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March 15, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Neither gentlemen nor players

All minority governments and coalitions are -- almost by definition -- unstable and prone to crisis. But what is most extraordinary about the Bharatiya Janata Party government is that it does not need anybody to destabilise it. Three examples drawn from the last three months will demonstrate what I mean.

The first is the ongoing saga of the sacking of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and its aftermath. Bhagwat says he was victimised. George Fernandes says Bhagwat did not accept the principles of civilian control of the armed forces and had to go. In the absence of documentation or evidence (which Fernandes refuses to provide on the grounds of national security), it is hard to decide which version to accept. My personal inclination is to believe George. No defence minister in recent memory has been as biased in favour of the armed forces as Fernandes. And if even he says that Bhagwat refused to accept the principle of civilian control, then he must have grounds for saying so.

Unfortunately for the government, I am in a tiny minority. The vast majority of the journalistic community and most of the middle class believe Bhagwat was victimised. Hardly anybody buys George's account and the conventional wisdom is that the episode represents one more instance of the destruction of the institutions of India's democracy by venal politicians.

Assuming for a moment that the conventional wisdom is wrong and that George is right, it is still impossible to deny that the government mishandled the sacking. The first option should have been to have offered Bhagwat an honourable exit, say an ambassadorship somewhere. The prime minister suggested this to George who turned it down arguing that he did not wish to reward insubordination. My feeling is it is better to appear to reward insubordination in an individual case than it is to demoralise the armed forces.

But even if there was no alternative to sacking Bhagwat, the manner in which it was done was shockingly inept. First of all, the government appeared to be siding with Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh who had made indefensible communal remarks about Niloufer Bhagwat. The prime minister spent New Year's eve with him and Singh finally did become deputy chief of naval staff.

Secondly, it is clear that this government has no sense of media management. If you are about to take the unprecedented step of sacking a chief of staff, then you must prepare the ground with selective leaks to the media. Not only did the defence ministry fail to do this, it even refused -- point blank -- to attempt to justify the decision afterwards. No official went on television to give the government's side of the story, George hid behind "national security" and the Bhagwats -- both husband and wife -- won the media battle by default.

But the Bhagwat scandal was nothing compared to the Guruswamy episode. Nobody has been able to explain to me why Mohan Guruswamy ever deserved to be made advisor to the finance minister. Yashwant Sinha now gets self-righteous about Guruswamy but he will have a hard time denying that he pushed for the appointment with a feverish intensity, pursuing Brajesh Mishra in South Africa with phone call after phone call insisting that the Prime Minister's Office clear Guruswamy's name.

Rumour in New Delhi has it that all this happened when Yashwant believed that he was about to be sacked and clung to L K Advani as a drowning man may to a life raft. It was Advani who wanted Guruswamy in place and Yashwant pushed to please his master. And why was Advani so keen on the appointment? The original explanation was that S Gurumurthy, the eminence grise of Pandara Park, wanted Guruswamy in place but both Guruswamy and Gurumurthy have denied this. In retrospect, it seems likely that Guruswamy was Advani's own choice.

Even Guruswamy's admirers (and there must be one or two of those) do not claim that he was startlingly effective at the finance ministry. Nor does anybody deny that he pushed for a package to help Essar. Guruswamy's defence is limited to two points. One: Yashwant was as keen on helping Essar. And two: Advani wanted him to help the steel makers. So, he says, why blame him for the Essar package? There were so many others involved.

The rest of Guruswamy's case consists of one solid allegation - that he stood up for swadeshi ITC against videshi BAT to the dismay of the powers that be -- and lots of innuendo against the Prime Minister's Office and house. Yashwant Sinha claims Guruswamy is lying. Guruswamy says he has documents to back up his statements.

I don't want to go into the rights and wrongs of the issue. Perhaps Guruswamy is telling the truth. Perhaps Yashwant is now covering up for Advani or somebody else. Either way, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that Guruswamy should never have been appointed to the job to begin with. His economic qualifications are hardly overly impressive. He is no great BJP loyalist (he has been a member of the Congress, has been closely associated with Arun Nehru in the Jan Morcha days and joined the Sangh Parivar relatively recently) who had to be accommodated.

But the real failure of judgement has to do with the assessment of Guruswamy's character. Officials fall out with ministers all the time. Sometimes they lump it and sometimes they leave. Rarely, if ever, do they fling as much mud as Guruswamy has done, let alone go from one member of Parliament to another offering them documents with which to embarrass the government. Whoever appointed Guruswamy -- whether it was Yashwant or Advani -- is obviously a terrible judge of character. And that person's stupidity has landed the government in a completely avoidable crisis.

The third instance of the BJP's tendency to lose every match with an own goal relates to the mess over President's rule in Bihar. The prime minister was in Jamaica when he was informed of the Jehanabad massacre. He was told that the Cabinet had met and unanimously recommended the imposition of President's rule. He was also told that the Congress had been consulted and had said that it would support President's'rule.

The first of these claims was not entirely accurate. Many important ministers were out of town including Murli Manohar Joshi who says that he was not even telephoned for his opinion. So a "unanimous" decision taken when two members of the BJP's holy trinity are out of town is not exactly unanimous of any significant sense of the term. As for the second claim, that was entirely false. Nobody had consulted the Congress. They had merely read in the papers that Sonia Gandhi had said Rabri Devi had lost the moral right to rule and had decided this meant that the Congress wanted President's rule. Big mistake.

You can argue, with some justification that the Congress's turn-around on Bihar does not reflect well on the party. But there is no doubt that by announcing on Monday afternoon that it would vote against President's rule, the Congress entirely punctured the euphoria generated over the weekend by Atal Bihari Vajpayee's trip to Lahore. A government that should have seemed strong and determined, suddenly lost the initiative and scurried around desperately trying hard to survive.

There is a pattern to all three incidents. They demonstrate that the BJP's problems are not just the result of coalition politics. They are the consequence of bad judgement, sloppy homework, immaturity and pure inexperience. At the end of the BJP's first year in office, we have finally come to terms with the essential problem faced by this government.

The problem is not that these people are communalists. It is that they are amateurs.

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