July 20, 2002


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Sajid Bhombal

Now some governance please

Three weeks after the attempted facelift by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, does his government look any better than it did last month?

The only interesting thing about the Cabinet reshuffle was the elevation of L K Advani as deputy prime minister, most certainly to signal who will lead the BJP-led coalition in the next general election.

All those pundits who spoke about Advani being unacceptable to the allies of the BJP missed two important points. First, the allies are there to share power, not represent any values, though they may tell us exactly the opposite. Only when they see a possibility of grabbing power elsewhere will the allies consider deserting the BJP. With the opposition in disarray at the national level, this option is out.

Second, the pundits misjudged Advani's politics. His single most important achievement has been his success in creating an image suitable for his politics. Without doing a fraction of what Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel did for the nation, he is referred to -- both by friends and foes -- as Sardar Patel No 2, whatever that means.

So successful has he been in creating the perception of being a tough man that his complete failure as home minister remains largely ignored. Plenty of tough words, but did we see any tough action on his part? In more than three years as home minister, Advani has been clueless on Kashmir's political problem. When Gujarat burned, he was busy congratulating Narendra Modi for 'controlling the violence in 72 hours'. It took more than 72 days (and thousands of lives) to complete those '72 hours'.

Advani certainly knows what image he needs to build upon to be accepted by the allies and the nation. Commonsense suggests that no hardliner can lead multi-cultural India. Advani knows this and said so in his interview to Time magazine. He has already started acting on it. Look how swiftly he dismissed the RSS demand for trifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir. How efficiently he forced Modi to cancel his Gaurav [Gaurav?] Yatra. This man is on the move -- to create a different and more acceptable perception about him, that is.

He now has plenty of time to create the required image before the next general election. Of course, there is a lot of difference between creating a good image as prime ministerial candidate and being a good prime minister.

Will Advani make a good PM? To answer that, ask yourself a question: Does he make a good home minister?

In the swap between Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha, the latter -- shifted out of the finance ministry for alienating the middle class, the core of the BJP's support base -- is of course the gainer.

In today's unipolar world, foreign policy success means being on the right side of Uncle Sam. And this government has shown no reservation in being there. The only thing Sinha will probably have to do, apart from giving the occasional anti-Pakistan statement, is to put in some effort to make foreign dignitaries change certain articles in statements issued in Pakistan once they cross over to India [like changing 'Kashmir is the core issue' to 'Kashmir is a core issue']. If he manages to do that, then his foreign policy is a success, BJP-style!

The finance ministry is a different ball game. Here, words don't matter. Figures do. It is an irony that Jaswant Singh, who was Vajpayee's first choice as finance minister in 1998 because of his pro-reform views, has been appointed to the post at a time when political compulsions [due to a series of forthcoming elections] dictate the need for populist measures.

The only other significant change [that is, if you don't consider the induction of two former film stars as a significant move] was the shifting of Arun Jaitley from the government to the party, presumably to improve the television image of the BJP.

What sense does it make to remove a law minister who was doing his bit to reform the legal system, especially when these reforms are vital to the national interest? We need to reform the legal system badly as Tavleen Singh -- arguably India's only columnist who stresses basic issues -- writes time and again that with the speed with which our legal system works, it would take 300 years to clear all pending cases in the Indian courts. But then national interests are never above party interests for any political party in India.

Vajpayee's problem was not about men. In any case, there are not many efficient or capable men in his party who could have been inducted in the government to make it better. (He could find only two aging film stars to make his government look young.)

His government's real problem is governance -- or the lack of it. His government was popular in spite of misgovernance only because of his own popularity. He was the greatest asset to his government. The mask was protecting the face. The mask is, however, peeling off faster than he may have anticipated. His failing health is not helping matters either.

If Vajpayee and his government have to regain their popularity, he has to start acting, and acting fast on the real issues confronting the nation. In simple words: give us governance, the image will follow.

He should have made his ministers learn from Arun Shourie, the only shining example of success in his Cabinet, not only because he carried out much-needed divestment but for the manner in which he did it. Divestment is a sensitive issue anywhere in the world; Shourie did it without making a fuss. He could do it because he is efficient and committed.

Education, health and infrastructure are the areas Vajpayee needs to address urgently. He needs to get his men do in these areas what Shourie did with his ministry.

Instead, what we see is Vajpayee appointing an ex-film star as health minister when vast numbers of people have no access to primary health facilities.

When there is such large-scale illiteracy, the only thing we hear about the education policy is Human Resources Development Minister M M Joshi's obsession with changing history.

What about infrastructure? We are lagging behind countries like Thailand and Malaysia by almost three decades. When will the government wake up and give infrastructure the urgency it deserves?

This government came to power promising governance with a difference. It had the necessary platform, a popular and respected leader, new faces with relatively higher credibility among the masses, no opposition to speak of (the only opposition this government faced was from its own party and its ideological parent). Halfway through, it has no achievement to show, apart from some sort of diplomatic victory over Pakistan. Important it may be, but India has more serious problems that need attention, about which this government's score-card shows no points.

Still, the government survives only because an Italian-born housewife, who has no clue about the way Indian polity works, is the only alternative available to Vajpayee. It is not for nothing that M J Akbar repeatedly calls Sonia Gandhi the BJP's best insurance policy. Was Maneka Gandhi's ouster a way of paying premium?

Postscript: In his first press conference after his appointment as BJP president, Venkaiah Naidu said his party would go knocking on the doors ("darwaza khatkhatayenge" were the words he used with some help in Hindi from Arun Jaitley) of those who do not vote the BJP.

Mr Naidu, those 'knocks on the doors' by activists of your party and its sister organisations (as we have recently seen in Gujarat) is precisely what keeps them away from the BJP. You will do better if you ask your party activists to just leave them alone.

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