Wednesday, Mar 19, 2003
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By Harish Khare
FIVE YEARS ago, this week, two national personalities earned their leadership spurs. On March 14, 1998, Sonia Gandhi was proclaimed the Congress president; two days later, the party constitution was amended to have her "elected'' chairman of the parliamentary party, even though she was not a member of either House of Parliament. Three days later, on March 19, Atal Behari Vajpayee was sworn in Prime Minister. Both the leaders are still there. In the process, Mr. Vajpayee has become the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete five years in office and looks all set to notch up the third longest prime ministerial innings, after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
Whereas Ms. Gandhi can claim to have kept the party "together'', the original raison d'etre of the March 14 coup, it is the Vajpayee scorecard that deserves closer scrutiny. Mr. Vajpayee has survived the "contradictions'' of his coalition baggage and has imparted to the polity a stability of sorts, which in these times of global uncertainty has stood the country well. But mere survival cannot be a claim for attention from future historians. The question that needs to be asked is: Has this Vajpayee/BJP/NDA survival induced a change in the political culture in any significant manner?
It is easy to try to answer the question by applying the test prescribed in the BJP's own Chennai Declaration (December 1999) to the last five years' policies, priorities, and politics. That declaration had succinctly diagnosed the ills of the polity: "For many participants in politics today, politics is no longer a means to serve the nation, and governance no longer carries with it the responsibility to serve the people. Rather, they have become a means to acquire and wield power for promoting sectional and personal benefit in a manner that necessarily militates against the collective and national interest. Indeed, lust for power has led many parties and leading politicians to employ all kinds of unscrupulous strategies and stratagems.'' The declaration saw the BJP as the answer to "a historical need of our nation'', charged it with a responsibility "to stem the rot caused by the Congress and its overt and covert allies'', and vowed to "lead the country on to a path of all-round renewal and resurgence.''
No doubt there are areas of achievements to Mr. Vajpayee's credit. He has seen to it that the Manmohan Singh-Narasimha Rao economic agenda was faithfully and vigorously carried forward. The "swadeshi'' protagonists were told to lump it and they have lumped it. Mr. Vajpayee has blessed the earlier impulse to give policy and legal breaks to all sorts of corporate crooks, masquerading as entrepreneurs. And, in foreign policy, he has creatively used "September 11'' to regain control over the regional geo-strategic equilibrium. In recent days, he has exhibited fancy foot-work to take advantage of the domestic democratic opinion to put an honourable distance between New Delhi and war-mongering Washington. Also, in Kashmir the Prime Minister first promised and then ensured that democracy worked; there is a new paradigm in the Valley. All these are impressive enough achievements for any leader.
But if the Chennai declaration standards are invoked, the last five years add up to a disappointing record when it comes to transfiguring the Indian polity. Irrespective of the "dawn of the coalition era'' spin, the NDA has been a weak governing arrangement and has produced all the symptoms of a "soft state''. Brave declarations have been made but rarely followed up; grand schemes have been announced but implemented in fits and starts. Sometimes, it is the Finance Minister's `brahma' (conscience), sometimes it is sudden fondness for "consensus'' that is pressed into service to explain away the inability to take or stick by hard decisions.
Moreover, not only has Mr. Vajpayee presided over a weak governing arrangement, he has also allowed erosion of the institutional prestige and strength of the office of Prime Minister. He has countenanced the emergence of Lal Krishna Advani as Deputy Prime Minister and then has consistently looked the other way as his deputy created a national mood of insecurity. In particular, future historians would judge Mr. Vajpayee rather harshly for allowing Mr. Advani to play at ducks and drakes with his sacred role as the Home Minister with the bureaucracy, the police and the Judiciary. What is worse, as Prime Minister, he has allowed the RSS, the self-styled "cultural organisation'', an almost institutional partnership in the affairs of the state.
Yet, these failures appear insignificant when compared to Mr. Vajpayee's refusal to explore the moral authority of his own office to put the polity on a new path of forward-looking idealism, ennobling vision, and collective inspiration. For a man who is perhaps entitled to believe that he has been the most loved Prime Minister since Jawaharlal Nehru, Mr. Vajpayee has been strangely reluctant to tap his own popularity to exorcise the body politic of its vices. True, he has not yet exhibited the arrogance of a Rajiv Gandhi or the vengeance of a Deve Gowda, but Mr. Vajpayee has inexplicably refused to use the prime ministerial pulpit to preach and practise a new leadership metier. While the Prime Minister's own image has remained unsullied these five years, he himself has opted for ambivalence and moral diffidence at every defining moment. A Mayawati can earn his indulgence, if not "blessings'', after she has been shown to be wilfully determined to be the very anti-thesis of the "su-raaj'' that the BJP is so fond of talking about; the indulgence has gone beyond the exigencies of coalition politics as the discretion of the Union Government has been used to protect against possible criminal breach of law.
The Mayawati compromise became inevitable because of the Fernandes caper. A George Fernandes is re-inducted in the Union Cabinet even before he gets exonerated of the "crimes'' he was supposed to have committed when he was made to resign. Or, a Badal dynasty is humoured till the voters speak up; similarly, the Chauthalas and the Naveen Patnaiks are being mollycoddled as they essay their own regional versions of waywardness. No wonder the international community continues to rank us with Indonesia on the corruption index. And it is precisely this failure to speak up against the corrupt and the wayward and other enemies of the "su-raaj" that opened up space for the VHP/Bajrang Dal/RSS to encroach upon. This cultivated diffidence, of course, was most dramatically evident in Gujarat; the BJP's resounding electoral victory has in no way distracted from the enormity of Mr. Vajpayee's leadership failure, especially when he knew that his own Cabinet colleagues had aided and abetted the calculus of violence.
These lapses in moral leadership have cranked up an atmosphere of destructive backward-lookingness, in which medieval battles are sought to be fought all over again; and, because of the Prime Minister's own ambivalence, the institutions and agencies of the Indian state find themselves having to recalibrate their roles with this unenlightening "Hindu chetna''. Mr. Vajpayee's failure to liberate the Indian polity from the clutches of these destructive minds overshadows all his achievements.
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