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February 24, 1998


Ashwin Mahesh

Run, Vajpayee, run!

Around the country, opinion polls indicate sympathy for Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The United Front has fallen down on the job, if only because it had its feet taken out from under by the Congress. Sonia Gandhi's style of campaigning has revealed little to think that the Congress is remaking itself, and its current image just doesn't cut ice anymore. Thus, it stands to reason in many people's minds that India's most prominent and respected parliamentarian should have one good crack at the top job. Not a rerun of the 13-day fiasco, but a solid inning.

This opinion, however, is diminished by the unanswered question -- is the BJP really different from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other such strongly religious groups, and can Vajpayee keep them in order? Frankly, there is no way to know ahead of time. At least a few, most recently A.G.Noorani in Frontline and a slew of India Today writers, have pointed out that this professed separation is not credible. Nevertheless, Advani, Vajpayee, and a host of others have faithfully repeated the standard lines -- the BJP is not the VHP, Kashi and Mathura are not on the agenda.

Nor is such ambiguity easily resolved. When does one decide that the BJP is really the VHP in disguise? When Aslam Sher Khan becomes a junior minister in Vajpayee's cabinet, will we hear the lament that Muslims are treated as second-class partners, raising shades of Sikander Bakht all over again? When Advani becomes home minister, will this be termed turning over the police to the direction of the extremists? When Ashok Singhal's supporters introduce legislation to address Kashi and Mathura, will it then be time to separate the beast from its beauty?

As ever, a spectrum of nearly continuous events leading to an identifiable calamity, such as Ayodhya, presents a thorny problem. Nigel Hawthorne illustrates this remarkably well in his fantastic portrayal of Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Prime Minister, the famous BBC television serial. Prime Minister Jim Hacker (played by Paul Eddington) cannot hide his happiness at his new-found control of Britain's nuclear arsenal, and is eager to learn how he might use that authority.

As ever, Sir Humphrey shreds his pride systematically. What, he asks, is reason enough to launch a nuclear attack? Starting from news reports about small riots in Romania and ending with Russian troops in Piccadilly, he exposes the fallacy of the nuclear deterrent, showing that the PM's last option is not always different from the first response!

The BJP, in many ways, is our last option; the others have revealed their true colors -- to our utter abhorrence. And yet, electing this party, with all the attendant fears, is also the first real response we will give to declining standards in government. Despite a succession of scams and never-ending contraventions of propriety and morality, Indians kept faith with the self-professed secularists. And now, unable to tolerate the decline in public probity any further, we may be about to cast our lot with a party long dismissed as the wolf in sheepskin.

Surely, if the BJP government should come to pass, there will be those who snip away at the edges of Vajpayee's image of tolerance and true secularism. The success of the government will hinge on his ability to keep those bites from growing into huge chunks. But for now, the game is afoot, and we are yet to decide if such a government shall assume office. For now, we merely know that this man, whatever the cloth we think he now wears, carries a significant measure of the trust and hopes we repose in government.

What then, shall we ask of him? How might this government be different from those of the past? If the BJP gets enough seats to govern, then the party will no doubt claim that Indians have entrusted it with mandate to rule. But what is the mandate we are about to deliver?

American football has an interesting parallel. As a running back or receiver takes off for the end zone in full flight, a dozen of his compatriots foil the attempts of the opposition to bring him down. All he has to do is run, the rest is in the hands of others. And so it is with India. Vajpayee must believe in the one thing that no Indian PM has ever dared to think -- that the vitality and prosperity of our nation lies not so much in the guiding hands of leaders in government as in the unshackled freedom of ordinary citizens.

Vajpayee must be different. He must govern with the conviction that if he will wear the crown and intercept the diplomatic missiles, and set our bonded spirits free, we can do the rest. The simple aspirations of everyday folks will put a thousand satellites in orbit, build a hundred thousand schools, and eradicate poverty. All he has to do is hold the fort, too many past governments have seen it as their roles to fight some injustice or the other, and too few made any headway. Mostly, they neither understood where they were going, nor had the gumption to press on with the energy needed to invigorate a large populace. Combined with mindless corruption, they fell predictably.

The next PM must hold faith with optimism. Many of us point to the follies of the past, too many more lament the seemingly insurmountable problems before us. But such pessimism neglects the human spirit. The promise of an idea -- the unhindered enterprise of ordinary people -- is enough to last a lifetime. The humanity of it is enough to inspire us, the enormity of it is enough to challenge us, the love of it is enough to lure us, all for life. If the PM will embrace this, the nation will respond.

The BJP has promised a different sort of government from the ones we have become used to. Some of us are sure that they will champion a new India, others worry if they will turn our nation into a place of turmoil beyond even what we are already accustomed to. I do not claim the clairvoyance to predict the likelier of the two outcomes, but this I know. We need a government that believes in India, and however muddled or warped Hindutva might be, it has this one redeeming quality -- it is unashamedly and unreservedly rooted in India.

The divisive politics of the Yadavs and the limited roles of regional parties in national government naturally created a void. And the BJP stepped right in, claiming to represent an India untarnished by divisions of language, caste and religion. Many of us have our doubts. Still, we must admit that the all-encompassing nature of such a position lends a certain nationalism, one we might even take pride in.

If nationalism is passe, then so be it, but let us not fail to recognise the various isms of past governments for what they were -- uninspiring, and desultory from the outset. The BJP's willingness to embrace an idea that flies in the face of recent voter trends is remarkable in an age where politicians no longer define their goals, but merely hop on to sentiments already popular with the public. With every other political group out on a limb to prove it can represent our specific interests, the charm of a party that refuses to see interest groups and vote banks is undeniable, real or not. Even if not now, the time will come for this party.

No doubt we have our fears. The instability that will surely accompany any religious antagonism is undesirable. And if a Vajpayee-led government is installed on the throne in New Delhi, it will be up to the moderates to hold his feet to the fire and seize the main planks of the party. Certainly, we should try to do just that, remaking the party in the image of Indian nationalism separated from religious politics. But for now, we can only await that opportunity.

Once, and once only, we should take the chance that this party will be different.

Ashwin Mahesh


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