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January 11, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

We told you so!

A look at the year that just ended.

With a bit of luck, the newspapers and magazines have finished their year-end specials by now. So this column will not try and repeat what they have said even though I am as proud as the next man of Amartya Sen's achievement in winning the Nobel prize, as worried about the fact that China did so much better than us at the Asian Games, as pleased for Allan Sealy and Amit Chaudhuri as anybody else and as excited about the success of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

Instead, I'll try and characterise the year as a whole. Two themes seemed to me to run through 1998. The first was that this was the year of the comeback. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who many had written off in the Ayodhya phase and who had seemed like a goner after the 13-day government, made a triumphant return to office, becoming our most popular prime minister since Rajiv Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi, who, we were told, had been finished off by P V Narasimha Rao and whose Italian origins, it was said, served as a major handicap, ended up reviving the Congress.

Amitabh Bachchan who seemed (to his critics) like an Eighties' phenomenon after the execrable Mrityudaata had a substantial hit with Major Saab and a runaway success with Bade Mian Chhote Mianwhose gross taking of Rs 140 million (or more) make it the most successful Govinda movie in history. (I provide the figure because I know that you are going to argue that the movie's success was due to Govinda; well, in the case, why have his films never done so well before, then?)

Internationally too, it was a year of comebacks. Prince Charles finally recovered from the bad publicity surrounding the death of his late lamented, slightly unstable wife. Bill Clinton recovered in the eyes of the American public as the opinion polls and the congressional elections demonstrated -- but this was not enough to halt the impeachment process. And Bruce Willis, rid at last of the increasingly hard-looking Demi 'Gimme' Moore, starred in Armageddon, the year's biggest hit.

The second theme running through the year was this: the conventional wisdom was right on the ball.

For me, that was the real surprise. For years, we've all worked on the assumption that when it comes to Indian politics, nobody knows anything. Something new and mysterious always emerges at the last moment and destroys every calculation.

Not last year. In 1998, pretty much everything one expected to happen, did happen. For us hacks, used to ending up with egg on our faces when our predictions come unstuck, this was a welcome relief.

We predicted that Sitaram Kesri would try and unseat H D Deve Gowda but would fail to smuggle his Pomeranians into Race Course Road. It happened. When Sonia Gandhi started campaigning, we predicted that she was in politics for the long term and that all the I-am-only-campaigning routine would be junked (along with Kesri) when the results came in. It has happened. We said that the most likely consequence of the election would be an unstable Bharatiya Janata Party government, which would constantly be rocked by tremors that had their epicentre in Poes Garden. That is pretty much what followed.

But the conventional wisdom has also proved correct at two deeper levels. The first relates to the Congress. For years we believed that the Congress was nothing without a charismatic, absolute leader -- ideally a member of the Nehru family. Such a leader would not only draw the crowds (and therefore, the votes) but because he or she would be unchallenged within the party, there would be no dissent and the Congress would seem like a stable entity again.

Rao tried to dispel the conventional wisdom but he only succeeded as prime minister by ignoring the party. When it came to drawing crowds, he was perceived as a frog pretending to be king. And his reign as Congress president saw obvious dissent -- Sharad Pawar -- and eventually a split. Uniquely for a Congress president, he deliberately crippled his own party with hawala so that he could emerge stronger. (Had it all worked, my guess is that he would have considered a deal with the BJP.)

Sonia Gandhi, who has none of Rao's advantages -- she is not as shrewd, ruthless or experienced as he is -- turned the Congress around simply because she has charisma. She draws the crowds and so she calls the shots. It is as simple as that. And you'd have to be a fool to deny that dynasty helps when it comes to running the Congress. There is not a cheep out of Sharad Pawar now. And when such dissenters as S S Ahluwalia try and turn the Sikhs of Delhi against her, not only do they fail but they also find themselves stuck because the BJP denies them entry.

The conventional wisdom has also been proven stunningly correct on the BJP. Before the party took office, we believed that such essentially decent men as Vajpayee were fronting for a nasty, fascist core at the heart of the Sangh Parivar. Once the BJP came to power, we expected that this fascist core (consisting of the kind of people who destroyed the Babri Masjid and who start communal riots) would try and assert itself. Poor Vajpayee would find that he was no more than a mukhota (to use K N Govindacharya's wonderfully evocative term) while the Parivar would rally around L K Advani.

Exactly that has happened. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has first tried to build the mandir on the quiet. Then, it has welcomed the attacks on the Christian community. (Don't bother denying it. I have the VHP's general secretary on videotape doing just that.) When the hapless Christians protested, they were warned by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Rajendra Singh, to not make too much of a noise.

The reason why the fascists have not taken over is Vajpayee. Proving the conventional wisdom right on his essential decency, he has held firm, even going so far as to propose declaring 1999 as the year of the Christian at a time when his party cadres were running around looking for Bibles to burn and bishops to bully. On the masjid issue he gave an undertaking to Parliament that nothing would be built at Ayodhya, much to the dismay of the VHP.

His stubbornness has provoked a fall-out. Assorted knickerwallahs, who you and I know little about, (men with names like Thengdi and Sudershan) are claiming the government has betrayed "its mandate." (What mandate? Who voted for Thengdi or Kushabhau or any of the others in the khaki-knicker-bandy-leg brigade?) They are rallying around Advani and the fault lines in the government are all too visible.

Where it will all end, I cannot say. My guess is that at some stage, Vajpayee will be unable to rein them in and the fascists will break through. That, I suspect is when Sonia Gandhi will make her move.

Is that a prediction? No way. Having finally got it right in 1998, we hacks are not going to make the mistake of setting down our predictions for 1999 in black and white.

Chances are, we'll be wrong as usual. You can only be lucky once!

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