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March 22, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Those who live by the sword

For all of last week, Delhi buzzed with gossip about two men: Vishnu Bhagwat and Mohan Guruswamy. The Congress wanted to raise the Bhagwat issue in Parliament. Guruswamy went from politician to politician begging them to raise the issue he had trotted out in two long newspaper articles.

Neither man found a warm initial reception. Bhagwat was sacked at the beginning of the year. But political parties were reluctant to turn his dismissal into a party-political issue largely because many people had always harboured doubts about Bhagwat's suitability for the job of navy chief to begin with. Wasn't he too litigious? Was it necessary for his wife to keep filing writ petitions on his behalf? Why had he smeared so many other naval officers in his rise to the top? Would he have made it to chief if it wasn't for Sharad Pawar and Mulayam Singh Yadav? And so on.

Guruswamy is an even dodgier character. He succeeded Jairam Ramesh at the finance ministry and while Jairam has his detractors (mainly in the United Front who think that he jumped ship to the Congress in an obscene hurry), I don't know of anyone who does not accept that he is possessed of an exceptional intellect and works extremely hard. Equally, there must be people who think that Guruswamy is bright. But sadly, I have yet to meet a single person who does not incline to the conventional view: that he is an upwardly mobile dullard who got lucky.

When Bhagwat was sacked, many politicians thought that the end, as unfortunate as it was, had an air of inevitability about it. Their sole objection was that George Fernandes should have handled the dismissal with more finesse. But when Guruswamy was sacked, not only did everybody realise that it was inevitable, nobody I know thought it was at all unfortunate. In fact, the only objection was: Who, in this bunch of amateurs, appointed this man to the finance ministry to begin with?

So why is it that attention is being paid to both men?

The answer can be phrased in one word: corruption.

Say what you will about the Bharatiya Janata Party government -- and you can call it inept, communal, blundering, or whatever -- but it has always been difficult to accuse it of corruption. I'm sure individual ministers and politicians have made money but there hasn't been a single financial scandal of the magnitude of any of the P V Narasimha Rao scandals; no Harshad suitcases, no sugar scandal, no Sukh Ram, no Goldstar, no Karsan.

Worse still, from the point of view of the BJP's opponents, most of the government's senior leaders are widely perceived as being honest. You can disagree with everything L K Advani stands for, but when Rao framed him in hawala, the whole country turned on Rao. Similarly, you may disagree with Murli Manohar Joshi's vision of Hindutva, but you can't call him a crook. Jaswant Singh may or may not get the better of Strobe Talbott but there isn't the slightest suggestion of any kind of financial impropriety.

Viewed in the perspective of financial honesty, the two best advertisements for this government are George Fernandes and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. George remains an essentially simple man with contempt for money and a hatred of the trappings of power. (Virtually anybody can walk into his house in Delhi.) Vajpayee is India's only truly national leader; a man of stature who belongs to a generation when politics involved a degree of self-sacrifice.

The importance of the Bhagwat and Guruswamy cases is that they allow the Opposition to finally take the charge of corruption to Fernandes's and Vajpayee's doorsteps. The one bit of Bhagwat's many hysterical allegations that has been picked up is the suggestion that he was axed at the behest of arms dealers. Newspapers have reported that the post-Bhagwat regime at naval headquarters has caused champagne corks to pop in the farmhouses of Delhi's many arms merchants. And certainly, the new deputy chief of naval staff has a case to answer about his friendships with some arms dealers.

The same is true of the Guruswamy affair. In his first article, the dismissed advisor to the finance ministry portrayed himself as a hapless victim of the Advani-Vajpayee rivalry and directed his fire at Yashwant Sinha. Once Sinha offered to resign if a single charge of corruption could be proved, Guruswamy changed his approach. In his second article, his target was clear. Vajpayee, he said, interfered in finance ministry matters to the benefit of such businessmen as the Hinduja brothers. And on such key issues as the Tata-Singapore airline, Vajpayee was "duplicitous".

It is not hard to see why the Congress has eagerly pounced on Bhagwat's and Guruswamy's allegations. Nobody in that party has forgotten that it was George Fernandes who made the most noise about Bofors, often leveling allegations that were either simply untrue or could not be substantiated. It is naive to expect the Congress to let him get away when similar charges are levelled against his ministry. So it is with Vajpayee. It was the BJP that went on and on about Rajiv Gandhi, Bofors and the Hindujas. Now, it is the Congress's turn to say: are you any better?

The trouble with all this of course is that neither Guruswamy nor Bhagwat deserves the kind of respectability they are getting. No naval chief likes being sacked so I have a certain sympathy for Bhagwat. But I'm getting a little tired of the ever expanding conspiracy that he and his wife now hold responsible for his troubles: Ashwini Minna, the Akalis, Naresh Gujral, the Shiv Sena, Jaya Jaitley, arms dealers, evil foreign forces, Sangh Parivar, anti-Muslim Hindus and the wicked elves of the forest (all right, I made the last one up but give it time and I'm sure Bhagwat will include them).

I have no sympathy at all for Guruswamy. I am unwilling to accept -- without enough proof -- that he acted as an agent of Essar in the finance ministry. But I do know that he flings corruption charges around with reckless abandon. I once had him on a television programme with Pranab Mukherjee. When Mukherjee made the reasonable point that the way to control inflation was to import products at a time of shortage, Guruswamy (he had not yet been sacked), flew off the handle: "We know why you people want imports, it all goes into your Swiss bank account, you take kickbacks, and so on." Pranab, ever the pro, ignored the outburst and won the debate. But it said something about Guruswamy and the way his mind works.

The problem alas, is that even those in the Congress who know exactly what Guruswamy is all about (that is, the entire Congress party) will not hesitate to use his charges -- no matter how unfounded and self-serving -- to embarrass the government. The Congress knows the key to destroying the BJP's image is to make it clear that not only are its leaders incompetent, they are also crooks. Moreover, it has no moral compunctions about doing so on the grounds that the BJP has not been unwilling to fling similar allegations against the Congress over the years.

If there is a lesson in all this, it is this: those who live by the sword must be prepared to die by it. The BJP has spent its life in Opposition. It had turned invective into a fine art. But it has no experience of the actual problems of governance. Now that it is coming to terms with these problems, it recognises how easy it is to be called a crook when you are in power.

It does not matter that George Fernandes is scrupulously honest or that Guruswamy has the moral stature of an ant in comparison to Vajpayee. Once politics is reduced to a level where anyone can fling mud on anybody else, then we must be prepared to live in an environment where the Bhagwats and Guruswamys flourish.

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