At a dinner he hosted for the rss top brass last week, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee appeared relaxed. Hours earlier, rss sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudershan had backtracked on his criticism of the pmo and made a strong public statement in Vajpayee's support. After a week of hostilities, it appeared that some sort of understanding had been thrashed out between the rss and Vajpayee. That evening the PM told Outlook that N.K. Singh, the controversial osd in the pmo, whose scalp the rss has been demanding, was on his way out. "He was only kept on till the Budget," said Vajpayee. Did the prime minister, therefore, believe that the feud within the parivar had been settled? "Abhi to yudh shuru hua hai (The war has just begun)," joked Vajpayee, referring both to the battle within and to the larger war with a rejuvenated Opposition.
As far as the feud in the great Hindu undivided family goes, the PM has again managed to call the bluff of the rss. Sangh sources say the PM told Sudershan in no uncertain terms that there was no question of principal secretary Brajesh Mishra being asked to quit right now under pressure. "If Brajesh Mishra goes, I go," Vajpayee has reportedly told Sudershan. The sarsanghchalak was also reportedly criticised in the rss for attacking the pmo when it was already reeling under a spate of corruption charges. Hence, a temporary retreat.
Meanwhile, Vajpayee has kept everyone guessing about the possibility of Mishra being gracefully eased out after some months. No one, not even the highest echelons of the bjp leadership, really knows what the PM will do. The consensus appears to be that he will bide his time and only remove the principal secretary if he continues being a political embarrassment. A pmo official asks: "What charge against Mishra has been substantiated? He is being targeted only because he is considered too powerful by some people within the Sangh Parivar."
The bjp leaders, meanwhile, appear to have realised that they have scored a stunning self-goal by their all too frequent off-the-record complaints against the pmo. Till recently, partymen would duck queries about foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya. Few would rise to defend Mishra or Bhattacharya, conveying the impression that the ruling party had serious problems with its own prime minister.
Now, however, it is clear that instructions have been given to the party to rise to the pmo's defence. The newly-anointed party president Jana Krishnamurthy told Outlook that there is no basis to the charges against Bhattacharya and Mishra: "Is there anything against Brajesh as they showed against Bangaru? There are only indirect references." For good measure, Krishnamurthy also sees a clear design behind the Tehelka disclosures. "Look at the people they have targeted. Bangaru, who was considered PM's choice for president. George Fernandes, who is his closest nda ally, and Brajesh and Ranjan. Don't you see the pattern? The real target is Atalji whose popularity and acceptance is increasing. They can't defeat him electorally so they use these methods."
The pmo, meanwhile, has retreated behind a wall of silence. Sources say Bhattacharya has been told to make himself invisible while Mishra has been instructed to keep as low a profile as possible. As the uneasy truce with the Sangh continues, the PM will not take any grand initiative on Kashmir or foreign policy which could further alienate the hardliners. But he has drawn the line over appointing rss nominees in his office.Hence the Sangh will continue to smart over the fact that the PM doesn't allow it to run his office. And though the rss has tried to take the moral high ground on corruption, its real grouse against Vajpayee is that its men have been pointedly snubbed by the PM's household.
There are various rss lobbyists, like the Chennai-based S. Gurumurthy, who have successfully influenced appointments and postings in various ministries. This lot has been consistently kept at an arm's length by the pmo and Vajpayee's adopted family has made no secret of their dislike for the rss lobbyists.
Vajpayee has in fact, consciously, created a pmo that insulates him from his own 'parivar'. He has good reason to be distrustful of a section of his own party. Most bjp leaders make no secret of the fact that they consider Advani to be their "true leader". Vajpayee is tolerated as a concession to coalition politics. If the party gives out mixed signals vis-a-vis the PM, it is because of the complex Advani-Vajpayee equation. While the two leaders themselves say nothing post-Tehelka, both the camps have been buzzing with conspiracy theories. The Vajpayee camp believes that the Advani followers set up the Sangh to embarrass the PM further after the corruption disclosures. Says a Vajpayee loyalist: "After all, Advani would like to replace Vajpayee—the rss initially went along with that but backed off once the nda started to crack and they realised they could lose the government at the Centre."
The level of hostility between the two camps was illustrated by a telling incident that took place the day after the Tehelka disclosures. Even as an nda meet was taking place at the prime minister's residence, his staff noticed a uni report from Thiruvananthapuram in which Tehelka correspondent Mathew Samuel claimed to have evidence of Advani being tied to some kickbacks. Apparently delighted that Advani would also go down with Laxman, the staff at the PM's residence rushed the report to Vajpayee, who was in the meeting. Later, after the news agency denied the report, a crestfallen prime ministerial aide speculated: "Why are they going out of their way to give a clean chit to Advani.... Could there be a connection?"
At the heart of the Vajpayee-Advani tussle lies the fact that the PM has made it clear to the entire parivar that he will never anoint Advani his successor. In fact, Vajpayee appears to have gone out of his way to thwart Advani. The latter's loyalists point to the manner in which Vajpayee stepped on his turf by giving former raw chief A.S. Dullat charge of Kashmir affairs in the pmo. Says a national executive member: "At every stage, the PM's men undermine Advaniji who has done nothing but stand by the prime minister."
There is a perception that Advani has emerged stronger in the post-Tehelka scenario. But he knows more than anyone else that the party has been badly discredited. Says an Advani loyalist: "While some people may have been egging on the rss to take on the pmo, Advani himself would never sanction any foolhardy scheme to usurp Atalji at the risk of losing the nda government." Advani's real challenge is, clearly, gaining greater public acceptability.
At the end of the day, sanity has returned and the entire parivar has realised that ultimately discrediting Vajpayee amounts to cutting the nose to spite the face. After some sober reflection at the recent national executive, partymen came around to the view that any Opposition charge led by a rejuvenated Congress can only be blunted by a man of Vajpayee's stature. As a delegate put it: "After the recent public humiliation of seeing our president accept money on TV, the nda government will not be able to take further knocks. It will certainly not survive any further attempt to discredit Vajpayee. And with so many vital state elections coming up, including the big one in Uttar Pradesh next year, we can't afford to lose the government." The same partymen who were busy fighting petty turf wars have suddenly realised that the whole edifice could come tumbling down if Vajpayee is pushed any further. As it is, Vajpayee has been ruing: "Pehli baar Parliament mein log mere muh per mujhe chor keh rahein hain" (It's the first time I've been called a thief in Parliament).
As a massive damage control exercise begins, this round of the parivar wars has ended in a stalemate. Vajpayee has again retreated behind the walls, the rss is still straining at the leash, greedy for greater control over the spoils of power; Advani is still waiting in the wings. The only change in the status quo is that the political party at the helm of affairs stands badly discredited.
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