January 16, 2001


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Arvind Lavakare

Readying for the dunce's cap?

As prime minister, he has donned a variety of headgear -- from the Muslim skullcap at an iftar party to the Indonesian black one on his latest visit abroad. Judging by his queer actions of late, it seems Pakistan will ready him finally for a dunce cap.

This may appear a cruel and debasing indictment of the nation's prime minister who, moreover, is widely accepted as a gentle human being with a good soul. But just look at Atal Bihari Vajpayee's approach in recent months to some major issues.

There's Jammu & Kashmir first and foremost.

Delivering the Independence Day address from the Red Fort last year, Vajpayee told the nation: "Pakistan would be committing a terrible mistake if it thinks that it can secure anything through the undeclared war it has been staging against India."

  • "Activities of the terrorists and proposals for peace talks cannot go together."

  • "India's willingness and ability to deal firmly with violence, terrorism, extremism and separatism should not be underestimated."

    Yet, just 105 days thereafter, on November 29, Vajpayee announced a unilateral cease-fire against Pakistan's terrorism. And he is now holding aloft that olive branch for one more month. View that in the context of a recent UNI report citing an official spokesman from Jammu that i. 98 civilians killed in the cease-fire month of December represented 29 more than in November and ii. 397 of our security personnel killed in the year 2000 in anti-militancy operations represents the highest number ever in a year. Isn't Vajpayee then really holding aloft the white flag of surrender?

    Consider his recent musings from Kerala where he offered direct contact with Pakistan on the 'Kashmir problem' and even without traversing solely on the beaten track. Vajpayee has thus accepted i. Pakistan's view that J&K is a 'dispute' as against the 'situation' caused there by Pakistan's armed illegal invasion about which India complained in 1948 to the Security Council under Article 35 of the UN Charter and ii. India's half-a-century stand on it needs alteration.

    Clearly, Vajpayee, the fire-spitting PM of Independence Day 2000, is suddenly displaying the meekness of the old and the infirm. Why? If he has any reason at all, he hasn't shared it with the nation even with a hint or two.

    Look next at the importance he has given to leaders of the All-Party Hurriyat Conference some of whom have dubious credentials reportedly pinpointed in secret CBI probes. Vajpayee has permitted them to go to Pakistan as a sounding board for the proposed talks with that country although some APHC constituents are brazenly opposed to India's 53-year-old stand that J&K is an integral part of this country. Why has the PM given this status to APHC? If he has any reason at all, he hasn't shared it with the nation even with a hint or two.

    Consider how Vajpayee has needlessly nursed the ego of Mamata Banerjee and the haughty Chandrababu Naidu instead of asserting himself as prime minister.

    Knowing that the Trinamool Congress is ultimately going to divorce the NDA government and that, in any case, the NDA's majority in Lok Sabha would be dented only by a minuscule after the separation, Vajpayee should have straight away accepted Cry-Baby's resignation on the issue of the petroleum price hike. That would have sent a loud and significant message to the BJP's alliance partners as well as to the country itself, besides saving a billion or two rupees in subsidies given away subsequently by succumbing to the Trinamool's blackmail.

    Similarly, when Naidu indulged in that high-decibel hoopla over the recommendations of the Tenth Finance Commission, the prime minister should have told him to argue his case directly with that Constitutional body of experts instead of giving him a personal audience. That show of authority would have been in keeping with the dignity of his high office without in any way causing the Telugu Desam supremo to withdraw his party's support to the NDA government.

    And there is, of course, Vajpayee's silence on Jyoti Basu's frequent references to the BJP as "barbaric and uncivilised". Only once did he ask Basu whether Vajpayee the man was barbaric and uncivilised. Any other national party leader and any other prime minister would have ticked off Basu for his defamatory remark in a manner that would have haunted the Bengali bhadralok for the rest of his lifetime -- refusing to meet him, for instance, on any matter until he apologised unconditionally.

    Vajpayee has very often been speaking about reforms. But he has not thought about the simplest reform of stopping the long-prevalent sycophantic and wasteful practice of all his Cabinet ministers greeting him at the airport whenever he goes abroad or returns from abroad.

    Vajpayee is eulogised as a great communicator. But being a wordsmith in Parliament does not mean being a good communicator outside it. As it is, Vajpayee has had to issue self-embarrassing clarifications in quick succession --- one on the swayamsevak statement in Staten Island, and two for the remark on the Ayodhya temple for Ram.

    Take his approach to public sector divestment. Vajpayee has talked often enough of it, but do you recall him ever elaborating its rationale in the context of the nation's economy? All that has been done in that direction is the circulation among ruling party MPs of a 52-page paper on divestment in November. That paper contains the following two shockers:

    1. In the last decade, the government has infused Rs 52.43 billion into public sector units in the form of fresh equity and extended budgetary support of Rs 612.11 billion; besides, Rs 103.50 billion of their loans have been converted to equity, and their outstanding loans of Rs 184.11 billion have been written off.

    2. In return for the above, the public sector units have given government a dividend of Rs 179.38 billion as dividend, most of it from the monopoly public sector oil enterprises.

    Has our "great communicator" ever used the above statistics in any public discourse? Has he used them to confront public sector employees who struck work or agitated in protest of even part privatisation? Has he ever deployed his oratorical skills to move the heart of every Indian to consider what he should do for the country rather than what the country should do for him? Has he ever woven his words to publicly appeal to the conscience of government employees steeped in sloth and corruption? Has he ever cared to use the vast radio network of Akashwani to explain lots of things that need to be explained to our villagers on a regular basis?

    For that matter, he hasn't even cared to sort out the overlapping of roles of his principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh on foreign policy matters. Why, again, has he let Mishra be his alter ego when, logically, the defence minister should be responsible for issues such as the nuclear doctrine? And how is it that the nuclear doctrine itself hasn't been debated in Parliament as yet?

    Lastly, it must be accepted that Vajpayee's body language for some time now has hardly been such as to inspire confidence in the nation's youth and the middle-aged. He is too slow and hesitant, in walk and speech. He appears too confused or too cowed down when facing international figures --- scrutinise his photographs with Clinton or Putin or the Pope. The elan and exuberance that all of India has the right to expect from its prime minister are simply missing from Vajpayee's personality. If he is not even aware of this, it is because he has opted for only media advisers, not for PR advisers as well.

    Arvind Lavakare

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