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February 1, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

On a sticky wicket

Despite the cliche, rare is the exception that actually proves the rule. The conventional wisdom has long had it that the central government suffers from two problems. One: it is not tough enough. And two: L K Advani and A B Vajpayee work at cross-purposes too often. We finally witnessed an incident in which the government did get tough and Advani and Vajpayee did work together. And yes, it demonstrated that were this kind of behaviour to be repeated, then the Bharatiya Janata Party would make a much better job of governing India -- the exception had proved the rule.

Over the last few weeks, the central government acted as though it did not know what to do with Bal Thackeray. When the Shiv Sena leader first threatened to disrupt the India-Pakistan cricket series, he believed -- along with many others -- that the mere threat would be enough for the series to be called off. After all, Thackeray has issued similar warnings before and these have scared the Pakistanis off. But when Islamabad refused to back down, Thackeray had a problem on his hands. Having talked big, he now had to back up his bully words with thug-like action. Hence the damage to the Ferozeshah Kotla pitch and hence the ransacking of the Board of Control for Cricket in India office in Bombay.

While Thackeray had made up his mind to disrupt the series, the Centre had a problem. It could try and reason with Thackeray and hope that he would reconsider. But when this approach failed, it had no choice but to force Thackeray to conform to the rule of law. But how do you handle a sitting government where the chief minister himself is unwilling to condemn thuggery-let alone act against it? Worse still, what do you do when your own party is a participant in this lawless government?

One solution would be to withdraw from the Maharashtra coalition with the Shiv Sena. But this posed its own problems. The central government's wafer thin majority in the Lok Sabha depends on six Shiv Sena members of Parliament. If the BJP walked out of the Maharashtra government, then the Shiv Sena would resign from the central government. If matters came to the crunch, then Vajpayee was prepared to take that risk. But there was another factor. Did the BJP want it to be said that it sacrificed its government to protect the right of Pakistan to come and play cricket in India?

Over the last fortnight, the Centre grappled with this problem. Matters came to a head when the attack on the BCCI office occurred while L K Advani was in Mumbai to inaugurate a bridge. Even while the inaugural function was in progress, an aide slipped the home minister a note providing details of the incident. Advani passed the note on to former chief minister, Manohar Joshi. After the function, Maharashtra's home minister, the BJP's Gopinath Munde, asked Advani what he should do. Advani's reply was succinct: "What you are supposed to do -- arrest whoever did it."

Sensing that it may have gone too far, the Shiv Sena then disowned the attack on the BCCI office. The Centre used two intermediaries. The first -- an MP from Maharashtra who has been a minister in a Congress government -- got in touch with Thackeray's son, Uddhav, who denied the charge of Shiv Sena involvement. Though Munde insisted that Uddhav was protesting too much, the Centre waited for the police to identify the attackers. When this was done, Munde was asked to arrest them. At this stage, the Thackeray family got back into that act. The state government was not to arrest anybody.

As far as Munde was concerned, this was proof that he had been right all along. The Shiv Sena was involved. Much to the horror of Uddhav and Raj Thackeray, he said that he was determined to arrest the attackers. The Thackerays returned to the first intermediary and asked the Centre to intervene. The prime minister then used a second intermediary, a Cabinet minister from Maharashtra, who conformed that the Shiv Sena was behind the violence.

Forced to take a stand, Vajpayee told Bal Thackeray that the rule of law would be imposed and that Munde would be given a free hand. If Joshi, then the Shiv Sena's chief minister, prevented Munde from going ahead, then the BJP would walk out of the coalition. Thackeray was quick to respond: in that case, the Shiv Sena would withdraw support to the central government. Fine, said Vajpayee, the rule of law is more important than my prime ministership.

It was now a question of who would blink first. Thackeray had worked on the assumption that Vajpayee was a weak prime minister who would to a cajole rather than threaten. When Vajpayee took a firm stand, he found that he had miscalculated. The Thackeray family contacted the intermediaries. Could the Centre find a face-saver?

Vajpayee contacted Advani. Would he fly to Mumbai the next day and meet with Thackeray on a one-on-one basis to work out the settlement? The BJP's terms were uncompromising. If there was a single Shiv Sena-sponsored incident during the tour, the BJP would walk out of the government and action would be taken against the concerned members of the Shiv Sena, no matter how high up. If Thackeray was willing to accept this condition, then Advani could allow him to indulge in some face-saving rhetoric.

At the end of their hour-long meeting, Advani drafted a statement summarising the substance of his conversation with Thackeray. Both the BJP and the Shiv Sena were bitterly opposed to Inter-Services Intelligence involvement in fomenting terrorism in India. But the BJP believed that nothing was achieved by preventing contacts in the fields of art, culture and sport.

While the Shiv Sena did not accept this, it had agreed to abide by the central government's decision. Accordingly, it would do nothing for the rest of the year to disrupt any contacts with Pakistan. Though the statement was written by Advani, the Information and Broadcasting Minister, Pramod Mahajan, read it out to the press. Advani and Thackeray posed for pictures and all seemed to be well with the alliance. Only those in the know recognised how close the two sides had come to the brink.

The Maharashtra episode is instructive because it provides a rare instance of mature behaviour on the part of the BJP. While it is significant that Vajpayee refused to compromise and forced Thackeray to back down, what is as significant is that the government refused to strike macho postures in the aftermath of its victory. Instead, it allowed its ally some semblance of self-respect in the hour of its defeat.

From a personality point of view, the episode illustrates how much more the BJP can achieve if Vajpayee and Advani function as a team. In recent months, commentators have caricatured Vajpayee as a moderate wimp and Advani as an inflexible hawk. If that characterisation had held, then Vajpayee would have let Thackeray walk all over him and Advani would have been on the Shiv Sena's side.

In fact, as Thackeray has discovered to his cost, Vajpayee can be tough when it counts. And Advani is determined to shed his Hard Man image and be known as a home minister who governs rather than a rath yatri who fans communal flames.

It is always dangerous to be optimistic about this government: there have been too many wrong turns and too many false hopes. But if the show of strength on Maharashtra leads to a largely incident-free Pakistan tour; then this could be an augury for the future. Perhaps the government is finally getting its act together.

Vir Sanghvi

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