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December 14, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

If he can get his act together, Vajpayee may emerge as a winner

Though this is not how the rest of India perceives the election results, my guess is that they have thrown up two winners (one clear winner plus one could be winner) and one set of losers. The problem is that the losers thought that they were in the same boat as the one clear winner. They now have to come to terms with the realisation -- long overdue -- that their interests are not necessarily the same.

The one could be winner is Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Traditionally, when a strong prime minister heads his party's campaign in a by-election or midterm assembly election and loses, the results are seen as a personal defeat. Bengal in 1987 was Rajiv Gandhi's loss. Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in 1983 were perceived as set-backs for Indira Gandhi. In 1983 and 1987, the personality of the prime minister was a key component of the winning party's campaign - "Give a fitting reply to Rajiv Gandhi 's arrogance," said the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 1987 - and the election was a referendum on his or her popularity.

The interesting thing about the 1998 election is that Vajpayee is not an issue. Not one Opposition party attacked him personally; nobody talked about his arrogance, his imperviousness or his ineptitude. Instead the two national issues that were raised again and again were prices and law and order.

In Bharatiya Janta Party terms, this is of the utmost significance. It is well known that Vajpayee is enormously perturbed by Yashwant Sinha's handling of the economy. It is almost as well-known that he fought tooth and nail against Sinha's appointment as finance minister, holding out first for Jaswant Singh and then offering to hold the portfolio himself till Singh could get into the Rajya Sabha. He has since repeatedly complained about the finance ministry's inability to implement any of his economic initiatives.

Sinha has survived so far largely because he has the backing of L K Advani (the man who would be the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's and the BJP's preferred prime minister if elections didn't have to be won and coalitions didn't need to be formed). But the second lesson of the defeats is that Advani's failures at the home ministry contributed substantially to the BJP's losses.

The arrest of Romesh Sharma did the BJP no good (last week Sharma issued a press release reiterating that he knew Sushma Swaraj well; I'm sure he's lying -- aren't you?). The raids on Reliance intended presumably to show that Advani fears no man, fizzled out after the home minister himself backed down and described the Reliance angle as a distraction. Meanwhile India is a much more dangerous place than ever before. Hindus are murdered in Kashmir and the underworld rules Mumbai (state home minister, Gopinath Munde, BJP).

Considering that the duo of Advani and Sinha caused the backlash against the BJP, Vajpayee finally has the excuse he needs to get his act together. Advani can't be touched but his proteges must no longer enjoy the same protection. Sinha must go. Ideally, he should be replaced by Jaswant Singh. The Advani formulation of getting a technocrat like C Rangarajan to take his place will simply not work. A weak finance minister will allow S Gurumurthy and the other Bharatnatyam dancers to run the show from behind the scenes.

So, if he can get his act together, Vajpayee may well emerge as a winner from this defeat. He finally has a chance to remind his party that Nagpur is a long way from New Delhi and assert that history has demonstrated that even a successful Vallabhbhai Patel must play second fiddle to Jawaharlal Nehru. And as for a Sardar Patel who is costing the party election after election... well, that should be self-evident.

The clear winner of this election is Sonia Gandhi. Enough has been written about her; largely by people who specialised in writing her off. Having pretended that she was a dumb, tense, ice maiden who was only interested in shopping and who insisted that visitors to her office first make the sign of the cross and then kneel to kiss herring, they have now gone overboard announcing that she has "suddenly matured" and has "inherited Mrs Gandhi's shrewdness."

The truth, I suspect, is that Sonia is still what she has always been: a sensible, realistic person with most of Rajiv's warmth but without his naively trusting nature. She has one great advantage over every other Indian politician: she does not long to be prime minister. This makes her less greedy and more rational than the rest. Unlike the others, she is not in politics solely to win power. She plunged herself into Congress politics only because she did not want it said that after the death of Rajiv, the Congress collapsed because the one surviving member of her generation in the family (and let's not waste time arguing whether Maneka is part of that generation; she is certainly not part of the family) did not have the guts to try and avert this collapse.

If all of the above sounds like high praise, then, think again. Because the people who didn't realise what Sonia was all about are the real losers of the election. I don't think anybody seriously disputes that the motley collection of caste leaders, scheduled caste exploiters, thugs, crooks, yokels and has been that calls itself the Third Force is in politics solely to win power. These people believe in nothing, have no record of governance, wouldn't recognise an ideology if it pulled their dhotis off.

Their fundamental mistake lay in failing to recognise that the Congress under Sonia is a very different party from the Laloo Prasad Yadav-loving body that Sitaram Kesri headed. That the Congress would have done anything to win office. In fact, it tried everything -- going to the extent of withdrawing support twice from the United Front government (when ironically, these same Third Force jokers kept it from joining the ministry and forced the election that brought the BJP in).

The Third Force believed that Sonia -- like them -- longed for power. They calculated that one or two shifts in alignments -- J Jayalalitha moving over, for instance -- would give a Congress-Third Force alliance (with left support) majority. And they expected -- during the last parliamentary session itself -- that Sonia would help destabilise the BJP. Unfortunately for them, she was in it for the long term and refused to countenance a coup. Her ambition was not to be prime minister but to revive the Congress.

These results suggest that the revival is beginning. Of particular significance are the by-elections in Punjab (which the Congress won) and Agra (where the Congress came a close second but, Mulayam Singh Yadav's man lost his deposit). If, as now seems likely, the Muslims and some of the scheduled castes return to the Congress, then this may not be enough to win back the crucial cow belt state of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, but it will be enough to stop the rise of the Third Force.

Of course, nobody takes defeat lying down. Having recognised that its interests are not the same as the Congress, the Third Force will now change its strategy. And Indian politics is so unpredictable that this grouping's fortunes could revive.

But till that happens, here is the score at the end of this week. Sonia: 1. Yadavs: 0, Vajpayee: 0 (but could score soon).

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