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|March 8, 1999||
It was Harold Wilson who famously said that a fortnight is a long time in politics. (Or did he say 'a week'? The quote has been mangled so often that nobody is really sure). But as recent events suggests, it only takes a weekend for everything to change in Indian politics.
Consider the mood on Friday, February 19. President's rule had been declared in Bihar after the Congress declared that Rabri Devi had lost the moral right to continue in office. The Congress had problems of its own -- chiefly in Goa -- but the overwhelming feeling was one of optimism. The changeover in Orissa had demonstrated a degree of political maturity. Clearly, Sonia Gandhi does not like J B Patnaik. But when she replaced him, she took care to ensure that he was not humiliated and that neither of his great rivals, the Biswals, succeeded him. Thus Patnaik stepped down with a degree of dignity and bad feeling was avoided.
By Monday, February 22, however, nearly everything had changed. While Congressmen had previously taken the attitude that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government would self-destruct and that all they needed to do was to put their own house in order, this position was radically overhauled at a marathon working committee meeting that afternoon.
Suddenly, the Congress decided that it didn't approve of President's rule in Bihar after all. It would vote against the measure in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. Briefing the press, Arjun Singh, that decrepit but still canny wrecker of governments (remember the I K Gujral ministry and the Jain Commission? Well, I'm glad you do because Arjun Singh clearly doesn't) declared that the Congress could not possibly support the Bharatiya Janata Party on this issue.
What about all that moral right to rule stuff? Ah, said Singh, with a Clintonesque finesse for words, what we meant was that because Rabri Devi had lost the right to rule, she should step down. We never meant that she should be sacked. So would the Congress uphold the right to rule of a woman who had no moral right to rule? Singh moved on to the next question.
The decision to oppose the government on Bihar has many serious implications. For me, it sends a message to the party's Bihar unit: sorry we told you to oppose Laloo Prasad Yadav, we may be on his side after all. For another, it suggests that the old gameplan of wrecking the Third Front may now have been subtly modified: tolerate Laloo, hate Mulayam.
But the most significant consequence is this: it suggests the easy ride that the Vajpayee government has enjoyed over the last several months as Sonia Gandhi has been busy with reviving the Congress is over. No longer can Vajpayee ignore Nagpur and pursue his own agenda secure in the knowledge that he has at least another year in office because the Congress is not ready to topple him.
Now, all bets are off. The government may well last another year. Equally, it might fall tomorrow.
What accounts for the change in stance? It is hard to say. The simplistic view, favoured by the BJP, is that the Congress is power hungry and that Congressmen cannot survive for long without office. There is something to this view but it ignores a major factor. Sonia Gandhi is not power hungry. She turned down the prime ministership in 1991, had to be persuaded to eventually join politics and has made it very clear that her priority is to rebuild the party, not to take office at the first conceivable opportunity. If she wanted to topple Vajpayee, she would have done it four months ago when J Jayalalitha was anxious to strike a deal with her.
I suspect the Congress's change of position has been prompted by three different factors. The first is that the majority view within the working committee is that the party is making a mistake by leaving Vajpayee alone. Even those who opposed the decision to back Laloo-Rabri (Madhavrao Scindia, for example) believe that the party should do everything possible to make life difficult for Vajpayee. The job of an Opposition is to oppose. And the Congress, they fear, may be too preoccupied with its own problems to do that.
Sonia Gandhi, I gather, went into the working committee meeting with an open mind. But it was only when member after member urged her to do something -- anything! -- to hassle the government that she agreed to oppose the Bihar decision.
The second factor is that more and more people-- many in positions of power and influence -- are telling the Congress president that the BJP is doing irreparable harm to the Indian system. For the first time since Independence, Christians have been targeted by communalists and our reputation abroad is mud. Knickerwallah are being infiltrated into the system at all levels. The fuss over the human resources development ministry's appointments is only the tip of the iceberg.
Even when Knickerwallahs are not involved, the Congress president has been told, the BJP has shown appalling judgement. George Fernandes may well have been right to want to replace Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat but the hamhanded manner in which he went about it has enormously damaged the morale and reputation of the armed forces. Never before has a former chief of naval staff openly accused a defence minister of being in league with arms dealers. Worse still, Fernandes does not explain his compulsions, citing the all purpose excuse of national security.
Similarly, the appointment of Mohan Guruswamy as economic advisor to the finance minister demonstrated appalling judgment. If the government is right, Guruswamy had to be sacked because he tried to intervene on behalf of Essar. If Guruswamy is telling the truth, he left because he wouldn't help BAT at the behest of the powers that be. Either way, it does not reflect well on the government or on whoever it was who chose a man like him for his job (either Yashwant Sinha, or, in Guruswamy's version, L K Advani).
All this suggests to the BJP's critics that the party is not fit to govern and that by allowing it to go on like this while she solves her own problems, Sonia Gandhi is neglecting the national interest. This argument is finally beginning to get to the Congress president.
There is a third factor. Congressmen are now beginning to accept that this is one of the few times in Indian history when we have a deeply unpopular government with a highly popular prime minister. Even as his colleagues have shown themselves to be knaves and buffoons, Vajpayee has gained in public esteem. His worst critics (outside of Nagpur) do not deny that he is an essentially decent and honest man who is head and shoulders above the calibre of the average Indian politician.
The Congress fears that with each passing week, Vajpayee is consolidating his position. It is concerned that a stage may come when he is regarded with such esteem by the country at large that he can finally force his will on allies and Knickerwallahs and provide effective government. After all, the argument runs, if P V Narasimha Rao who had all the charisma of a tranquillised bullfrog could become such a strong prime minister after one year at Race Course Road, then surely Vajpayee can do much better.
There are three views in the Congress on how to deal with Vajpayee. Sonia Gandhi's own perspective appears to be that if you give the BJP enough rope, it will hang itself in a year or so, Vajpayee or no Vajpayee. But she is in a minority. Some working committee members believe that the threat is so great that Vajpayee should be toppled now before his government has a chance to stablise. Others incline to a middle path. Don't topple him, they say, you'll just seem like Sitaram Kesri, greedy for power. But don't let him stablise. Keep him on his toes. Let him lurch from crisis to crisis. Don't allow him any moments of triumph. All the evidence shows that when he is in his element -- as he was when he spoke extempore at the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore -- he shines. But when he is under pressure -- as he was in the first three months of his term -- he seems depressed and befuddled.
It is too early to say what strategy the Congress will adopt. Moreover, judging by the sudden change of approach last weekend, no strategy can -- by definition -- survive into the long term. There will always be mid-course correction.
But my guess is that Sonia Gandhi has finally changed her mind about letting this government be. She does not want to form a government within this Lok Sabha. Nor is she ready for an election. But she has been persuaded that she cannot afford to let the BJP have its own way. She must do everything possible to make this government seem unstable and precariously poised. And she must not allow Vajpayee to appear to be anything more than an interim prime minister.
If the Congress is to regain its position as the natural party of governance, then it must take care to paint the BJP as the natural party of misgovernance.
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