March 26, 2001


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Brahma Chellaney

An irreparably damaged PM

For three years as prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was treated deferentially by the Indian media and intelligentsia. They portrayed him as a great leader that India cannot do without and to whom there was no credible alternative. Even when his physical condition began to slip visibly, no questions were raised on his health, let alone a discussion taking place on his capacity to lead a nation of a billion people.

The deference towards Vajpayee extended to his small inner circle, of which Jaswant Singh and Brajesh Mishra have been principal members. The name of his foster son-in-law did not figure even in newspaper gossip columns.

One major scandal erupts and all that reverence becomes history. Today it is open season on the prime minister's men. The all-powerful Prime Minister's Office is the prime target. Suddenly, the name of the foster son-in-law is on newspaper front-pages. Vajpayee himself is in the line of fire.

Anyone who knows India will be hardly surprised by this turnaround. Indians worship the rising sun, not the setting sun. They are extraordinarily indulgent towards a new star on the political saddle, willing to ignore his foibles and even reluctant to probe the interests and lobbies influencing his policy decisions. But their response is particularly harsh when a major scandal exposes their icon's true political face.

When it rains in India, it really pours. Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao, like Vajpayee, enjoyed a good press, until a major scandal turned the political tide. Then the attacks mounted unremittingly and with growing force.

The latest bribery scandal not only damages Vajpayee, it puts him inexorably on a downhill slope. From now on, Vajpayee and his men will be preoccupied with one damage-control mission after another. Every major contract or policy move previously made by his government will be analysed. His health will henceforth be a public issue, with the media ready to report on any sign of his looking spaced out at an event.

The scandal has hit Vajpayee in the twilight of his political career. He neither has the physical strength nor the unflinching support of his party, coalition or RSS to contain its widening political fallout.

Moreover, as head of the government, it is difficult for him to shirk moral responsibility in the affair. Everyone agrees that the scandal is a moral, not a legal, issue. The disagreement is on the response.

Vajpayee's backers contend that the response should be legal to a moral crisis. Their line is that the appropriate response to, what Vajpayee has called a "wake-up call", should be reforms in the electoral system, political-funding regulations and arms-procurement procedures. To critics, however, a morally culpable PM cannot wriggle out of a moral crisis by promising legal measures.

India's political ethics have been on a downward spiral for a long time, with the guilty going unpunished from a plethora of scandals that have battered the system. It speaks for itself that no politician is in prison at present on a scandal-related conviction.

At a time when public confidence in politicians is an all-time low, Vajpayee has pledged to the nation that "I shall work to clean up the dirt that has come into view". His promise, however, raises more questions than it answers.

How does the nation reverse the fall in political ethics by putting a cap on moral responsibility? The defence minister assumes responsibility and quits, but the prime minister, as head of the system, refuses to accept any blame in the matter. The task of limiting moral responsibility to any particular level is problematic.

Also, how can there be any clean-up when every market-opening initiative is seized as an opportunity for political money-making? If anyone thought that the dismantlement of licence raj would end political corruption, he was sadly mistaken. Economic liberalisation has fostered such barefaced corruption that the scandals of the earlier era pale into insignificance.

Kickbacks in arms deals are common in many parts of the world. Since weapons cannot be bought from international supermarkets but have to be purchased from arms manufacturers who operate through agents and brokers, their sales often come with hidden rewards.

The problem in India, however, is the extension of the spoils system from the defence sector to the entire economy -- a phenomenon that quickly corrupts those who assume power. Exploiting the insatiable greed of those in power, domestic and foreign lobbies and interest groups with well-lined pockets have repeatedly demonstrated their capacity to influence national policies. This problem has gotten progressively worse.

Yet another question raised by Vajpayee's pledge relates to the concentrated nature of decision-making that has come in vogue. Along with the concentration of powers in a few hands has come an open disdain for institutions, with the top power wielders overly confident about their ability to manage Parliament, the Cabinet, the judiciary, the press and the think-tanks. It needs a major scandal to demonstrate that the country cannot be managed or governed through manipulative skills alone.

It was Vajpayee's buddy, Narasimha Rao, who made public his disrespect for institutions. When he became prime minister, Rao promised to set up a National Security Council or a similar policy-making body. Not only did he not do that, he kept the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs -- the omnibus policy-making body -- inoperative during much of his tenure. Vajpayee set up a cosmetic National Security Council for public relations, not national security. For most decisions, including Jammu & Kashmir policy and important economic steps, he has relied on his inner circle of comrades.

In the coming weeks, there will be public spotlight on the political cronyism on open display now. Vajpayee gave his closest buddy, Jaswant Singh, the additional charge of the defence portfolio instead of moving the experienced K C Pant from the Planning Commission or putting the incorruptible Jagmohan in charge of the scandal-tainted ministry. Jaswant Singh, with no grassroots base, has been the most powerful minister in the Cabinet for quite some time. His political rise is entirely the handiwork of Vajpayee.

Jaswant Singh's chaperoning of three freed terrorists to Kandahar, the lair of terrorists, was one of the most ignominious episodes in international diplomacy -- a scandal greater than the one that cost George Fernandes his job. But in a country that puts little premium on self-respect, Jaswant Singh has thrived.

Vajpayee will find it difficult to break free from his troubles. His government was not elected to pursue political standards of the Congress and Laloo Prasad Yadav type. It was elected to provide good and clean governance. But by repeatedly seeking to compare the bribery expose with other scandals under previous governments, his backers only reinforce the public image that all Indian politicians are the same.

If all politicians are the same, the common citizen will ask: Why have a doddering old prime minister surrounded by conceited cronies?

Brahma Chellaney

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