisations from time to time.
For instance, after the virulent attack on Sinha by the sjm in 1998, the Insurance Regulatory Authority Bill was diluted, with foreign equity scaled down from 49 per cent to 26 per cent. Since then, the government has allowed the sjm the odd small victory, like allowing the ambitious Sankhya Vahini project to be put on the backburner. Or getting tariff and non-tariff barriers imposed on imported goods from which QRs (quantitative restrictions) had been removed in pursuance of the wto.
But Vajpayee mostly had a free hand, although he did ask his cabinet to periodically interact with the sjm. From 1999 onwards, Thengadi was asked to tone down his public statements. In any case, he fell ill and kept a low profile for a couple of years. The salt agitation planned by the sjm, in response to the government order making iodised salt compulsory, was a non-starter. The much-hyped sjm rally of February 1999, where Thengadi was expected to attack the government's economic policies, fell flat.Any criticism of the government was immediately followed by a retraction or an apology.
When the Swadeshi Patrika last year described Vajpayee and his liberal economic policies as "anti-national", its editor was asked to eat his words and beg Vajpayee's pardon. Likewise, when rss sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudershan criticised the incompetence of pmo officials (a veiled attacks on Brajesh Mishra and N.K. Singh) earlier this year, he was pressurised to take back his criticism.
However, a senior rss leader feels the Sangh parivar has become more assertive post-Tehelka, with its frontal organisations—sjm, bks, bms, vhp—speaking freely against the PM and the government. Sudershan repeated his charges against the pmo in an interview to Outlook. The latest issue of the Swadeshi Patrika, likewise, is sharply critical of the PM. The Sangh-Sinha face-off is being keenly observed by the anti-Sinha lobby which would like to see him go for reasons other than his economic policy. For the moment, it appears as if the bold budget has earned Sinha both bitter criticism and a longer lease of life.