Debating India


To Linger With Intent

Saba naqvi BHAUMIK

Monday 14 June 2004, by BHAUMIK*Saba Naqvi

Vajpayee sounds more enigmatic in defeat. Is he into rebuilding his party? Or isn’t he?

Atal Behari Vajpayee is a diminutive figure in world history in comparison to the late Mao Zedong of China. But like Chairman Mao, known as the great helmsman of China, Vajpayee acquired some impressive titles last week. After defeat in the general elections, Vajpayee decided to settle for the title of chairman (he is also partial to being called a helmsman). The ex-PM will henceforth be Chairman Vajpayee. The BJP amended its constitution to create the post of chairman of the parliamentary party for the ex-PM. The same evening he was also given the title of chairman of the NDA. When Outlook asked how the role was to be defined and whether it implied power without responsibility, BJP president Venkaiah Naidu retorted: "It involves responsibility with respectability."

And much to the astonishment of many in his own party, it also implies that Vajpayee is in no mood to hang up his boots. As he had once famously said, he is "neither tired nor retired". He put an end to all talk of his imminent retirement

when he broke his long silence on the electoral verdict. "I am not in the mood to sit in the opposition for five years," Vajpayee declared before television cameras. Was Vajpayee signalling a desire to contest another election? Was this his way of letting L.K. Advani and his loyalists know that he had no intention of giving them unbridled control over the party apparatus? Or was Vajpayee just staying on to ensure jobs and Rajya Sabha nominations for his supporters? There were murmurs and much intense speculation but no clear answers were forthcoming. The BJP appeared to be as confused about Vajpayee’s future role as about its own immediate strategy. Spokesman V.K. Malhotra was cryptic: "Since Vajpayee has said nothing about retirement, we presume he is staying on." One of the ex-PM’s aides expanded: "He has told us nothing definite. But we can deduce he will be around for a couple of years at least-though it is unlikely, but not impossible, that he will contest an election if this government survives for five years."

Besides, in his speech to the parliamentary party, Vajpayee said: "We will come back. We have to come back. The need of the hour is to think of how to accomplish this." Sources reveal that he also took a dig at the Shining India/feelgood hype created by Team Advani, who had persuaded him to forward the poll against his own instincts. Vajpayee reportedly said: "Sometimes we create such a hawa (wind) that we get swept away in it." There is a view that Vajpayee is angry at being denied that place in history as the only non-Congress prime minister to have completed an entire term in office. While L.K. Advani has publicly accepted responsibility for major tactical errors, Vajpayee is unlikely to do so. A former MP jokes: "He feels angry at being so badly misled. Perhaps he is staying on to torment his adversaries in the party."

Vajpayee’s long standing personal friend, law commission member Appa Ghatate, has an entirely different take on the former PM’s actions. "He has been in public life since the age of 25. So when people expect him to sit at home and write poetry, they should remember that Parliament is a second home for him. He thoroughly enjoys Parliament," he says. If the House is where Vajpayee would rather be even as he enters his 80s, and not Bakshi ka Talab, why did he not accept the position of leader of the Opposition? "Let small people attack small people. He is too big to start attacking individuals from the Opposition benches. But he will defend his policies and like former PM Chandra Shekhar, whenever he stands up to speak, Parliament will listen," says Ghatate.

It all sounds very grand and respectable. But there are mundane problems that stand in the way of Vajpayee and what he would wish to be.There is no precedent for the position of chairman of a party. Hence, under the current rules, Vajpayee will not even be entitled to an office in Parliament.Yet since Sonia Gandhi, as chairman of the United Progressive Alliance, faces a similar predicament, the BJP is hoping that the Manmohan Singh government will make an exception for both leaders. Whether Vajpayee gets an office or not, the new government has promised him two of the six bmws that were bought six months ago at the cost of Rs 1 crore each by the previous administration. Though the bullet-proof cars are meant for the prime minister, Manmohan Singh has reluctantly agreed to use only two.

But besides the shiny new bmws, there will be a huge downgrading of perks for Vajpayee. As a former PM, he will get a staff of 13 but only one IAS officer of the junior rank of deputy secretary. Ashwani Vaishnav, deputy secretary in Vajpayee’s pmo, has already been appointed to the post. The rest of his staff will consist of personal assistants and stenos in both Hindi and English, personal and office attendants and drivers. The salaries of his entire staff and the expenditure on entertainment and telephones cannot exceed Rs 3 lakh a month. After a brief vacation in Manali, Vajpayee will move into his much more modest residence at Krishna Menon Marg by the third week of June.

Chairman Vajpayee should then get into introspective mode. A few poems on defeat, perhaps the stray remark about being lonely at the top. The odd stirring speech in Parliament should keep his circulation going. Vajpayee has given indications that he will not retire for now. But no one is certain how long he can endure.

Mao too was famous for talking in riddles though the consequences of his words were often bloody and dramatic. If Vajpayee is continuing to talk in riddles, it is because even in defeat he is not ready to bring the curtains down a last time.


in Outlook India, Monday, June 14, 2004.

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