Vajpayee's TIATA factor
December 23, 2003
Oh, the stuff they don't teach you at management schools.
By all accounts, at 79 years of age, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee would make for a terrible role model to hold up before management graduates. For one, he is not decisive; for another, he does not give the impression of being in control. In fact, an international magazine of repute even described him as being asleep at the wheel. Is he all there? Is he aware of what is going on around him? How serious is his health condition are some of the questions surrounding the man. Not a healthy picture if we are discussing the CEO of a blue chip firm. Certainly far from satisfactory prognosis if we are discussing the chief executive of a nation with one billion + population, and armed with nuclear weapons to boot.
Yet, Vajpayee has bucked all forecasts, beaten all nay-sayers, to emerge as India's beacon, the man who, health permitting, will lead his Bharatiya Janata Party and the National Democratic Alliance to victory in the 2004 general election. He has shown that the famous Gandhi-Nehru dynasty is a thing of the past, the belief that the Congress party is the party of natural governance nothing but a hollow myth, and ensured that his party will not be written off even after him.
And all this from a man who, less than a score years ago, lamented his place in the BJP's scheme of things, poetically asking, 'Jaayen to jaayen kahaan?' How ironic that it is a question his rival for prime ministership could well be mulling over today.
In a lot of ways, Vajpayee's style mirrors that of another non-dynasty prime minister: P V Narasimha Rao. In contrast to Congress party prime ministers, both govern, not rule. Their seeming detachment often gives rise to doubts over their ability -- but the best manager is often the one who is not seen to be managing at all, and both epitomize this quality. The most important link between Vajpayee and Rao is that the former is enjoying the fruits of the tree planted by the latter in 1991 --when he got his finance minister to usher in economic liberalization.
And nothing better highlights the difference between the BJP and the Congress party as their attitude towards reforms. While the initiator has virtually disowned it, the successor has run with the ball and claimed it as its own.
What did Vajpayee do to succeed in his job? To explain that, the reverse needs to be asked first: just what did the Congress party do wrong?
In the late 1990s, in the post-Rajiv Gandhi era, when the Congress party's carefully preserved electoral matrix was under pressure and slowly started crumbling, it needed a different touch to cope with the situation. Whatever the party bosses' merits and demerits, they calculated correct on Rao. He was the man of the moment, and ably guided a minority government through the choppy seas. But the mistake the party bosses made was in not confirming him in his job -- in their eternal hope that the dynasty will return and save the day for them.
They saw Rao as the man only for the moment, not beyond it, and that was the mistake they made. The dynasty's charisma -- in effect till Indira Gandhi; with Rajiv it was already on the wane -- held the nation's politically fissiparous elements under control; without it, the center just couldn't hold. Rao saw it, and had he been allowed to continue beyond 1996, I daresay he could have kept the BJP at bay.
The BJP saw what Rao saw, that the polity was undergoing cataclysmic changes. The regions were becoming stronger, and baying for a share in the federal structure. In 1996, when the BJP emerged as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha, with Vajpayee -- not L K Advani, the man who revived the organization -- as prime minister, it stood for all of 13 days in splendid isolation. Two years of the United Front comedy was all it took for the voters to turn to the BJP which this time had quilted a patchwork of regional parties from across the country under the NDA.
Facing it was the Congress party, arrogant in its trust of the dynasty which had now returned in the persona of Sonia Gandhi. Having learnt what she must know of Indian politics at the feet of Indira Gandhi -- who even her ardent admirers won't accuse of being a democrat -- she went the familiar way. She did not -- and I dare say does not still -- see that Indian politics is not what it was under her mother-in law-and husband, and there lies her biggest folly.
That weakness of hers is Vajpayee's biggest strength. Why would he need allies or issues when he has Sonia Gandhi as Leader of Opposition! Every time she opens her mouth, she must be driving voters by the hordes into the BJP camp. The scuttlebutt in the capital has it that general secretary Pramod Mahajan is sleeping well because he has Sonia Gandhi doing his job for him.
Unlike with the Congress party prime ministers, the BJP and Vajpayee don't go around tomtoming that there is no alternative to them. In fact, their message is that There Is A Terrible Alternative, or TIATA.
Faced with TIATA and its electoral dividends, there is no need for the BJP to hark back to old chestnuts like the Ayodhya issue -- which it did not do in the recent assembly elections and yet won handsomely. Like every other issue, Ayodhya too suffers from the law of diminishing returns. In fact, the balance the account must already have hit zero. Just as the BJP perceived quickly that the changing Indian polity needed it to broadbase its appeal through alliances, it saw too that the voter was tired of shibboleths, craved for genuine development, and quickly repackaged itself as the deliverer of vikas.
But politics is all about the art of reinventing oneself, and in this department the Congress party is no match for the BJP.
Consider development, which the BJP has been harping on. It can be no one's case that the positive changes happening in India are a result of just five years of governance by the NDA; as the party which has ruled the country for 41 out of 51 years, the Congress party can genuinely claim to having laid the foundation stone for the progress. Yet, it is the BJP that is reaping the benefits of a Shining India.
Never mind that in two of the three states that it wrested back from the Congress party (all three, if you consider that Chhatisgarh then was part of Madhya Pradesh), the BJP had been in power earlier and thus culpable for what little development had taken place there.
But because the Congress party's response is time-worn, and personality-centric, the BJP is having the last laugh, secure in the knowledge that given Vajpayee's TIATA factor, it need not worry.
Can Vajpayee have a better birthday than this!