Debating India


A 13-month roller-coaster ride

Saturday 24 April 1999, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

There never was a dull moment during the tenure of the BJP-led Government.

IT was apparent from the moment it took office that the Vajpayee Government would face a serious conflict between the demands of pragmatism and the hardline ideological programme that had propelled the Bharatiya Janata Party to power. Serious compromises with the ideological agenda were foretold by the disparate electoral alliances the BJP had struck across the country. But few people were able to fathom the influence that prickly egos and political insecurities would exercise on the fortunes of the Ministry.

It did not take long for these factors to surface. Right in the midst of its triumphal celebrations after the last elections, the BJP was plunged into gloom by Jayalalitha’s sudden qualms about the prudence of continuing her association with it. The letter of committed support that the President had demanded as a condition prior to Vajpayee being sworn in as Prime Minister, simply did not materialise.

This early irritant arose from a perception on Jayalalitha’s part that she had not been accorded the honour that was her due, by virtue of the numerical strength she imparted to the BJP-led coalition. Her personal sense of pique was, however, dressed up in high principle. In the immediate aftermath of the last general elections, Jayalalitha contrived to portray her quite transparent recourse to coercive politics as an effort to stand up for certain unexceptionable political demands - among them, the status of Tamil among the national languages, the need to protect reservations for backward classes against the judicially mandated ceiling, and the necessity to resolve all pending disputes among States over the sharing of river water resources.

The BJP deputed Jaswant Singh, a seasoned and urbane negotiator, to mollify Jayalalitha. The task was accomplished in part by bringing the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader’s concerns on board the prospective ruling coalition’s basic charter of association, the National Agenda for Governance. Any other assurance that Jaswant Singh may have held out remained unrecorded, though ample suggestions were available from the allocation of two sensitive portfolios - Finance and Personnel - to Ministers of State from the AIADMK.

These, it turned out, were only the minimal demands. Jayalalitha’s core concern was with ejecting the duly elected Government of the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu. Just over a month into its tenure, the Vajpayee Government witnessed a dramatic escalation in internal discord over this patently inadmissible demand.

The culture of dialogue, so essential to sustaining a viable coalition, was rapidly being extinguished and the BJP-led Government seemed to be sinking into a bog of indecision. Just when it seemed to be plumbing the very depths in public opprobrium, the BJP launched its counter-attack. After weeks of drift and disarray, of uncertain and ambivalent policy statements, the BJP-led Government on May 11 blasted the country into a future of new strategic uncertainties.

IN its own construction, the nuclear blasts at Pokhran on May 11 (and the following sequence of smaller tests on May 13) constituted the high point of the Vajpayee Government’s tenure. Close to a year after the event, the jury still remains out on the benefits that have accrued to the country from the decision to go overtly nuclear and the costs that have been borne.

The immediate consequence of Pokhran, of course, was to spur senior BJP spokesmen into a bout of shrill and belligerent rhetoric. Home Minister L.K. Advani purported to see a certain utility for nuclear weapons in dealing with low-intensity insurgencies when he warned Pakistan to take account of the new strategic realities in the subcontinent. Another Minister in the Union Cabinet, Madan Lal Khurana, challenged Pakistan to name the time and place to wage war if it intended to persist in its attitude of hostility towards India.

On another front, the Prime Minister despatched a classified letter to United States President Bill Clinton, explaining the rationale for the nuclear tests in terms of the threats that India faced from China and Pakistan. The communication, which was published in The New York Times shortly after the Pokhran tests, evidently on the strength of a high-level leak from the U.S. political establishment, seemed, retrospectively, to impart a sense of purpose to Defence Minister George Fernandes’ earlier meanderings in strategic analysis.

Always a politician in a hurry, Fernandes seemed in his early days in office to be literally possessed by an urge to efface the entire record and rewrite India’s strategic doctrine anew. First it was by identifying China as the principal threat to the country. And then, in quick succession he seemed to have discovered a Chinese military base in the Cocos Islands and a helicopter pad in Arunachal Pradesh. Finally, and quite astoundingly, he claimed to have received information privately from the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh of Chinese incursions deep into Indian territory.

It was a pattern of behaviour that seemed of a piece with a record of rash political conduct in the past, though it offered only a dim foretaste of the adventurist course that he was later to embark upon. It remains a valid hypothesis, though, that Fernandes’ early excursions into strategic doctrine had the tacit endorsement of the BJP hierarchy and may have played a role in preparing the ground for the Pokhran tests. It remains unclear till date, however, that Fernandes was part of the core process of policy deliberation that preceded the nuclear tests.

The riposte from Pakistan followed in just over a fortnight of Pokhran. As large parts of India were gripped by a lethal heat wave, the exchange of angry political rhetoric with the adversarial neighbour reached a flashpoint. Kashmir, the theatre where the practical consequences of the ideological contest between India and Pakistan are most brutally enacted, saw an upsurge of violence. And with breathtaking cynicism, Advani observed that the Pakistani nuclear tests were the best thing that could have happened. The U.S., he said, would now be obliged to impose sanctions on that country, just as it had on India. And economic sanctions would bite deeper in Pakistan than in India.

Apart from inviting economic sanctions, the nuclear tests in the subcontinent reawakened U.S. interest in political engagement with India. The initial approach, as articulated in the meetings of the U.N. Security Council and the group of seven industrialised countries (the G-7), was uncompromising. Both India and Pakistan were enjoined to freeze their nuclear testing programme, sign on to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and enter into negotiations in Geneva towards a fissile material cutoff.

At some stage, this attitude gave way to the spirit of dialogue. A sequence of high-level discussions followed between Jaswant Singh, then the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, and Strobe Talbott, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State. Eight rounds of this dialogue were held, in the course of which Jaswant Singh’s credentials for the job were underlined by his appointment as Minister for External Affairs. It was a recurring motif in the transactions between Jaswant Singh and Talbott that they were not in the nature of negotiations, but of open-ended dialogue. The last such encounter, in January, ended on a note of bonhomie, with both sides proclaiming that a new basis had been established for relations between the two countries.

The Jaswant-Talbott talks were punctuated by a sequence of military adventures by the U.S. Afghanistan and Sudan were bombed with supposed surgical precision in September, though there is no knowing what the nature of the targets was. Iraq was bombed in a frenzy of destructive zeal in December on the basis of a trumped-up report from the Special Commission for disarming the country. And as the BJP-led Government hurtled to its demise, the contours of the new world order were being etched with brutal clarity in the air campaign against Yugoslavia.

India’s response to these events constitute an interesting continuum. The attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan were deplored for their "selective and unilateral" nature. Terrorism, said the Ministry of External Affairs, was of deep concern to all democratic nations. And the appropriate response would be to evolve an agreed multilateral approach towards the question. The resonance with India’s neighbourhood worries, particularly over the insurgency in Kashmir, was evident in this response. Less evident was any sense of fealty to the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of independent sovereign nations - a standard of global behaviour that India has always upheld.

The bombing of Iraq also elicited a similar, carefully calibrated response. Time-honoured principles of Indian foreign policy seemed to call for a strong response, but the new spirit of accommodation with the U.S. demanded moderation. Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh made identical statements on Iraq in the two Houses of Parliament, expressing grave concern. New Delhi neither denounced nor condemned the strikes against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a friendly country.

When Yugoslavia came under attack, the response of the Vajpayee Government moved one step closer to the traditional commitments of Indian foreign policy. The reaction this time around was marked once again by a careful choice of words, but the tone was perceptibly more critical than in the two earlier incidents of unilateral action by the global policeman. The phase of engagement with the U.S. is clearly hitting a serious roadblock. And if the Vajpayee Government is to be remembered by its achievements in foreign policy, the record would appear rather undistinguished - a brief honeymoon with the U.S. which ended in mutual discord, a phase of rapprochement determined more by the compulsions of American geopolitics than by any reassessment of India’s importance. The Vajpayee government was unable to build any kind of domestic consensus over the new directions it was trying to impart to foreign policy. And the enunciation of India’s new doctrine in the global disarmament debate remains on hold. Adherence to the CTBT seems infeasible in the absence of a domestic political consensus and the failure of the U.S. to deliver the reciprocal promise of sustained patronage in neighbourhood disputes.

YET the engagement with the U.S. did produce a momentary effusion of goodwill in the neighbourhood. Shortly after Talbott concluded the last phase of his shuttle diplomacy in the subcontinent, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif extended a dramatic invitation to his Indian counterpart to travel by the proposed bus service to Lahore and meet him for a purposive dialogue on all contentious issues. The proposal was accepted and the meeting which ensued on February 21 was remarkable for its cordiality.

The Lahore Declaration of February 21 was perhaps the high point of Vajpayee’s prime ministerial tenure. Yet when his political legacy is evaluated, there are likely to be a number of ambiguities surrounding this achievement. Vajpayee and Sharif agreed, for instance, that they would open a broad range of negotiations, in which the status of Jammu and Kashmir would figure as an important item. Much was read into the fact that the BJP, which had always insisted that to open a dialogue on Kashmir would be akin to pronouncing the death of the Indian nation, had conceded this much to the adversarial neighbour. This was rendered, in some quarters, into a virtual advertisement for the revelatory qualities of the competitive nuclear tests in the subcontinent. Having consummated their ideological contestation in the chilling logic of nuclear exterminism, India and Pakistan, the new orthodoxy holds, had no choice but to step back from the precipice and agree to evaluate the entire record of their troubled relations afresh.

A plain evaluation of the facts would reveal these assessments of the Vajpayee legacy to be excessively fanciful. If agreeing to talk about Kashmir is the principal criterion, then the breakthrough in neighbourhood relations came not in Lahore in February, but in Islamabad in June 1997, when the United Front was in power. Seemingly ringing down the curtain on a decade of coercive diplomacy in the region, the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries agreed then to inaugurate a phase of dialogue in which the issues of Jammu and Kashmir and peace and security, including confidence-building measures, would be high-priority items. Ironically, the BJP, which portrays the Lahore Declaration as an achievement of unequivocally positive significance, opposed the Islamabad agreement as something akin to the betrayal of the nation. Having appropriated a legacy that it has always opposed, the BJP has not succeeded in really building upon it. The symbolism of the Lahore visit has, in the weeks following it, been submerged by the substantive difficulties of effacing the mutual mistrust which the ideological fraternity of the BJP has played no mean role in sustaining.

IN the domestic arena, the Vajpayee Government presided over a sharp upsurge in social discord and disharmony. Bihar continued to witness periodic outbreaks of caste violence, at terrible cost to human life. The Vajpayee Government sought, in September last year and then again in January, to utilise the obvious infirmities of the administration in Bihar to political advantage. On the first occasion, its recommendation on the dismissal of the Rabri Devi Government was returned for reconsideration by the President. On the second, it was rescinded for fear of ignominious defeat in Parliament. On neither occasion was the BJP-led Government able to project credibly that it had any better ideas to administer the State, than packing the administrative machinery with partisans of its own ideology. Where a process of consultation and consensus-building may have produced dividends, the BJP went by its own sectarian instincts and came to grief twice over in the battlefield of Bihar.

AN ascending graph of violence against the Christian community will perhaps be remembered as the most baneful legacy of the Government’s tenure. Gujarat was the principal theatre of this new programme of "social cleansing", as it is referred to in the literature of the Sangh Parivar. But incidents of a serious nature were also reported from Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. Most shocking perhaps was the grisly murder of the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in the village of Baripada in Orissa - an act of premeditated brutality that the BJP was prompt in denouncing as the direct consequence of an "international conspiracy".

The more sober assessments, however, identified the abdication of responsibility by the Vajpayee Government as the critical determinant of this brutal deed. At every opportunity that had presented itself since the graph of violence against Christians began to rise, in both rhetoric and deed, leaders of the ruling coalition failed to exercise their authority in the cause of sanity and order. Vajpayee visited the riot-torn district of Dangs in Gujarat but chose not to censure the administration that had been derelict or condemn the Hindutva cabal that had wrecked a tradition of amity. He mildly admonished the miscreants for taking the law into their own hands and tacitly held the victims responsible for their suffering, by calling for a "national debate" on religious conversions.

Home Minister Advani consistently overlooked powerful evidence that the flock he marshalled and nurtured through the Ayodhya campaign was back in the fray with a vengeance, their focus shifted to a new set of imagined grievances. Having facilitated his ascent to power, they were inclined not merely to disregard all appeals for calm but actually to seek official patronage for their depredations. In the immediate aftermath of the Staines murder, Advani issued a statement of absolution that was virtually a disavowal of his responsibility: "As far as I know," he said, "the Bajrang Dal or any other organisation connected with the RSS has no criminal background." The Bajrang Dal, he said, "has already clarified its stand". The Home Minister, in other words, was prepared to accept the self-extenuating pleas of the principal accused in the Staines murder at face value. Faith, rather than the rule of law, would govern his actions.

On a later occasion, Advani had to make his way to Mumbai and virtually prostrate himself before Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, to ensure that the proposed tour of India by the Pakistan cricket team would proceed without disruption. It was an abject humiliation for the Home Minister who in a moment of vainglory had laid claim to the mantle of Sardar Patel.

In the midst of these exertions, Advani also admitted in a moment of introspection that the BJP-led Government had not been able to perform to expectations, primarily on account of lack of experience. These remarks came in the midst of a season of livelihood trauma in the first half of the Vajpayee Government’s tenure - a season when the onion, which has served in earlier political contexts as a metaphor for administrative ineptitude, seemed to be exerting a form of fatal attraction in the market, sucking one vegetable after another into the vortex of an inflationary spiral.

There have been few occasions in the last decade when consumer confidence has been shaken quite as badly as between August and November 1998. Punctuating this was a sequence of miscued interventions by the Government. Exports of onions were permitted despite overwhelming evidence of two consecutively poor harvests and the prospect of acute inflationary pressures in the domestic market. Having exported its way into an inflationary trap, the Government began a frantic effort to import its way out. The effort soon came a cropper, since world markets simply did not have the levels of onion availability to meet India’s requirements.

A feeble effort was made to check sharp trading practices in the market by strict enforcement of the Essential Commodities Act. This initiative, which came rather late in the day, begged the question why the BJP-led Government had amended the Act through an ordinance in April, within a month of coming to power, considerably diluting its procedural and punitive provisions. The proposed amendment was later allowed to lapse but referred to a Joint Select Committee of Parliament, though the signals it had sent out to the trading lobby were manifest.

WITHIN nine months of coming to power, the BJP faced its most significant electoral trial in the shape of three electoral contests in the northern region. The outcome marked ignominious rout for the party. In Rajasthan and Delhi, where it confronted the dual disadvantage of incumbency at the Centre and the State, the BJP was able to come to terms with defeat relatively easily. But it had set great store by Madhya Pradesh, where it hoped to reverse the tide and benefit from the incumbency of the Congress(I) in the State. That hope was decisively shattered, leaving the BJP in complete disarray after the November elections.

Shortly afterwards, there was a virtual revolt in the ranks over economic policy. Compelled by the pragmatic calculations of staying in power to enact an amendment to the Patents Act and permit the liberalisation of the insurance industry, the BJP found that the hardline elements within its ranks could not quite so easily be taken for granted. Both the measures involved a reversal of attitudes within the party, with the swadeshi fringe in particular being asked to swallow all its reservations in the interests of sustaining the party in office. The upsurge of dissension within the ranks could not have come at a worse time - right in the middle of a session of Parliament, and in the immediate aftermath of a disastrous electoral performance.

The imperatives of staying in power finally won out. But no sooner had the session of Parliament ended with virtually nothing being transacted by way of substantive legislation, than Fernandes chose to open up another front by dismissing the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat (story on page 116). In part because of the Admiral’s spirited effort to redeem his honour, this crisis snowballed into one that perhaps was the principal and proximate cause of the Vajpayee Government’s demise. Vajpayee may have survived if he had ensured that the Defence Minister adhered to the basic norms of accountability in a parliamentary system. But Fernandes had clearly become too intimate a member of his inner coterie to be subjected to the ordeal of explaining an act which had not a shred of legality or propriety about it.

It was Fernandes, for instance, who brokered successive deals with Jayalalitha, to ensure the sustenance of her support for the ruling coalition. The last such instance was in February, when the Central Government, through an extraordinary gazette notification, reallocated the cases of corruption pending in three specially designated courts in Chennai to Sessions Judges. Although worded in the neutral tones of an administrative decision, the notification was suffused with the BJP-led Government’s survival imperatives. It overrode a ruling of the High Court, which upheld the constitution of special courts to hear the cases of corruption that had been made out against Jayalalitha, and pre-empted an appeal on the matter before the Supreme Court. It was issued without even the courtesy of a reference to the Chief Justice of the High Court. It was a manoeuvre of stunning disingenuousness by a ruling coalition that had just two days earlier been congratulating itself for a record of supposed probity in office.

Add on Murli Manohar Joshi’s determined pursuit of his ideological agenda as Minister for Human Resource Development, and the erosion under the successive stewardships of Sushma Swaraj and Pramod Mahajan of the limited autonomy that was granted to the broadcasting medium - and the Vajpayee Government’s 13-month tenure would seem to be suffused with achievements of a rather dubious sort. In its twilight days, the BJP-led Government did make a forceful affirmation of sorts, by proceeding with the deferred test of the Agni-II missile. But as a gesture of national will and determination, it failed to strike a chord anywhere in the country. The minimal resonance it elicited was rapidly stilled by Pakistan’s retaliatory tests.

It may be premature yet to pronounce a summary verdict on the Vajpayee Government’s tenure. But in the conflict between the core ideological agenda of the RSS constellation and the pragmatic compulsions of governance, Vajpayee clearly chose to exercise his authority in favour of the latter. This kept him in a state of conflict with his own flock for the first half of his tenure, until the devastating consequences were made evident in the electoral rout of November. Curiously, the authority of the Prime Minister increased considerably after that catalclysm. He was better able to have his way with his truculent flock than earlier. But he proved fatally inattentive to the most serious breaches of the norms of responsible governance conducted under his authority. Despite all the compromises that he had made with his most difficult ally, that was finally to prove his undoing.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 9, Apr. 24 - May. 07, 1999

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