August 7, 2001


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Arvind Lavakare

The PM doth protest too much

The prime minister's latest resignation blackmail marked both a triumph and a travesty of democracy.

That the so-called hardliners in the BJP national executive meeting attacked the Agra summit fiasco as well as the PM's decision in principle to nonetheless visit Islamabad soon enough was, by any standard, a tribute to the tenets of democracy. So was Sanjay Nirupam's allegation in the Rajya Sabha regarding the Prime Minister's Office and a son-in-law's involvement in the UTI-Cyberscape scam.

As a nation wedded to democracy, India should have been proud that the PM's friends and supporters had the freedom to criticise their leader's perceived acts of commission and omission without resorting to abusive language. On the other hand, the most powerful man in his time, William Jefferson Clinton, was vehemently lambasted and lampooned by his supporters.

But, ah, that's where the conspicuous difference has come through between the world's oldest democracy and its most populous democracy.

President Clinton fought tooth and nail and intellect against the severest, damnedest and most humiliating questioning by his nation's special counsel and the public at large on what was really a personal, perverse act of sex, totally unconcerned with the affairs of the state. However. the man just didn't throw in the towel and whine at what the nation was doing to him; he didn't issue the threat that he would quit unless all the vitriol was bottled and sunk in the Pacific Ocean. That, truly, was democracy at its best, with its pitfalls confronted with guts and grit and guile.

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In stark contrast, Vajpayee's recourse to the resignation alarm was a coward's response to the trap door of democracy. He had often boasted that, unlike those before him, he wanted the PM to be within the ambit of the Lok Pal Bill. But when a young Sanjay Nirupam merely hinted at phone calls from some son-in-law to the UTI chairman, Vajpayee sulked and swooned on his two repaired knees, already shaken by criticism at the BJP meeting. What's probably worse, he didn't show the mental courage to say that he had been hurt by the Shiv Sanik's arrow. Instead, he referred to the anonymous people who, he said, thought he was too ill to carry on, and that he himself was unable to ensure what he had called the dharma of coalition governance. He simply refused to do battle, very much like Arjun prior to Krishna's sermon.

But, once again, there is a conspicuous difference there in that analogy. Arjun was loth to kill his own kith and kin; Vajpayee was loth to be killed by them. Just see what he was up against.

The attack on the Agra summit fall-out by K R Malkani and some others at the BJP's national executive was based on fact, not on the fiction of some 'high road to peace' of the Nobel Prize.

Why the Vajpayee government did a sudden U-turn on the policy of 'no talks with Pakistan till cross-border terrorism stops' was never explained to the BJP executive, let alone to the nation. Why only three members of the NDA government --- the PM, the home minister and the two-in-one Jaswant Singh --- should have taken that screeching U-turn was never explained. Why the idea of a summit with General Musharraf was persisted with despite his refusal four times to a structured agenda was never explained. Why the haste in accepting the invitation to visit Islamabad even before Agra had got under way was never explained. Nor was it explained, finally, even after the mealy-mouthed Musharraf's insults and invectives at Agra, why the PM wants to go to Pak to meet him once again.

It was all a repeat of the dismally failed unilateral 'cease-fire' episode enacted on Ramzan last year. It was simply not democracy as is commonly understood; why, it was not even elementary courtesy by which Vajpayee often proclaims to stand by.

Look at the latest BJP resolution demanding that norms be set for allowing parties to join the National Democratic Alliance coalition --- said to be another issue that upset Vajpayee. Now, what's wrong with that demand? Does the PM believe that he alone should have the authority to let the Pattali Makkal Katchi come in a second time, to first say 'No' to the Trinamool and then say 'Maybe' for its second entry? Should the BJP, the leader of the coalition, not know the yardstick by which the PM decides on the crucial issue? Why should the PM be offended by what is really a democratic demand?

And why should the PM take extreme umbrage when his son-in-law's activities are mentioned by anyone? Why should the PM expect his son-in-law to be accepted as being as honest and honourable as he himself is accepted to be by the country? It is simply illogical, this overemotional and soulful warranty for someone else's rectitude.

When the tehelka storm broke earlier this year with one videotape catching Bangaru Laxman speaking of the PM's son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya, the PM got rid of his party's president in a jiffy. And when the RSS chief took a swipe by talking about 'extra-constitutional authority' within the PMO, the PM threatened to quit rather than to clarify the position himself or through Bhattacharya. Even when lead stories in the press spotlighted the man's peculiar proximity to centres of power, Vajpayee chose to keep mum. The most he did was to let two of his leading lieutenants --- Brajesh Mishra and Nandu Singh --- face the media; the son-in-law was not asked to step outside the green room. Why?

This time around, Sanjay Nirupam's charge, based on laudable homework, has been vindicated. The Indian Express succeeded in making Bhattacharya admit that he had, in fact, spoken to the UTI chairman on the phone as many as five times from October last to January this year. However, he has stated that those five phone calls of his were only regarding his own overdue redemption of investments in different UTI schemes, and not about Cyberspace. That fact, the PM presumably believes, gives his son-in-law a clean bill of health that no one should question without any further ado.

But is that really so? As is known to millions of people who deal with UTI, it is the UTI Investor Cell in one's city with which one has to interact for interest cheques, dividend warrants, refunds and redemptions. Thus, a New Delhi investor like Bhattacharya is expected to deal with the UTI Investor Cell in that city, and not with UTI's headquarters in Mumbai where the UTI chairman is based. Further, unless millions of rupees were involved, any caller from anywhere would be ticked off if he wanted to inquire about his overdue redemption directly from the UTI chairman himself. But Bhattacharya from New Delhi did precisely that --- on five occasions, including once when the chairman was abroad. What's more, the chairman called him back to inform him that his redemption cheques were ready --- that's customer service, what?

Does the PM then expect the nation to believe that Bhattacharya was due millions enough to warrant a direct phone link to the UTI chairman? Or does the PM want the nation to believe that Bhattacharya doesn't hesitate to wield the clout of being the PM's son-in-law? Tell that to General Musharraf when you next meet him, Mr Vajpayee. Or would you prefer to phone him, the way he you did when he became the first commando President of Pakistan?

As though the re-run of his resignation drama was not enough, Vajpayee this time around is not preventing George Fernandes, his Man Friday, from hammering out a 'code of conduct' for the coalition partners. Developments indicate that the 'code' is to be a cork that will block 'polluting' emissions from spilling out; in reality, it could well create only a hyperactive fizz that explodes sooner or later.

Nervous, power-seeking sycophants around you, Mr Prime Minister, have humoured you and salved your bruised ego quickly enough for a second time. But the truth is that you are running away from the truth about your mental and physical prowess in the sunset of your illustrious career even as you quickly yearn for a unique place in Indian history. In the process, Mr Vajpayee, you doth protest too much, methinks.

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Arvind Lavakare

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