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November 16, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Question of survival

Will Atal Bihari Vajpayee still be prime minister of India four months from now?

In normal circumstances, the question would be irrelevant. The Bharatiya Janata Party has a majority in Parliament and while most people are disappointed with the government's performance, the consensus is that the prime minister is the single most respected member of this administration. Questions about his survival may have seemed valid when J Jayalalitha was threatening to pull the plug on the government, but over the last few weeks all seems to be quiet on the southern front. Moreover, Vajpayee has finally got his act together and now seems more like the man India elected rather than the amiable sleepwalker of his first two months in office.

Nevertheless, speculation about Vajpayee's survival dominates conversation in Delhi's political circles. The doubts appear at two levels. The first is the seemingly absurd level of internal conspiracy. Almost from the time Vajpayee was sworn in there have been whispers to the effect that Home Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani was unhappy with his ascendance. This speculation seemed pointless. After all, it was Advani who proposed Vajpayee's name for prime minister, recognising that he himself did not have the image required to forge the coalition that the BJP would require to take office. It is possible that Advani was unhappy at having to accept the number two slot. He is the man who resurrected the BJP after its 1984 electoral debacle. But equally, there seems little doubt that he was philosophical about this turn of events.

But six months of governance suggests that there are definite tensions between the two men and open hostility between their supporters. The Advani camp blames the government's failures on Vajpayee's leadership. The Vajpayee camp accuses Advani of trying to tarnish the prime minister's image.

A certain level of tension may well be inevitable in any such relationship. But what is worrying is that the current rumour in Delhi is that Advani plans to depose Vajpayee. Proponents of this theory offer the following scenario: The BJP does relatively badly in the assembly elections due soon. There is discontent within the party. At the same time, investigations into the Romesh Sharma case suggest that Vajpayee's friends and members of his extended family may have had some links with the arrested gangster. The home minister goes to see the prime minister. He says that he does not know what to do. Should he order investigations into the prime minister's family? In any case he can't keep the investigation quiet. The story is bound to leak. Faced with this near-ultimatum, Vajpayee agrees to step down after a decent interval citing health problems.

This scenario strikes me as being extremely far-fetched, absurd even. And yet, there are experienced politicians in Delhi who seem to think that it is a real possibility. My own view is that Advani is not a conspiratorial type. But what worries me is such scenarios have a way of being self-fulfilling. There is an obvious parallel.

In 1986, Delhi resounded to similar rumours. Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister but everybody believed that home minister Arun Nehru and finance minister V P Singh were investigating his friends and extended family. Once the dirt was found, Rajiv Gandhi would be confronted with the evidence and asked to step down. I didn't believe those rumours then. But clearly, Rajiv Gandhi did. At the first hint of conspiracy he sacked Arun Nehru. And no sooner had the hiring of an American detective agency called Fairfax come to light than he turned against V P Singh. Ultimately Singh and Nehru defeated Rajiv Gandhi using exactly the methods the rumourmongers had predicted they would: dirt about corruption scandals.

All this leaves me with an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu. I'm quite prepared to believe that Advani is reconciled to Vajpayee's pre-eminence. Similarly, I think it is extremely unlikely that Romesh Sharma had any links with Vajpayee's family. But in a world of rumours and perceptions, that may not be important. What is important is this: The two most powerful men in the government do not trust each other: Such an atmosphere makes it easy for interested parties to drive a wedge between them. Once that happens, no government is safe. Rajiv Gandhi threw away the largest mandate in Indian history only because of such a climate of suspicion and doubt. It would be a shame if the BJP demonstrated that it had learnt nothing from his mistakes.

A second set of doubts over Vajpayee's continued survival has also emerged. Within Congress circles they believe that Sonia Gandhi is now ready to take the plunge if the assembly elections go her way. At present, the conventional wisdom is that the Congress will win Rajasthan. Despite Digvijay Singh's brave rhetoric, the party is reconciled to losing Madhya Pradesh. Nobody cares very much about Mizoram. So Delhi becomes the crucial test of the Congress's popularity -- or of the BJP's unpopularity.

So far, the conventional wisdom in Delhi has been that the BJP will be mauled by Delhi's voters but that, when it comes to the crunch, the Punjab refugees, the mainstay of the Delhi BJP, will stop short of voting in a Congress government. Moreover, there has been some disquiet over Sonia Gandhi's decision to hand the Delhi campaign over to the dignified and elegant Sheila Dixit. Many people feel that Dixit is too classy to compete effectively with Sushma Swaraj's shrill, rolling pin-wielding Delhi housewife persona.

But over the last week, as onion prices have failed to come down and divisions between Madan Lal Khurana and Sahib Singh Verma have grown, people are coming to terms with the fact that the impossible might actually happen. Perhaps, the BJP could lose Delhi after all. The BJP, conscious that this is a possibility, is playing down the significance of the Delhi elections and arguing that as long as it wins Madhya Pradesh there is no problem. All that the results will prove is that voters have rejected incumbent governments. But the Congress is smart enough to recognise the psychological importance of a defeat in Delhi. If the BJP loses in its traditional base, then this is bound to affect the central government.

My guess is that should this happen, Sonia Gandhi will finally give Jayalalitha the go ahead and say that she's ready to reach some kind of deal. Negotiations had previously been stuck on two issues. The Congress was unwilling to dismiss the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government. After the President's response to the Bihar dismissal, it can now say that President's rule is not an option. Also, it giggled helplessly when Subramanian Swamy declared that Jayalalitha wanted him to be finance minister in a Congress-led government. Having recognised that there is a great deal wrong with the economy and that Swamy's chosen area of specialisation (the science of holding media conferences) is not suited to stimulating growth and bringing down inflation, Jayalalitha will probably drop this demand.

Any Congress-led government would then have a majority. But it could probably also count on outside support from Mamata Banerjee ("because the peepulls want a stable government"). Farooq Abdullah and a few others. It would not necessarily be much more stable than the present arrangement. But it is hard to deny that a government headed by Manmohan Singh would command international confidence and that civil servants have a way of working faster when the Congress is in office.

Of course, if the BJP manages to hold on to Delhi, then this will seem less probable. If it wins both Delhi and Madhya Pradesh -- still a real possibility -- then its problems will not come from the Congress. Rather they will come from within. And from the atmosphere of suspicion and conspiracy that dogs this government's workings.

Vir Sanghvi

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