August 22, 2001


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Arvind Lavakare

Third time lucky?

If one is to believe a highly placed journalist perceived to be as pro-BJP, then Prime Minister Vajpayee could well be accused of dereliction of duty.

Swapan Dasgupta, Managing Editor of India Today has laid the following charges in his reputed weekly's issue of August 13, 2001.

  • "Vajpayee hasn't organised a meeting of secretaries of government since assuming office.
  • The quarterly review of ministries -- an important element tracking performance -- has been abandoned altogether.
  • The daily briefing to the prime minister by the chief of the Intelligence Bureau -- a custom dating back to the viceroys -- has been allowed to lapse.
  • Since his health problems surfaced in mid-2000, the prime minister has become a political recluse. Apart from (Home Minister L K) Advani with whom he interacts on a daily basis, Vajpayee has made himself inaccessible, except when unavoidable. He has virtually stopped visiting the states, addressing public gatherings and meeting BJP workers.
  • His interaction with the press is almost zero and his discomfiture with the electronic media is by now legion."

The above chargesheet is conspicuously silent on policy formulation -- be it the "hot" pursuit of economic reforms or the J&K turmoil or the Northeast impasse. And yet what it brings home most is that whatever the political ideology of an Indian prime minister, the holder of the world's most difficult job must, first and foremost, be a thoroughly professional manager who is also fully fit and mentally vibrant.

That amalgam of qualities makes one recall Indira Gandhi, voted in a poll recently as the best ever Indian PM. She was out of power when, 22 years ago, on a Delhi-Bombay flight, a pilot narrated his experience as a member of the crew that flew Mrs Gandhi on a multi-nation tour. While boarding the flight in Delhi, she personally verified that the number of packages she had carried from home were in fact on the aircraft. In flight, she insisted on knowing, an hour in advance, the precise weather conditions prevailing at the airport at which she was to alight, even if briefly, so that she could dress appropriately, prepared for the rain or cold or winds. And once, at 4 am on the flight, Mrs Gandhi's personal stewardess was aghast to find the PM, slacks and all, standing upside down -- in a shirsasan pose!

Rajiv Gandhi may have been an ardent reader of comics, but he too was a model of physical fitness. So was Nehru until the 1962 disaster against China made him a mental and physical wreck till death came. Yes, whatever else may be held against the dynasty, its members had the deportment and energy that rubbed off on the nation. Vajpayee is a stark contrast, as much today as he was 20 years ago.

Indira Gandhi's perception of files put up to her for decision was also talked about. A tale is told of the licence raj era when even the location of a new private sector project needed Delhi's clearance. Two states, it seems, were intensely lobbying for netting one such major project. When the file came back from Mrs Gandhi's office, so goes the story, her remarks made for stunned reading; she had, in her own handwriting, asked for a comparative economic analysis for the project, for the state and for the country in the two competing backward locations. In stark contrast, Vajpayee is now accepted as being uninterested in the nitty-gritty of issues and has, it's said, a limited attention span after ill health reportedly committed him to four tablets a day of high dosage painkillers.

The chairman or chief executive of a huge industrial conglomerate is never a know-all; in fact it's impossible for one person to know everything about every stage from purchase and shop floor to HRD, bank credit and marketing. But the supreme boss ensures that he selects the right team to run the show; he also has the systems in place to monitor the team's performance on a continuing basis; he does all this, and more, through an overall vision and perspective, through his own experience, gut feeling and acquired knowledge.

The above formula is, of course, not possible to be applied to a whole nation's political governance run on the Westminster pattern in a federal democracy bound by a written Constitution and riddled with equations of caste and sub-caste, region and religion. All our prime ministers so far have been hamstrung by this complexity though Nehru had the distinct advantage of towering over his contemporaries who had proved their intellectual mettle and national commitment during the freedom struggle and the debates in the Constituent Assembly.

However, Vajpayee did have the chance to scout for talent from the time he lost Parliament's confidence by a solitary vote in April 1999 till he was back in power in November that year. He was, in that period, running a crippled caretaker government and therefore had the time, despite the brief Kargil war, to search for and screen potential Cabinet material in the event he became PM a third time. He either didn't do that or didn't do that adequately. Nor has he had the assertiveness that characterises the successful corporate chairman or chief executive.

The result is that we today have a council of ministers that largely comprises square pegs in round holes or are mere pegs who want to stand on their own agenda and ambition.

There's the railways portfolio, for instance. Ram Naik knows more about trains than anyone else in the present Cabinet, excepting George Fernandes perhaps. Yet, Naik holds the petroleum portfolio where, he seems so diffident and halting, quite unwilling to probe an alleged scam concerning bitumen deals of Hindustan Petroleum originating during Congressman Satish Sharma's regime.

Telecom was one sector in November 1999 where great reforms were on the anvil. What was needed was a man who was absolutely above board and forward-looking, an Arun Shourie, committed to liberalisation in tune with Vajpayee. What we have got instead is a casteist and a populist who plays Bihar politics and other games from New Delhi. And therefore we have found Shourie running from pillar to post, seeking green signals from seat warmers like Manohar Joshi who will not part with even a fender of the Maruti car from his heavy industry stable to push the divestment programme.

Then there's civil aviation. Earlier, we had the Ananth Kumar with his word smithy and gumption to belittle the Tatas. After that, we have had a Yadav, seemingly unaccountable to anyone, even as Air-India and Indian Airlines lose whatever status they had.

Look at the portfolio of labour where, again, reforms were overdue ever since we accepted globalisation as the route to faster, long term economic development. A prominent labour consultant of Mumbai has had a mortifying experience with the incumbent minister, Satyanarain Jatiya. It seems the minister, had to be explained the difference between BIR (the Bombay Industrial Rules) and BIFR (the Board of Industrial and Financial Restructuring).

Consider now the lack of insight in ministerial positions themselves. For years now, it has been known that the northeastern region as well as Jammu and Kashmir needed the pointed, focussed attention of New Delhi. A separate ministry for each was vital. While Jagmohan, twice governor of J&K and the author of a book on the state, was custom-made for the latter role, a path-breaking tradition could have been set by inducting P A Sangma of the Nationalist Congress Party as the minister for the Northeast. Vajpayee showed no such daring and imagination. As it is, Jagmohan is handling urban development after being shunted from communications while Sangma cannot be given the task of even negotiating with the Naga rebels because the latter won't accept him.

And floods, earthquakes and droughts -- haven't they been too frequent in our country to warrant a separate ministry for prevention and management of natural disasters?

The information and broadcasting ministry's baggage has remained the same for 30 years: radio, television, films and the print media despite Akashwani becoming almost moribund in the metros, and Doordarshan being left way behind by private channels. No I&B minister is known to have visited the decadence and despair of Mumbai's Akashwani. No I&B minister has thought of the utmost importance of prevailing upon the PM to merge the press/publicity divisions of various ministries and making it take on the entire responsibility of informing the nation of all facts of government programmes and problems on a sustained war footing, day after day.

As though all this were not enough, there is ubiquitous corruption about which juicy tales are floating freely.

Vajpayee looked refreshed during his Red Fort address on Independence Day. And he was positively his old self when he replied to the Rajya Sabha debate on the Agra summit the next day. If, therefore, he has suddenly become recharged, and if at all he reads this mid-term appraisal of his government, he should act quickly enough to pre-empt a mid-term poll. If, however, he continues the way he has and yet completes his five-year term, two repaired knees and all, it will only be because the thoroughly divided Opposition symbolises the acronym TINA (there is no alternative).

For PM Vajpayee, that happy outcome will truly symbolise the saying of being third time lucky.

Arvind Lavakare

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