October 10, 2000


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Arvind Lavakare

May his knees become stronger

It is now confirmed. Despite his poetic muse, coy smile and dreamy eyes, bachelor boy Atal Bihari Vajpayee is hardly a hit with women. Mamata Banerjee's latest spat with him puts the issue beyond doubt, coming as it does after the last two years witnessed Jayalalitha, Sonia Gandhi, and Mayawati stabbing his high status up front. Why, even Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharti of his own herd have not hesitated to take a swipe at him, albeit from the back. And there was Indira Gandhi. Though she was eulogised by Vajpayee as Durga and what not in 1971, she ensured that he was among the first to be put in the Emergency jail four years later.

Vajpayee's lack of vibe with VIP women may well be linked to some kink in his horoscope, who knows. The more plausible reason is his shameless chivalry that oft compensates the embarrassed look he wears when standing next to a Hillary Clinton or Sonia Gandhi. In his long life, the poor man doesn't appear to have understood that, whatever their exterior, a majority of women have an almost Freudian fancy for domineering males who throw caution and courtesy to the winds.

In his appeasement of the maverick Mamata, Vajpayee threw even the self-respect of veteran George Fernandes to the wind. Asking the nation's defence minister to woo the corrupt Jayalalitha was not so horrendous, for the woman had at least been the chief minister of a major state with enough clout to bring down the Government of India. But it was outright outrageous to send that same septuagenarian to coax sense into the insignificant, immature Calcutta female whose total span in politics has been less than half the time that our current defence minister has spent in the nation's Parliament.

By so genuflecting before Mamata with her eight other MPs, Vajpayee also threw to the wind the self-respect of his Cabinet and the sanctity of its decision in allowing its petroleum minister to determine the exact hike in prices of petroleum products.

More. By bending before Mamata, Vajpayee threw good governance to the wind. It was just the other day that Karnataka's chief minister -- an ex-Fulbright scholar -- had described good leadership to mean taking the right decisions after weighing all the consequences. He also expressed his belief that the good leader should speak softly but also carry a stick not visible to others.

Today's Vajpayee only speaks softly, sweetly, except when he talks about that new word in his vocabulary with which he's become so fascinated -- terrorism. And he seems to carry no invisible stick, though he'll carry a visible one for some days after his knee surgery. His pilgrimage to the Pope, his failure to stand up for the Gujarat government employees' right to participate in RSS activities, his inability to simply tick off Farooq Abdullah for demanding unbridled autonomy, his quick personal meeting with Chandrababu Naidu despite the latter's open revolt against the Eleventh Finance Commission and his meek speech to the US Congress -- all these constitute strong evidence to believe that Pokhran II will probably remain the last time that Vajpayee acted brave and manly.

Judging by his strange unwillingness to talk tough even to the likes of Paswan and Sharad Yadav, or the undisciplined government employees everywhere, one tends to accept the spreading opinion that Vajpayee wishes only to hobble around until the next election comes -- and kicks out his spineless, unimaginative, goody-goody government.

As for good leadership, Vajpayee exposed himself thoroughly on the issue of hike in petroleum prices.

Firstly, he blundered by looking in the mouth the gift horse presented by the United Front government in the matter of diesel prices. Gujral's coalition had ordained that international prices of diesel should determine local prices every month. Vajpayee's coalition just ignored that decision for reasons unknown.

Then there's the latest hop, step and jump approach adopted by Vajpayee's sirkar after an unduly long run-up. That the spiraling OPEC-generated prices warranted a hike in India as well was known for some time. But Vajpayee's government just dilly-dallied, leaving the petroleum minister to evade the right answers to the media's queries.

When the Cabinet was finally convened to confront the question, there were obviously no options presented to it separately or jointly by the petroleum or the finance ministry. All that the Cabinet did therefore was to approve the hike in principle, leaving the petroleum ministry to determine the extent of the hike. This was utter bad homework by all concerned and showed that Vajpayee's Cabinet doesn't mind acting in vague vacuums.

The next step was to discuss the matter with the NDA allies on a separate day. The Cabinet decision was endorsed that day. Mamatadidi was present but, since the quantum of price rise was not presented for approval, could later rationalise her revolt by saying that the NDA had been assured by the petroleum minister that the consumer would be least harmed.

And when the petroleum minister's actual announcement came as the concluding part of the triple jump, Mamatadidi rebelled "in the interest of the country's poor". Vajpayee had blundered.

A good, focussed PM would have acted very differently.

As soon as the international price of crude reached $ 30 a barrel as against the $ 20 taken into account in the finance minister's budget calculations for the current year, the PM should have acted. He should have asked the Cabinet's approval for a nominal, interim hike, with the assurance that firm alternative proposals would be presented to the Cabinet in the succeeding ten days or so. That interim hike would have been readily accepted by one and all; a breach in the ballooning oil pool deficit would have started quickly even as the petroleum and finance ministries worked out the nitty-gritty of the alternatives available.

The PM should have used the interregnum to address the nation on radio and TV, briefing the people on the problem confronting the nation. He should have adequately briefed the press too. Simultaneous with the interim hike, he should have publicly asked all political parties and chambers of business/industry to make suggestions in writing before a specific deadline, thereby preempting subsequent criticism.

The two ministries should have finalised their alternative proposals considering the suggestions, if any, received, and prepared to argue their recommendation with facts and figures.

These alternatives should have been professionally presented at a special Cabinet meeting to which non-ministerial allies of the NDA should have been invited. The emerging decision would have prevented the fiasco that actually took place, what with the PM pleading with Mamata over the phone and his emissaries from Delhi similarly pleading in person even as Chandrababu Naidu's cellphone kept contact with that shrill female.

With the petroleum minister most reluctant to effect even a nominal cut in the hikes he had announced a week earlier, and the entire BJP probably standing behind him, Vajpayee was caught standing on two stools. Ergo, he bought the time of a sick man: he deferred the final decision on the subject till after his surgery.

Irrespective of what Mamata does by the time this piece appears, what did the PM ultimately achieve? Egg on his face, that's all. And, of course, he's forced even us his supporters to ask the million dollar question: has Vajpayee become so enamoured of his position that he will not hesitate to indulge in shameless chivalry and bend before men as well again and again?

If, after his surgery, Vajpayee has any spunk left in him, he will tell Mamata to cool herself in Calcutta and Chandrababu to first clean up Cyberabad before lecturing to New Delhi on this or that. If the PM shows that he is willing to put his own job on the line in the national interest, the rest will fall in line as surely as an E-mail follows an Internet connection.

Meanwhile, here's wishing speedy recovery and stronger knees to our PM.

Arvind Lavakare

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