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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

Inder Gujral has only about a year in office -- at best

Inder Gujral needs to get tough and fight the wimp factor.

No matter how well intentioned the prime minister is, there is little doubt he neither understands political timing nor appreciates the need to seem tough and committed to what he believes.

The latest in a series of own-goals is the abrupt transfer of CBI director 'Tiger' Joginder Singh. Joginder should never have been appointed to the job. His record as a police officer is undistinguished and his only qualifications were his ability to speak to H D Deve Gowda in Kannada and a recommendation from Harkishen Singh Surjeet.

Both men were quick to disown him. Deve Gowda claimed Joginder defected to Sitaram Kesri's side in the last three months of his government, and Surjeet now says he had nothing to do with the appointment.

Deve Gowda would have sacked Joginder had his government not fallen. Gujral had decided to move him within weeks of taking over because of his hunger for publicity, his bumbling, bungling style and his mission to transform the CBI from India's premier investigative agency to a rusty old vessel that leaked scurrilous titbits to a credulous media.

But because nobody could agree on a successor -- R C Sharma, the obvious choice, was on extension and D R Karthikeyan's supporters were lobbying hard to get him the job -- Gujral put off the decision. In the interim, Joginder, who knew he was about to return to the wilderness, quickly took defensive action.

Even though he had sought to scupper the investigation into the fodder scam by acting against U N Biswas, the real investigator, last year, he now recast himself as the scourge of Laloo Yadav.

By the time Gujral finally got his act together, the timing could not have been worse. Joginder was in France representing India at an international conference, the Janata Dal elections were due, the noose was tightening around Laloo's neck and the press bought the line the transfer was sparked by the intrepid Tiger's investigative abilities.

Why would the media be so willing to believe that Inder Gujral, generally regarded as a decent and honest man, would transfer officers in an effort to shield a corrupt chief minister?

I suspect it is not because anybody regards Gujral as dishonest. They merely regard him as unable to stand up to pressure. And they believe he is unwilling to state his case upfront.

Within a fortnight of assuming office, Gujral crumbled under pressure and sacrificed Bhabani Sengupta even though he must have known that the charges made by Chandra Shekhar against Sengupta were unfair.

It is possible to argue that Sengupta should never have been appointed. But once Gujral had given him the job, it was his duty to stand by his man. To do anything less would be to give the impression of weakness.

Gujral probably did not realise that the Sengupta episode hurt him more than it hurt his appointee. A septuagenarian academic can always find another sinecure. But a prime minister who succumbs to pressure in his very first month in office will find it difficult to ever regain his authority.

The same unwillingness to take stands is also apparent in matters of policy. It is no secret that Gujral supports the Tata-Singapore Airlines project. He opposed C M Ibrahim's aviation policy when he was part of Deve Gowda's Cabinet. As prime minister he wants to alter that policy.

But his behaviour has been distinctly un-prime ministerial. First, he embarrassed India by attacking a domestic policy in a foreign country. Next, he tried to sack Ibrahim but backed down in the face of pressure from Deve Gowda. Then, he got the civil aviation secretary to draft a new policy which was pro Tata-SIA behind Ibrahim's back and to leak this policy to the media.

When the Left and Ibrahim himself objected, the ministry quickly denied there was any new draft policy, only to the caught lying on the front page of the Indian Express. To date, Gujral has never told his own civil aviation minister that he wants to change the policy -- which surely, is his right as prime minister.

On broadcasting policy, the situation is only slightly better. Gujral never approved of Ibrahim's Broadcasting Bill. Within days of taking over, he removed Ibrahim and gave the portfolio to Jaipal Reddy. Everybody assumed a new Bill was forthcoming.

No such luck.

Reddy has said he does not support Ibrahim's Bill, but has forwarded it to Parliament nevertheless. Why forward a Bill you don't like? Well, because the new minister has 'an open mind'.

But surely, it is not an empty mind? Gujral and Reddy must know what kind of policy they want. Why doesn't the Cabinet formulate a new broadcasting policy and then send a Bill that it supports to Parliament? Largely, one suspects, because the two men are too frightened to take a decision.

I could go on. There is no shortage of such instances. Is it any wonder that other politicians believe the prime minister can't take the heat?

I hope that the public perception of Gurjal is wrong. He has demonstrated courage in the past -- most notably over Sanjay Gandhi and the Emergency. But it is also true his style is slow and consensual. And because he is not street-smart, the notion of political timing is alien to him.

But this is a special situation. Inder Gujral has only about a year in office -- at best. He does not have the time for consensus and for prevarication. History has taught us once people see a leader as a man who will bend, they stop listening to him. And eventually, they stop supporting him.

V P Singh bragged about managing contradictions but ultimately those very contradictions finished his government off in just nine months. George Bush seemed so unwilling to take hard decisions that his defeat after just one term in the White House (despite the Gulf War triumph) was attributed to the 'wimp factor'.

It is this wimp factor that Inder Gujral needs to combat. Once he is seen as weak then people will believe the worst of him -- as indeed they do about his motives in transferring Joginder Singh.

Throughout his career, Gujral has cared too much about what his colleagues and his friends think. But now that he has reached the pinnacle of political achievement and has nothing left to lose, it is time to shed that attitude.

In the end, it won't matter how the Janata Dal regards him. All that really matters is how history will remember him.

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Vir Sanghvi

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