Strengths and infirmities

Published : Sep 16, 2000 00:00 IST

Although not entirely physically fit, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee has realised his personal strength and political constituency and is taking a firm position with regard to the Sangh Parivar leadership.


IS Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee healthy enough to perform his immense responsibilities? His ardent followers in the Bharatiya Janata Party and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) aver he is, but some sections of the ruling establishment itself express doubts. His sudden departure from the venue of the Nagpur session of the BJP National Executive, complaining of uneasiness, even triggered speculation at various levels of post-Vajpayee scenarios.

A Cabinet Minister considered close to both Vajpayee and Home Minister L.K. Advani told Frontline that the most upsetting factor was the steady fall in the attention span of the Prime Minister in the past few months. Vajpayee, according to him, is unable to concentrate on administrative and political matters to the extent he was capable of earlier. "His one-to-one interaction with colleagues and officials has been characterised recently by long pauses in conversations."

Concern over Vajpayee's health became more pronounced following the External Affairs Ministry's decision to defer his departure to the United States by two days. However, the question of Vajpayee's health has periodically come up since his first stint as Prime Minister in 1998. The issue received serious attention after August 15, 1998, when Vajpayee stepped out of his car wearing only one shoe. On Independence Day this year, he almost stumbled at the Red Fort ramparts in full view of the cameras. There are several theories and stories about Vajpayee's illness, but most of them lack official corroboration.

The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and sources in the BJP have systematically maintained that the Prime Minister's only ailment is osteoarthritis of the knees, which makes standing for long durations difficult, and that it is a curable condition.

After his embarrassing departure from Nagpur, Vajpayee himself stated that he suffered from arthritis of the knee and that this was not uncommon among people of his age. "I have no other problem. But if the media desire to indulge in speculation, I canno t prevent it," he said rather vehemently.

Dr. Randeep Guleria, the doctor at the PMO, said that in Vajpayee's case all other health parameters were satisfactory. "His blood pressure is normal, he does not have a cholesterol problem and his lung function test has shown that there is no need for c oncern there." And he has no history of diabetes.

In the opinion of Dr. P.K. Dave, Director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Vajpayee's knee problem can be explained as a moderate case of osteoarthritis common among people of his age.

The PMO is ready to concede that being over-weight is another problem the Prime Minister faces. "He must keep his weight under control. In a way, that has aggravated the knee problem." Osteoarthritis manifests itself only occasionally, and it only affect s the Prime Minister's left leg," a PMO official said. Another senior official in the PMO said that surgery of the left knee was contemplated but by all indications a decision would be taken after Vajpayee sought medical opinion during his U.S. trip.

According to some officers in the PMO, surgery was recommended two years ago, but Vajpayee declined as it would put him out of action for two weeks. Instead he resorted to painkillers. Moreover, the consensus in the Cabinet and among the top leaders of t he BJP was that, in the interests of the NDA, he should carry on with his normal schedule and his ailments should not be publicised. "For a man of his age, he has indeed coped well with scant medication," a PMO official said.

In the context of these avowals, the question of Vajpayee's actual age has again assumed importance. There are different versions about the Prime Minister's age even in official records.

While the Lok Sabha Who's Who records Vajpayee's date of birth as December 25, 1926, the Lok Sabha website puts it as December 25, 1924. This discrepancy is further complicated by Vajpayee's own recorded statement submitted on September 1, 1942, b efore the District Magistrate of Bhateshwar in Madhya Pradesh (Frontline, February 7, 1998). While the main purpose of that statement was to assert that he had played no role in the violent incidents that had taken place at Bhateshwar as part of t he freedom struggle, Vajpayee mentioned his age as 20. If that was true, then Vajpayee's current age would be 78.

The frequent reference to the state of his health as also certain medical restrictions imposed on him have created a feeling in Vajpayee that he is a sick man.

According to a Vajpayee supporter from Uttar Pradesh, "this complicated the situation." He said: "In Nagpur, Vajpayeeji was not as unwell as he himself thought. Many of us tried to persuade him to take rest for some time and make at least a brief speech. "

Party leaders also point to the psychological burden that the medical treatment has imposed on the Prime Minister. "One method by which his doctors have sought to control the knee problem is to persuade him to stand at the podium for shorter durations by compelling him to make shorter speeches than normal. The PMO, for its part, gives written speeches that would not take more than 15-20 minutes to deliver. The net result of this on an orator like Vajpayee is that every time he makes a speech the feeling that he is a sick man gets reinforced," a senior BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh said.

THE one big question now is what impact the obvious deterioration in Vajpayee's health will have on the NDA and on his own political career. Clearly, the non-BJP segments of the NDA and even a large section of the BJP favour Vajpayee's leadership. "Right now we do not want to address the issue for the simple reason that Vajpayee is irreplaceable," a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader said. A Trinamul Congress member of Parliament said no other BJP leader would be acceptable to the party. Thus signif icantly even with his physical infirmities Vajpayee keeps growing in power within the BJP. Not only was he able to enforce his choice of Bangaru Laxman to replace Kushabhau Thakre as party president but he succeeded in removing his bete noire, K.N. Govindacharya, as general secretary. For several years Vajpayee and Govindacharya seldom missed an opportunity to jibe at each other. Govindacharya's remark to a BBC correspondent that Vajpayee was only a mukhota (mask) of the BJP and the tussle between the two on the swadeshi versus globalisation issue are two notable instances. The fact that Govindacharya has been the chief Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) representative in the BJP and virtually the link between the party and the rest of the Sangh Parivar deterred Vajpayee many times in the past from going on an all-out offensive. But this time, when he is seemingly ill, Vajpayee has gotten over the restraining factors and struck decisively. It is learnt that he was ready even to take on the leaders of the Sangh Parivar, including the top brass of the RSS, to effect Govindacharya's removal.

His offer was clear. Govindacharya can be made a vice-president of the party - a largely ceremonial position - and not a powerful general secretary. The RSS top brass, including Madan Das Devi, tried to put pressure on Vajpayee but he was firm. Devi had a series of discussions with Bangaru Laxman and Kushabhau Thakre and tried to impress upon them the need to retain Govindacharya. Ultimately, the leaders of the Sangh Parivar had to take cover under the reasoning that Govindacharya wanted to be relieved from the general secretary's post to study development models and evolve an Indian alternative.

By all indications, Vajpayee's struggle against the RSS top brass is not yet over. The Sangh Parivar had suggested the names of Dr. Mahesh Chandra Sharma and Bal Apte as possible replacements for Govindacharya. Sharma is a Rajya Sabha member and the Edit or of Swadeshi Patrika of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, which criticised the Vajpayee government's economic policy in strong terms recently, while Bal Apte is a senior RSS activist. But Vajpayee replied that they too can be accommodated only as vice- presidents.

According to BJP and Sangh Parivar insiders, Vajpayee's new-found penchant for self-assertion could cause serious problems for the BJP and even the NDA. Vajpayee's reiteration that the BJP and the RSS are different entities is perceived by the liberal su pporters of the Prime Minister as part of a strategy. Vajpayee told mediapersons recently that the RSS and its front organisations have an identity of their own, entirely independent of the BJP. He emphasised that the BJP was a political party involved i n political activities on the basis of a political agenda and should be judged by its performance in office and not on the basis of the ideology of some other organisation.

Upholding the right of the RSS and its front organisations to propagate their own views, he added that criticism was an integral part of a democratic society but everybody should take care not to cross the "Lakshman Rekha" or the limit. For a leader who invariably succumbed to the RSS view when it came to the crunch, these words are rated as strong.

Commenting on this statement and his adamant position on Govindacharya, a senior BJP leader said that "the Prime Minister, by all indications, has embarked on a very significant battle of his life." This could even acquire intense ideological dimensions, he said. In his view, with the formation of the NDA government, "Vajpayee has realised his real personal strength and real political constituency. He has understood that he is closer to the liberal, democratic values of several NDA constituents than to the BJP, and he seems keen to retain this constituency."

Vajpayee might even go to the extent of openly taking on the Sangh Parivar to retain this constituency, and this battle might ultimately elevate him to the position of a statesman who overcame his past association with obscurantist forces for the sake of welfare of the country, the leader said.

According to a Cabinet Minister belonging to the BJP, the Prime Minister is playing with a double-edged sword at great personal peril, particularly when he is not fully fit physically.

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