The dogs of war               Virendra Kapoor
   May 29, 2002

Will there be war? This question is uppermost in the minds of most Indians these days. But nobody, barring the prime minister, some of his ministerial colleagues and trusted aides, knows the answer. Most Cabinet ministers and ruling party MPs are as vague about the situation on our border with Pakistan as any other ordinary Indian. For obvious reasons, decisions such as these are taken by a handful of people at the very top. However, one thing is certain: the mood in the corridors of power has hardened so much in recent days that New Delhi is unlikely to flinch from a military confrontation in the absence of a credible assurance of good behaviour by Pakistan. Unless the US leans on Pakistan in an effective manner, armed hostilities could well break out on the Indo-Pak border in the coming days.

What may strengthen the prime minister's resolve regarding the military option is the angry mood within the Bharatiya Janata Party. Almost every member of his party seems to believe that, instead of bleeding slowly at the hands of Pakistan, it will be immensely sensible, as one leading BJP Cabinet minister put it, to sort out our hostile neighbour once for all. The expected political dividend from a tough, no-nonsense stance against Pakistan would be an added bonus. In fact, several BJP MPs lament the fact that India failed to use the military option soon after the December 13 attack on Parliament. "The world would have appreciated the grave provocation for our attack against Pakistan. Besides, it would have ensured our victory in the assembly election earlier this year, including the one in Uttar Pradesh," averred several BJP MPs, who are now pressing for the use of the military option to end Pakistan's proxy war against this country.

But there are differences of opinion among the key few on whom the decision rests.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee still advises restraint, hoping against hope that Pakistan will see reason. Defence Minister George Fernandes and Home Minister L K Advani, on the other hand, argue that Pakistan is unlikely to mend its ways unless India moves effectively against it. The fact our troops have been on alert at the border since December 13 has further reinforced the balance in favour of an armed response to the Pakistani challenge.

The ball is clearly in America's court. Should the US bring to bear on Islamabad its considerable clout, the two South Asian nuclear powers may pull themselves back from the brink of a bloody war. Otherwise, there is no stopping armed hostilities. Once these hostilities begin, they invariably acquire a momentum of their own, making it hard for anyone to predict the final outcome.

Shourie upsets colleagues

Divestment Minister Arun Shourie has returned to his me-first ways. The former journalist, who acquired a halo after the Emergency by latching on the proceedings of the Shah Commission, has reportedly needled some of his ministerial colleagues. Shourie has acted in an unconventional manner, ordering the Intelligence Bureau to inquire into the running of the ITDC-run Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi. If at all such an inquiry was to be held, seasoned bureaucrats argue, it ought to have been conducted by the CBI and not the IB which had far better things to do than to poke its nose in the affairs of a badly run five-star property.

With the media speculating about Shourie replacing Yashwant Sinha at the finance ministry, some BJP leaders suspected his hand in the string of anti-Sinha reports in Shourie's old newspaper. But there was nothing to confirm the rumour that Shourie was behind those reports.

Swaraj's summer retreat

For the second year in a row, Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj flew down to the cooler climes of southern France to mark India's token presence at the Cannes film festival. Last year, she made much noise about having won for India business of Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million). Eventually, the business generated was a paltry Rs 20 lakhs (Rs 2 million) which, given the fact that the proceeds came from the sale of old Satyajit Ray films, would have come India's way anyway.

Swaraj's delegation was much larger, hence the I&B ministry and National Film Development Corporation will pay a bigger bill this year. This year, we are told, her efforts in Cannes will fetch the country business worth Rs 100 crores (Rs 1 billion). We will keep our fingers tightly crossed until the money actually reaches here.

Second time lucky?

Cabinet Secretary T R Prasad thinks he deserves another extension. Why? Because, he reasons, he ought to be in service till he completes 62 in early 2003. Since his once-extended period of service is due to end in October, he is making a case for a further six-month extension. But Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu, who had put in a strong word for Prasad's extension last time, does not seem to be doing the needful this time.

Prasad's real backer was then Lok Sabha Speaker G M C Balayogi, who died in a helicopter crash in March. Should Prasad get the extension, it would end whatever little chance Home Secretary Kamal Pandey might have had of becoming Cabinet secretary.

Graffiti mania

Tourism Minister Jagmohan is at a loss how to curb the menace of ugly graffiti that disfigures most of our ancient sites. On his visits to precious heritage sites around the country, the no-nonsense minister was flabbergasted by signs such as 'Ramesh loves Rohini' or'Jaya, I will die for you. Meet me at Roxy tonight, Pillai' prominently scribbled on walls and, in some cases, even etched with a sharp instrument into structures that are more than a thousand years old. On his recent visit to the forts and museums of the Ranas and Rathores in Rajasthan, the minister sternly warned tourism officials to step up their vigil against errant visitors. He has also instructed them to remove the graffiti scrawled on these sites.

Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh

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