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July 8, 1998


E-Mail this story to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Man for all reasons

The political theme of last week has been stability. Will J Jayalalitha withdraw support from the government at the Centre? Can the Bharatiya Janata Party survive without her members of Parliament? If the government falls, then what happens to India's international image and to the rupee?

On the grounds you've had enough of journalists such as myself raising these questions ad nauseam over the last seven days, I'm going to give stability a miss this week. Yes, of course the issue is important. But for me, at least, there has been another theme to last week's events that may be less important but is probably more interesting. If this government survives, and it now looks as though Sonia Gandhi will allow Atal Bihari Vajpayee a few more months to call 3 Race Course Road home, the BJP faces one major dilemma. What does it do with Jaswant Singh?

You will recall Singh was widely regarded -- in the runup to the election -- as the acceptable face of the BJP, and as the sort of chap to take over the finance ministry and prove to the world Manmohan wasn't the only Singh who could sing the globalisation song. Jaswant Singh had two problems, however. The first was that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh remained suspicious of him because nobody in Nagpur ever remembered seeing him don a pair of khaki knickers. (Khaki military uniform, yes, but khaki knickers! Good god, man! as Singh would probably say, not a chance of that.) The other problem was that L K Advani preferred such loyalists as Pramod Mahajan and thought Singh was much too personally loyal to Vajpayee.

Then, a new problem arose. Against the odds, Singh lost his Lok Sabha seat. There was no way Vajpayee could make him finance minister. So, poor, limited Yashwant Sinha got the job. (At least their names sounded similar!) And Singh had to make do with the deputy chairmanship of the Planning Commission, the traditional consolation prize for loyal losers.

But now Singh's got back into the Rajya Sabha from Rajasthan. And while the RSS remains suspicious, Advani has decided he's not a bad fellow, after all. (Advani has reassessed the loyalty of his followers over the last three months and found at least one of them wanting.) So, Singh could be back in the Cabinet in the next reshuffle.

But what do you make him? The logical answer is: finance minister. Yashwant Sinha has proved that just because your name sounds like a Bihar mispronunciation of Jaswant Singh, that doesn't mean you're any good as finance minister. Nobody will shed tears over his exit, and even the RSS regards him as an outsider.

That brings us to problem bumper one. Vajpayee is a bit of a softie and doesn't see why Sinha should be humiliated by being moved out of North Block. Moreover, Sinha could claim, with some justification, that his Budget depended largely on inputs from old style BJP loyalists, including the likes of S Gurumurthy. So, why should he pay the price for the Budget's unpopularity?

With the finance ministry out of the question, there is one other obvious solution. Singh would make a perfect foreign minister. For one, he speaks English. (In a party that appoints K L Sharma as its official spokesman, and Madan Lal Khurana as parliamentary affairs minister, this is not a qualification to be sneezed at.) Also, Singh has functioned as Vajpayee's personal envoy to the United States which suggests his foreign affairs qualifications are respected by the prime minister.

Now, for problem number two. There is a strong lobby in the Prime Minister's Office that is working hard to ensure that Singh does not get anywhere near South Block. The explanation offered to friendly journalists, on off-the-record basis of course, is that Vajpayee likes being foreign minister himself. This was the scene of his moment of glory in the 1977-79 Janata Party government and he enjoys the cut and thrust of diplomacy.

Even to an outsider like myself, this explanation stinks. I doubt very much if poor Vajpayee enjoys the cut and thrust of anything these days. He spends most of his time looking like a man who hasn't had enough sleep and can't work out why he agreed to accept the prime ministership to begin with. He looks old and tired -- hardly the image one would expect of a prime minister who wanted to cling on to a crucial portfolio at a time our international relations are in a mess. On the other hand, it is hard to deny there appears to be a concerted attempt to discredit Singh within the Prime Minister's Office. Let's take what happened last Sunday as an example.

Singh appeared on Karan Thapar's In Focus programme and made several policy related statements. According to the media statement issued by Thapar's channel, Singh offered to freeze the Line of Control as the border between India and Pakistan. This is not a new suggestion. Variants of the idea have been floating around since the Shimla summit, though there are complex qualifications involving Lines of Control and Lines of Actual Control. Nevertheless, this is not the official position of the government of India, which claims that Azad Kashmir is actually a part of India. (Hence, the official term, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.)

But did Singh actually say this? No sooner did the media statement appear on Sunday than he issued a denial, stating that his position had been oversimplified and that he had, in effect, been misquoted. As Thapar's programme only airs on Monday night, an official denial from the interviewee would have served to kill off the media statement on Sunday.

However, for reasons nobody has been able to explain to me, the PMO then got in on the act. Brajesh Mishra, a retired diplomat (he was once ambassador to the United Nations), whose years of loyalty to Vajpayee have been rewarded with the position of principal secretary to the prime minister, decided this was a diplomatic crisis that required his own gnome-like intervention.

Star News was informed Mishra was available for an exclusive interview. (Hold the presses! Make sure there's satellite time available!) Mishra then appeared on television, a full 24 hours before Singh's interview was due to be telecast to deny that this was the government of India's official position and to dismiss Singh's views, his denial notwithstanding.

As far as I know -- and my experience of governance is far more limited than Mishra's, I will readily concede -- it is virtually unprecedented for a civil servant (that too, a superannuated civil servant who had been pulled out of retirement as reward for loyalty) to decide he is going to appear on television to contradict a statement made by a politician who has Cabinet rank, particularly when the politician concerned has already denied having made that statement.

The consequence was that Monday's front pages were full of the squabble within the government. Nobody believed Singh when he said he had been misquoted or at best misunderstood because they didn't see why Mishra would have bothered to go on television to dissociate the government from Singh's remarks unless he had really put his foot in his mouth. None of this did the government's reputation any good. Worse, it tended to confirm the public view of Vajpayee as an ineffectual schoolmaster who watched helplessly as his class ran amok.

But this, I suspect, did not matter. What was important for Singh's enemies was that he should be portrayed as a George Fernandes like figure who would embarrass the government. Could such a man be entrusted with the foreign ministry?

I don't know what Vajpayee believes. I don't know whether he recognises Singh was set up, or feels his old friend shot his mouth off. But either way, the dilemma of what to do with Singh continues.

Some of the prime minister's advisors are recommending Singh is best off as a sort of super envoy with Cabinet rank, that is, doing the sort of thing he does now. He can't be made foreign minister and he can't be made finance minister.

I am no great supporter of Singh. Nor do I know him particularly well. But judging by what I have seen of his performance in Parliament and on the few occasions when he has appeared as a guest on my television programmes, there is no doubt that he is head and shoulders above the flotsam and jetsam that has been accommodated in Vajpayee's Cabinet.

Even BJP supporters will agree it has made an almighty mess of its first 100 days in office. The economy is in a bigger mess than before. Foreign policy is a disaster area. Yashwant Sinha has proved to be the worst finance minister since... well, since Yashwant Sinha was last finance minister. The prime minister no longer seems to have control over events. His aides play politics, and New Delhi resounds with stories to the effect money is being made in his name, but without his knowledge.

In such a situation, Vajpayee has only himself to blame if he does not resolve the Singh dilemma. Ideally, he should give Sinha his marching orders and install Singh in North Block. Failing that, he should make him foreign minister. Vajpayee has proved to be so ineffectual a foreign minister himself, nobody really believes he is running the ministry at all. And at this time of crisis, should we hand India's foreign policy over to an unelected, superannuated civil servant?

Once the government learns to live with the Jayalalitha problem (unless it ceases to live because of it), it will have to conduct a reshuffle. There is a good case for sacking half the ministers in this Cabinet. But even if Vajpayee decides not to, he must prove he is able to effectively utilise the few human assets that he does have.

Jaswant Singh is one such asset. And it would be a shame to waste him.

Vir Sanghvi

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