April 23, 2002


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Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Vajpayee has lost his moral right

If the 60 days since the Godhra outrage and its 'effect' aka the slaughter of innocents, have proved anything, it is that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, despite its majority in Parliament, has lost its moral authority to rule India.

Winning the numbers game in Parliament is not always tantamount to the right to govern. In the rarest of rare cases, the converse sometimes becomes true. Like in 1996, when Vajpayee's 13-day government resigned ahead of the vote of confidence. What he lacked in numbers then, he made up in stature.

But mostly, parliamentary numbers don't matter a whit if the public trust has been squandered. Rajiv 'Mr Clean' Gandhi, despite his cheerleading hordes in the Lok Sabha, lost his moral sheen long before the people threw out his government in 1989. P V Narasimha Rao turned a lame duck not when stockbroker Harshad Mehta charged him with receiving Rs 1 crore as gratification -- even though it was the first time that the office of the prime minister had been so accused -- but on December 6, 1992, when he couldn't ensure the safety of a decrepit mosque in Ayodhya. Similarly, V P Singh may as well have stepped down on August 15, 1990, when he announced that his government was committed to implementing the Mandal Commission's recommendations.

In all these cases, the government of the day lost the battle for the people's mind because one, it went against popular expectations, and two, violated the mandate given to it. Gandhi promised a clean government, and ended up with his hand in the till; Rao's government was committed to upholding secularism, which translated into not letting hordes raze a religious structure, but failed the Ayodhya test; Singh's commitment to his voters was an honest administration, not a casteist one. It would have been different, maybe, if these gents had taken the public sanction before altering the status quo. But the point is, they mistook their mandate to be something else, and paid the price.

This is the gravamen of my charge against Prime Minister Vajpayee and his government. They fought the elections to the 13th Lok Sabha on the plank of good governance and secularism, the Bharatiya Janata Party eating crow over its Hindutva politics and deciding that power mattered more than principle. Not once did the prime minister -- or his party's various apologists -- utter the word 'Hindutva' in the runup to the elections, perhaps in the knowledge that if he did, the fate of his party would have equalled what it was in 1984 when it had two MPs in the Lok Sabha. The vote the NDA in 1999 secured was for governance, nothing else.

Which explains the outrage, dismay and disappointment among Indians outside Gujarat at what he told his party's national executive meeting in Goa a fortnight ago, when he lumped all Indian Muslims into one collective jihadi group. With his utterances in Goa, Vajpayee showed the world that he might be a poor poet, and a worse prime minister, but as astute a politician as Narasimha Rao.

He also showed, in the clash between civilized norms in public life and the other extreme exemplified by Narendra Modi and the entire goon brigade of the ultra-Hindu nationalistic party, that he is first and foremost the prime minister of the BJP, and only next of India. And even here, not of all the one billion citizens of India, but PM of that section of Hindu Indians who get turned on by the macabre happenings in Gujarat.

He is astute because he has managed to fool the public with his mukhauta of moderation and temperance, portraying himself as the rational face of the BJP as against the rath-drawing, mosque-breaking members of his party. He is astute because he fooled an entire population with his 'good cop, bad cop' routine in tandem with his Home Minister L K Advani.

But, as the old saw goes, even he cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Left to himself and his devices, Vajpayee would have kept up the charade till kingdom come, or at least till such time that the public was fooled into giving him and/or his party a simple majority in Parliament. Unfortunately for him, Ayodhya and Gujarat have brought the confrontation within the BJP to a head, and blown away his fig leaf.

Very cleverly, in the debate over Gujarat, Vajpayee and his party have taken shelter behind Newton's theory of action and reaction. Very cleverly, they have sought to shift the crux of the argument, which is not who did what to whom first. The point about Gujarat in 2002, and so many other hot spots in India in the past, is about governance, and the enforcement of the law of the land, dispassionately, without fear or favour to anyone. It is this crucial test that Narendra Modi has failed in Gujarat. By refusing to sack him as chief minister, the federal government is guilty of complicity in the crimes against humanity that are being perpetrated in Gujarat in the name of religion and vendetta.

There is a collective complicity going up all the way, and which implicates the entire political establishment of the country. The President of India, who has wasted little time in the past in pinpricking an administration for whose real politics he can have little but contempt, has kept a silence that should rival Mona Lisa's. One is free to infer that behind his silence lies a desire for a second lease on Rashtrapati Bhavan, but that would remain an inference not necessarily based on facts.

The ruling alliance's most crucial ally, the Telugu Desam Party, who in the 11th Lok Sabha was secularism's most vociferous proponent, is now merely moved to performing a fire dance around the Gujarat conflagration. Ministers like George Fernandes and Arun Jaitley are not just going along with the events in Gujarat, but find nothing wrong with it -- truly, power and its trappings extract a high price even from men who should know better.

Then there are those like Kanshi Ram and his able deputy Mayawati who, instead of rejecting the embrace of a vilified party and its government, are eagerly running into their hands, merely for the cachet to govern Uttar Pradesh till such time as the geniuses in Nagpur, headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, decide that their support is no longer necessary.

Completing the disarray that emboldened Vajpayee to show the world his khaki shorts is the Opposition that seems more opposed within itself. Leader of the Opposition Sonia Gandhi is willing to strike, but afraid to wound the government. She is either capable of personal vituperation against the prime minister -- describing him as 'unbalanced' one minute, apologising the next -- or gross inaction. At a time when she and her party, the Congress, should get on with mobilising popular support against an inept government, they seem to be seized by collective paralysis.

However, there are a couple of heartening facts from history. One is that rioting is no guarantee for a ruling party's electoral windfall. If it was, Sharad Pawar and his Congress party would not have lost the Maharashtra elections in 1995. Or the BJP in Uttar Pradesh after December 6, 1992. These are pointers that politicians, in their haste to secure their tenuous hold on power, tend to forget but that is no reason others should forget them.

What Vajpayee and his BJP have done now is to redraw the lines of political debate that had been changing ever so slightly since 1989, a process that started with the decline of the Congress party's sphere of influence. The space vacated by the Congress was replaced not by a centrist force but by a right-wing political party that had to shed its extreme politics to occupy that area. The hope, then, was that the nature of India's polity -- secular, equitable, democratic -- is such that it will change the BJP's spots.

That hope has changed post-Godhra. What the BJP is attempting now is, rather than change itself, to change the nature of the polity. The all-round silence as it attempts this political restructuring is criminal, and if it is allowed to get away with its efforts, and god forbid it succeeds in its game plan, the India envisaged and enshrined in the Constitution of 1950 will cease to exist.

The National Socialists too came to power in Germany through electoral means. But that did not legitimise, leave alone pardon, what followed thereafter. Do we want a similar fate to befall India?

The Sabarmati in flames

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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