Search Rediff

Rediff Shopping
Shop & gift from thousands of products!
Books Music
Apparel Jewellery
Flowers More..

Safe Shopping

The Rediff Special/ Mohan Guruswamy

Standing duck or Sitting duck?

E-Mail this feature to a friend

Without any reference to the state of his knees, Atal Bihari Vajpayee now truly seems a lame duck prime minister. The dictionary explains the term lame duck as being used to describe someone or something that is not effective at what they do. However, in common American political parlance, a lame duck is a person who has had an elected position and who is not elected or not eligible for election again. Thus, Bill Clinton is now a lame duck president just as George Bush was a lame duck president after his electoral defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1992.

In other words, once a person reaches the end of the political road, for whatever reason, whereby his or her ability to bestow political largesse or contribute usefully to the common good is severely restricted, that person becomes a lame duck. What makes high political office successful is a combination of the power that is constitutionally conferred to it and the authority to that office that is bestowed by the democratic structure that elevates a person to high office.

Power and authority are as different as chalk and cheese, just as charisma is very different from popularity. Popularity is being well known or even well liked. Amitabh Bachchan is still a popular person because people like his performances, whereas Mahatma Gandhi was charismatic, for charisma is the quality that endows a person with the ability to influence people and attract their admiration.

Gandhi never held a constitutional office but his enormous authority far exceeded the power of the a viceroy. Power flows from the office, whereas authority derives from the character and personality of the person. Quite obviously, authority and charisma go hand in hand, at least for part of the way. On the other hand, power does not ensure popularity or authority.

Richard Neustadt, the preeminent scholar on the US Presidency, who was my professor at Harvard, used to be fond of telling a story to illustrate the difference between power and authority. This is about a dream President Lyndon Johnson -- whom he had served as presidential advisor -- once had.

It seems that Johnson dreamt that he had summoned all his officers in the nuclear decision-making chain, ie, the secretary of state, the defence secretary, the chief of joint staff etc. and told them that he had had enough of the Soviets and ordered that they be nuked! Neustadt then asked him what was the reply he had got in his dream. The president replied: "Dick, that's what bothers me, they all looked up together and said in unison 'screw you' Mr President!"

The point was that while Johnson had the power to nuke Russia, he did not, even while dreaming, have the moral authority to back up his power. Power without authority very often limits high officials to indulgence in the small. Make a buck here or give a job there, till the time to go comes.

The erosion of Vajpayee's authority has more to do with his lame duckness. A man who is reelected to office at the ripe old age of 76 cannot in all probability expect to win another full term, particularly in a country where the average life expectancy is still languishing at 57.7 years.

This reminds me of a crack made by a statistician friend. Commenting on the geriatric composition of one of our governments, he said that a lot of people are dying young to keep this government alive! Vajpayee is without doubt still a popular person in the manner a performing artist is, but he can hardly be considered charismatic.

Without charisma he has little else to endow him with authority. To be charismatic, one needs to convince people about one's leadership resources, particularly those relating to vision, ability and character. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Jayaprakash Narayan were all truly charismatic figures. Indira Gandhi despite her flaws was a charismatic person. But there is not a whiff of charisma about Vajpayee. He has yet to reveal that he has a vision for India.

It's no secret in New Delhi's corridors of power that he is a person with very few administrative abilities. It is widely believed that a cabal ensconced in his house, office and trust, independently makes most of the petty and sundry decisions that fill a prime minister's day without any reference to him, while substantially influencing the more major ones. He is now reputed to work for less than four hours each day.

Those who know Vajpayee know that this is par for the course. Most North Indian leaders of Vajpayee's vintage have a penchant for indulging in gossip rather than putting in an effort to translate promises into performance. It's as much an age thing as it is a cultural thing.

About character, the less said the better. Fraternising with NRI friends with a pending "invitation" from the CBI to "assist" them in the Bofors corruption case, the alleged wheeling and dealing by a "foster" son-in-law and other fostered political sharks tell a great deal about the moral norms of the government that was to make a difference!

While there are now severe doubts about L K Advani's abilities, even during the worse days of the Hawala scandal there was never any doubt about his character. The corruption of the Narasimha Rao days now seems small change compared to what one hears about the goings on these days.

So we have a geriatric leader without the resources to be charismatic, and whose ability to turn in a stand-up performance to wow the crowds is seriously eroded by weak knees as much as by the pace of technology which allows for only snappy sound bytes and has no time for theatrical and ponderous silences, and the slow build-up of cadences.

Such is the effect of technology that even a particularly inarticulate politician like Chandrababu Naidu can now communicate effectively. The succession sweepstakes are on in full swing in Delhi these days. Few believe that only the prime ministerial knees have turned defective. He is known to have had one kidney removed some years ago because of a malignancy. Newspapers have commented that he has cancer of the prostate too. Doctors, who should know, say that this a slow growth cancer, one that could take a decade or more to run its full course.

Instead of coming clean about the PM's health, the coterie around him seems to be intent on restricting his medical problems to just his knees. To bad, with those knees, they can't show him swimming in the Yamuna like the Chinese did with Mao in the Yangtze. No wonder everybody seems to be going about as if the end is at hand.

This reminds me of a rather wicked cartoon which came out when the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was reportedly dying. In typical Soviet-style, the news of his illness was sought to be suppressed. Instead, it resulted in more speculation about the state of his health. The cartoon depicted Andropov, a former KGB chief, attired in a dark trench coat and hat with dark glasses, slouched on a chair. Standing behind him are two similarly attired KGB types with one whispering to the other: "He's dead, but even he doesn't know it! You see it's still a state secret."

So the question is, who, after Vajpayee? Logic suggests that Advani would be the logical successor. He is still considered to have the mettle and the intellect for the job, even though his performance in the home ministry must fall on a scale between Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Sardar Buta Singh. But Vajpayee and the BJP's other Brahmins are said to be averse to him.

The recent move to elevate a relative political cipher like Bangaru Laxman to be the BJP president is said to be not as innocuous as it seems. If Jana Krishnamurthy, the senior-most and longest serving of the vice presidents was made the BJP president, it would have been very difficult for another Brahmin -- read Murli Manohar Joshi -- to lay claim to the prime ministership.

But if Jana Krishnamurthy had to be done in for the job, it needed to be wrapped up with a suitable political rationale. The "dalitness" of Laxman was then just made to order for this little political subterfuge, one is told. In the pig-tailed labyrinths of the RSS anything is possible! But wait, the story in Delhi recently was that Arun Jaitley and Prabhu Chawla, old ABVP mates, who scored lots of brownie points with the Vajpayee crowd by constantly baiting Advani, were buying peace and goodwill with him over dinner hosted by the law minister.

Are the winds of change wafting over Lodhi Gardens at dusk? The other claimants appear to be ludicrous. But more ludicrous things have happened in our recent past politically. Whoever thought of I K Gujral as a prime minister? Within the BJP, Major Jaswant Singh, who brings to mind Malcolm Muggeridge's famous comment that the last Englishman is truly alive and well in the Indian Army, is considered to be waiting to toss his hat into the ring. So is the party's fund collector and fixer, Pramod Mahajan.

Yashwant Sinha has health problems, compounding perceptions about his integrity. And last but not least ludicrous is George Fernandes at the head of a one-digit political party but apparently armed with a huge war chest. Chandrababu Naidu's chances of scrambling upwards in a makeshift compromise seems receding, particularly since he is now considered too foxy for anyone's comfort. And the lady who couldn't count heads correctly last year apparently still can't count without moving her lips.

Mohan Guruswamy served as adviser to the finance ministry before he resigned last year. This column first appeared in The Asian Age.

The Rediff Specials

Tell us what you think of this feature