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The Rediff Special/Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi

May 18, 2004

Contributing Editor Sheela Bhatt glances at the mandarins who will hold the levers of power in the new Congress government.

Part I: Who will the New Babus be?

The two issues that will demand the immediate attention of the Indian National Congress-led government at the Centre are defence and foreign policy.

Former foreign secretary J N Dixit, now a member of the Congress party and the frontrunner to be the new prime minister's national security adviser, has been highly critical of the functioning of the national security apparatus in the Vajpayee government.

The new prime minister might initiate an exercise to strengthen the National Security Council and the National Security Council Secretariat.

Former Intelligence Bureau director M K Narayanan may play an important role in this process.

The Congress government might also speed up the implementation of the recommendations of the various task forces that were appointed after the 1999 Kargil war.

Since the government will work closely with the Left Front, the Congress will have to revamp the Planning Commission.

The Left Parties attach a lot of importance to the Planning Commission and will want the new prime minister to restore its primary role in the country's economic management.

K C Pant, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, has already resigned.

Jairam Ramesh or Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the former finance secretary and currently Executive Director at the World Bank, are being touted as his possible replacements.

The new prime minister will have to take two important foreign policy decisions.

The first is whether s/he should continue the peace process with Pakistan initiated by outgoing prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. On Monday Congress President Sonia Gandhi said her party's government would, a decision welcomed by the Pakistan foreign ministry.

Observers in Delhi believe the talks with Pakistan will be more business-like.

Another major foreign policy decision involves the US.

The Left Front already wants India to end its military-to-military relationship with the United States. This at a time when the India-US relationship has been at its best in many years.

Political pundits agree the new government's dependence on the Communists will impact the nation's economic policies and its policy towards the US.

The Communists will insist on slowing down the divestment policy. From the day they won 63 Lok Sabha seats and knew a Congress government would be dependent on their support, Left Front leaders have demanded scrapping of the divestment ministry. This, even before the government has been formed.

The Left and the pro-Palestine Liberation Organisation section in the Congress party will want the new prime minister to relook at the NDA government's policy of maintaining a close relationship with Israel in security-related matters. They will want her/him to take a stronger pro-PLO and pro-Arab line.

As far as China is concerned, the new prime minister is expected to continue with the NDA's policy that has been supported by the Leftists as well.

In Kashmir, the prime minister is expected to continue the talks with the Hurriyat, possibly through former home secretary N N Vohra, who has been the NDA's interlocutor on Jammu and Kashmir.

Wajahat Habibullah, a serving IAS officer, presently with the Institute of Peace in Washington, DC, who is close to the Hurriyat leaders, is expected to play an important role. Habibullah, son of the late Major General Habibullah and brother-in-law of Tata Sons Finance Director Ishaat Hussain, was a member of the Prime Minister's Office in Rajiv Gandhi's time. He is credited with resolving the Hazratbal crisis in 1995. Sadly, soon after, he was seriously injured in an automobile accident. Habibullah, until recently, was civil supplies secretary in the Union government.

Image: Rahil Shaikh

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