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December 8, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

Things Vajpayee should do

In the pall of its latest poll debacle, some BJP top brass showed, for the nth time or so, how inept the party as a whole has been in its media management. As the ever-hostile media, especially Star TV (which just cannot disguise its anti-BJP stance), repeatedly queried these leaders on the reasons for the rout, many leading lights made monkey of themselves, not hesitating to thrust long knives at each other, thereby plunging their public image even lower than what the election indicated.

Even Sushma Swaraj, otherwise so savvy in her television presence, became a sad spectacle when she said, in the Hindi version, that BJP had itself burnt its own house; trying to smile away the disastrous results in Delhi, she alluded to her sudden shift from a Cabinet rank to chief ministership as akin to being brought during the slog overs to hit a six but failing to connect.

In this horseplay, one-day cricket and all, the BJP did not come across as being determined as hell to prevent another electoral debacle from ever occurring again. This is a pity because there still are vast sections of people who believe that the BJP is the one party with high integrity and supreme nationalism at its core, some black sheep in its flock notwithstanding.

One outcome of hits confessional before the media's millions was that the BJP had realised that its government in Delhi had to be responsive, first and foremost, to people's needs -- the point made in this column last week. But, horror of horrors, one major newspaper's interaction with the defeated party's leaders made it conclude that the "party strategists haven't a clue as yet on how to go about this objective."

Well, if that assessment is right -- as seems borne out by the way the high onion prices were neglected and some state satraps were permitted to take certain blatantly anti-minority steps -- here's a remedial plan of action for Vajpayee and his vanquished vanaar sena, often referred to by some English language journalists as "the lunatic fringe."

The plan being suggested is such that it can be implemented straight away. All it demands is that the BJP-led coalition realise the importance of the work being done by this country's news agencies and the big network of reporters engaged by the country's newspapers. All that is required is a vigilant eye on the news headlines in some 15-odd major newspapers so that the ministers in Delhi will come to know of the variety of people's problems and the need for government's action in certain areas on an urgent basis.

The next step is the initiation of that urgent action, followed by the disclosure of that action through the media as well as party functionaries at the grassroot level. Such a three-pronged type of governance alone would bring the required restoration and enhancement of faith in the BJP-led coalition, which may well be under oxygen already.

Some examples will prove the worth of this plan being recommended.

Take the report dated November 29 from the Delhi-based special correspondent of the The Telegraph of Calcutta. The headline screamed 'Jatia flouts PMO directive' -- four words that should shake up any PM. The report goes on to state that, on November 16, Union Minister for Labour Satyanarayan Jatia, of the BJP, ordered the parking of Rs 2 billion of workers' money with eight branches of three nationalised banks; the order, according to the report, was through a letter from the minister's private secretary Devendra Varma to the director-general of the Employees State Insurance Corporation.

This ministerial diktat, it seems, is in total defiance of the directive of the Prime Minister's Office that ministers should not involve themselves with either the investment or the process of investment. The news report also went on to refer to Jatia turning to the provident fund commissioners, some of whom allegedly mobilised funds for the renovation of his houses in Delhi and Ujjain in Rajasthan.

Till I write this, eight mornings after that report's appearance, not the faintest of flutter has emanated from the PMO. If, on the other hand, Vajpayee had made it his religion to serve the people, and reading news headlines his ritual -- directly or through a foolproof system -- he would (or should) have initiated SOS action and, equally vital, brought his action to the attention of the whole nation through the press, radio and television.

What could (or should) have Vajpayee done in the Jatia jumble? First of all, Vajpayee ought to have asked the minister and his PS to see him immediately without disclosing the subject. Before that, the PM should have had the DG of the ESIC show him the letter said to have been written by the PS. If what he ascertained confirmed the newspaper report, he ought to have sent a letter of thanks to the correspondent, and announced publicly that he, the PM, had threatened Jatia with dismissal from the ministry if he himself did not resign within 24 hours.

If, on the other hand, there was no truth in the newspaper report, Vajpayee should have met the correspondent concerned to correct his impression, called the presidents of the major trade unions concerned to set their doubts at rest, and ordered the Press Information Bureau to issue a note immediately on the subject and also asked the BJP party spokesman to give out the full information to the radio, TV and press people.

Can you imagine the electrifying effect on the people of the above course of action?

Then there's the case of a Muslim employee of the Rajasthan State Electricity Board whose view caused the very recent headline which shouted 'Muslim Return Boosts Congress'. Based in Tonk, his complaint to a correspondent was that 'Muslim employees were victimised in various ways -- frequent transfers, denial of promotion and pay hikes.'

If Vajpayee's ministry were on the red alert against such press reports, that employee would have been traced and given free train fare both ways to meet the minister for power, prior to which the Rajasthan Electricity Board chairman's view should have been obtained in writing on the allegations made. If the latter were, in fact, well-founded, the minister should have ordered rectifications and announced the decision in public. If the allegations were just that, the minister should still have met the disgruntled employee and explained the position. Once again, a public announcement of this grievance should have been made known to the public.

Lastly, take the plight of the groundnut farmers with small holdings in several villages of Saurashtra. A three-column headline in The Indian Express announced the plight of such farmers being unable to sell their produce because of the frequent strikes in the market yards caused by machinations and politics of farm leaders, agents and oil millers. If the PM read the news, he would (should) have, on his own, phoned his party's chief minister in Gujarat and instructed him to solve the problem and report to him in a week's time.

And so on and so forth.

"But can the country's PM find the time for press reports?" you ask. Oh yes, he can dear surfer. Provided he improves his time management by deciding here and now that:

* He will not attend private functions such as the birthday celebration of Satya Sai Baba which he graced prior to the recent assembly election.

* He will not attend meaningless government functions such as the inauguration of new trains.

* He will not attend conventions of business, trade, industry etc.

* He will reduce his protocol presence to the barest minimum.

* He will not pay homage to the samadhis of all and sundry save that of Mahatma Gandhi.

* He will reduce his tours within the country to the barest minimum.

The above time-saving measures are indicative; there may be others which the PM himself can determine. It may all seem so unconventional, but Vajpayee must realise that it's now a do-or-die situation for him and his government. The Congress, with its cleverness at administration, cosmetic secularism, please-all policies and 'discipline' of sycophantic followers, is getting all set to wrest power and retain it -- the poverty, illiteracy, casteism and corruption of 45-odd years notwithstanding.

One more innovation which Vajpayee should seriously consider for his successors to follow suit is address the nation once a month with a pre-recorded radio/television broadcast of not more than 15 minutes duration. These addresses should be used for stock taking and analysing the country's problems as well as possible solutions. The feedback could be very helpful.

All the above suggestions to make the present central government strike a chord of empathy with the people at large seem, at the end of this commentary, rather futile. After all, if the PM has not apparently read about Jatia's jockeying staring at him from a major newspaper, how can anyone expect the old man to get a mouse on to this Web Site?

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