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COVER STORY

09-04-1999

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Briefing

COMBATIVE MOOD

cover-story

Even as the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies celebrate the completion of a year in power at the Centre, the Opposition is in combat mode.

SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN SUDHA MAHALINGAM in New Delhi

AT the moment when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government was at its most vulnerable following a series of electoral routs in the northern region, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee sought to make a fresh affirmation of purpose. He said little, but his actions were those of a man intent on frontally challenging those who had supposedly hobbled him from within, blunting his administrative will. In this sense, the Assembly elections of November 1998 constitute a distinct point of inflection in the year-long career of the Vajpayee Government, a point when a record of ineptitude and drift was seemingly transformed into a sequence of assertive and purposive actions.

One of Vajpayee's statements of affirmation against the hard-core elements who resisted any departure from the orthodox agenda was to appoint Pramod Mahajan to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. As unorthodox as they come, Mahajan had handled the sensitive aftermath of the Pokhran nuclear tests as a Cabinet-ranking Adviser in the Prime Minister's Office. His ability to transform every situation into adversity had been evident then, prompting a brief banishment into obscurity. Mahajan's track record made his rehabilitation in the Union Cabinet a risky proposition. And in resorting to this gamble, Vajpayee was unmistakably raising the stakes in his simmering conflict with hardline elements within his party.

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Mahajan has, by all accounts, since taken on the job of the Principal Information Officer of the Government, appropriating for himself the functions that are routinely performed by that particular official. He has also successfully managed to make broadcasting policy an opaque commodity, reversing the limited gains made by the United Front regime in the matter and providing ample evidence in every statement of hidden motivations.

It is not known how far the hardline element within the BJP would have endorsed the spirit of the celebrations that Mahajan organised on March 19 to mark the completion of a year in office of the Vajpayee Government. But aside from the speculation surrounding the identities of those who participated and those who stayed away from it, the show was a predictable farce. The Bomb, and the bus to Lahore, were advertised as the principal achievements of the year gone by, culminating in a whirl of song and dance. Five millennia of Indian history was compressed into two hours, after which the most glittering symbols of the BJP epoch were to be put on display. Subtle and figurative representation being an art form that the BJP is innocent of, a deafening detonation was set off at the venue of the performance, symbolising the Pokhran nuclear tests. Following this, the bus to Lahore was trundled onstage, to great public bemusement, causing the platform that had been constructed at Delhi's Hauz Khas monument to buckle under its weight. What had been projected as a grand spectacle had made the transition from exultant celebration to fiasco in little time.

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FARCICAL - that was a word that found numerous applications in the week leading up to the anniversary celebrations. Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha chose that characterisation for the debate that had taken place in the Rajya Sabha on the irregularities under his charge that a disgruntled understudy had blown the whistle on. But ironically, his effort to put a relatively inoffensive construction on these activities itself acquired unmistakably farcical colours.

It was a tumultuous anniversary week for Vajpayee. Parliament remained paralysed for extended lengths of time. When not putting the Government on the mat on the allegations of rampant financial malfeasance raised by Mohan Guruswamy, former Adviser to the Finance Minister, the Opposition was turning the heat on the dismissal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat (story on Page 17). Having held its fire for long, in part because it was undergoing a process of adjusting and realigning its internal equations, the Opposition in the Budget session has mounted a challenge that the Vajpayee Government may not be able to deflect easily.

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The points raised by Guruswamy indicate not merely that the Vajpayee Government is riven by divergent perceptions of policy, but also by differences over which business lobbies should be extended patronage. Although often spoken about, the differences between Vajpayee and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani were not really identifiable, aside from certain rather inchoate notions of policy differences. Guruswamy now seems to indicate that in part the discord stems from rival agendas of patronage. Irrespective of the substantive action, if any, that emerges from the Guruswamy allegations, their immediate impact has been a dramatic erosion of the moral authority of the BJP's two top leaders.

The Finance Minister did not help his party's cause by his manifest ineptitude in Parliament. In seeking to explain the undue interest he had in inducing the Unit Trust of India (UTI) to dump its holding in a major Indian tobacco company, he produced a letter which he claimed had been signed by 40 MPs, advocating precisely such a course. The intention, he said, was not to provide an overseas tobacco company with the opportunity to buy up a controlling interest in the Indian firm, but to enable the UTI to generate the liquid cash necessary to restore the viability of some of its investment programmes.

On being questioned about the authenticity of the letter, Yashwant Sinha faltered. He admitted to being unsure about the identity of the MPs who had signed the letter, since the one member he named lost no time in disclaiming it. He blundered further on the dates when he claimed to have received the letter on March 5, long after Guruswamy's exit.

Similar internal contradictions were evident in Yashwant Sinha's effort to explain away the charge of doctored steel prices. As for the evidence that public sector financial institutions had been seriously over-exposed in lending to the steel industry, Yashwant Sinha denied all responsibility, claiming that the lenders had full discretion without any interference from his Ministry.

There is little prospect that the Guruswamy allegations will vanish in the near future. The Lok Sabha is scheduled to take them up when Parliament convenes after its mid-session recess. And if Yashwant Sinha's performance in the Rajya Sabha is an index of the depth of his conviction, then he is unlikely to escape unscathed from the Lok Sabha.

AS the anniversary week wore on, Guruswamy was relegated to the secondary position among the problem areas for Vajpayee. By far the more serious threat to its internal stability and cohesion comes from Defence Minister George Fernandes' maladroit effort to evade a debate on the dismissal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat from his naval command. The plea of national security that he has all too readily proffered has done little to assuage well-founded suspicions that the Government has much to hide in the matter.

Bhagwat and Guruswamy have provided the ammunition for a newly invigorated Opposition to pillory the Government. But there have been areas of partial concord between the Treasury and Opposition benches. A notable success for the Government was the passage of the Indian Patents Act (Amendment) Bill in Parliament - a feat that had defied every incumbent government since 1995. The BJP had plunged into its adventure in Bihar, promulgating President's Rule in the State in the belief that the Congress(I) would lend it sustenance in the task of winning the endorsement of Parliament. That was not to be. But in economic policy, it looks increasingly likely that the Congress(I) will be a tacit ally of the Vajpayee Government.

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This rather strange new configuration of forces was reflected in the passage of the Patents Act, to the evident displeasure of the Left Opposition. In the rush to the finish line, the Government was disinclined even to consider a serious effort by the Law Commission to modify the amendment bill so that it would incorporate a few additional safeguards against abuse, while remaining in compliance with World Trade Organisation (WTO) obligations. Successive governments had laboured in vain to get the bill passed through Parliament. And when opportunity finally beckoned in the shape of a contingent alliance with the Congress(I), the BJP-led Government was not about to be delayed by subtle nuances.

The move to bring foreign equity participation into the insurance sector is likely to gain fresh momentum with a Parliamentary Standing Committee having recently submitted its recommendations. The committee has suggested, among a few more cosmetic changes, that the foreign equity permitted in insurance should not exceed 26 per cent under any circumstances. This is a notable retreat from the bill that was introduced in Parliament in its winter session which provided for up to 40 per cent equity. The proviso then was that 26 per cent could be held by the foreign promoter and another 14 per cent by non-resident Indians or foreign institutional investors. This in turn was a desperate concession to stem a virtual rebellion within the BJP following the earlier decision to liberalise the rules for participation in the insurance industry. The compromise had then won the acceptance of the recalcitrant leadership of the swadeshi lobby within the BJP, though in grudging fashion. The further retreat is a signal that the truce was far from secure.

The new formula proposed by the Standing Committee has been accepted by the Union Cabinet. The bill, appropriately modified, is likely to be introduced in Parliament shortly after it reconvenes. It will encounter few problems in its passage, since the Congress(I) is today showing few qualms about supporting the BJP in its efforts to further the agenda of liberalisation that began under the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime. The problem, rather, is likely to arise from hardline elements within the BJP itself.

THE advocates of the swadeshi plan within the BJP are lying low for the moment. Their last upsurge of activism was in December, when the Government was already reeling under the impact of the November 1998 election rout. Alarmed at the conjunction with a renewed phase of discord within, the top leadership of the Sangh Parivar had managed to persuade the recalcitrant elements to hold their fire. Between acceding to the demands of economic liberalisation and witnessing the collapse of the Vajpayee Government, the latter, they were told, was by far the greater evil.

Perceptions within the Sangh leadership now are that Vajpayee utilised this rather conditional reprieve with undue alacrity, both to consolidate his position and marginalise the alternative viewpoints. The hardline elements intend soon to resume their campaign for a restoration of the traditional verities of the Sangh ideology.

Religious conversions are an issue on which pressure is likely to be mounted. It is an especially vulnerable point for the Vajpayee Government, which has just managed to win a brief respite from the wave of public outrage that followed the grisly murder of the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in Orissa (Frontline, February 12). The judicial commission that was appointed under a sitting Judge of the Supreme Court recently came out with a scathing indictment of the Union Government for its obstructive and non-cooperative manner. It was a chastening experience for the Union Government, which had branded the Staines killing as an international conspiracy and appointed the judicial commission of inquiry as a demonstration of its confidence that none from the extended ideological fraternity of the Sangh was involved in it.

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The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's intention to restore the issue of religious conversions to centrality is not good news for the Government. Neither is its resolve to step up the resistance to the agenda of economic liberalisation. The contingent alliance with the Congress(I) on economic policy is, in this sense, likely to be a mixed blessing for the BJP leadership. It is only likely to raise the pitch of confrontation with its own ideological overseers in the RSS, imparting an additional degree of virulence to the final confrontation when it comes.

VITAL areas of legislative business have fallen into benign neglect as a consequence of the Vajpayee Government's multiplying preoccupations. The Supreme Court-ordained bill to endow the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) with statutory powers and the authority to oversee the functioning of the principal investigative agencies, failed to make it to the Rajya Sabha after its passage in the Lok Sabha. This was a consequence of the BJP's obstreperous attitude in the Upper House and its refusal to accept reasonable terms to discuss the dismissal of Admiral Bhagwat. The immediate consequence is that the CVC, which has been exercising its statutory powers on the strength of an ordinance, will cease to exist in its current form on April 4.

An element of mutual convenience of the main political players is evident in the failure of the CVC bill to obtain passage. Vulnerable politicians are not over-keen to have an ombudsman overseeing their financial dealings. But their sense of complacence may be misplaced. Anil Divan, amicus curiae (friend of court) in the Supreme Court in a batch of cases involving high-level corruption, points out that the ruling of the highest court is very clear - its verdict will set the parameters of the functioning of the CVC in the interregnum till Parliament passes the necessary legislation.

Parliamentary inaction, in other words, is not a viable strategy for politicians keen to evade public scrutiny and accountability. For a ruling party that has lost its two principal claims to eminence - its special attention to national security and its deep concern for probity in public life - this cannot be very good news.

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ONE year into its tenure, the Vajpayee Government is, in its own public declarations, discovering a new sense of purpose and cohesiveness. This claim is illusory for a number of reasons. The relentless needling from the BJP's allies has probably abated temporarily. Recalcitrant elements have been either appeased - as with Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu - or dissuaded from pressing any further demands by the absence of options, as with Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress. But the epicentre of the disturbances has only shifted to the inner councils of the BJP. And the Opposition is unlikely to provide the ruling coalition with the leeway to allow the inner turmoil to subside of its own.

Bus, Bihar and Budget - in the alliterative exertions of L.K. Advani, the BJP's newfound equanimity is founded upon these three events. In the fortnight following this formulation, the influence of all three factors has begun decidedly to wane. The Opposition today is in a combative mood - a mood that has manifested itself in rather subtle ways for now but may well be running deep. And quite apart from the ideological rifts, the BJP is in deep disquiet by the disingenuous and clumsy handling of the Bhagwat affair, by the licence that has been issued to Defence Minister George Fernandes to run riot over sensitive matters of national security. This matter is likely to provide the main focus for the Opposition offensive in the remaining half of the Budget session. But the battlefield could soon widen to take in a record of governance that remains among the most dismal in the last many years.

A fortifying message

"FROM Rock Fort to Fort St. George by 2001." This was the message that was dinned into the ears of the cadres of the Tamil Nadu unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the party's fourth State conference held on the banks of the Cauvery in Tiruchi on March 20 and 21. The allusions, intended to inspire BJP cadres to work towards capturing power in the State when Assembly elections are held by 2001, were to the landmark site in Tiruchi and the seat of power in Chennai respectively.

The slogan may be an expression of the BJP's overly optimistic outlook: the BJP currently has only one member in the 234-member State Assembly. The party plans to lure the people of the State away from the 30-year reign by Dravidian parties and lead them into the "national mainstream". The theme of the conference was: "Tamil Nadu is on the side of nationalism."

State BJP general secretary L. Ganesan tempered this expression of overweening ambition with realism. He said that it was enough if the party played a substantial role in deciding who should form the next government in Tamil Nadu. Ganesan said: "When we say 'From Rock Fort to Fort St. George', it does not mean we have begun the journey from Tiruchi to Fort St. George. We are clear that we should vanquish the DMK in 2001. The BJP is also clear that an alternative government should be formed in Tamil Nadu and that the BJP should have a substantial role in it."

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, who took part in the conference, however, had a word of caution: he said that this should be done without antagonising the BJP's key ally in the State - the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). This expression of caution was significant in the context of the absence of AIADMK general secretary and former Chief Minister Jayalalitha, who declined invitations to take part in the public meeting organised as part of the conference. Vajpayee said that the BJP in the State was charged with a dual responsibility: of strengthening itself and "working in close cooperation with other friendly parties who are partners in the Government at the Centre." He was glad that the State unit had decided to work for a change of government in the State by 2001. "With the support of the people and cooperation of other friendly parties, it will not be an impossible task. Though it will be a difficult task, I hope you workers will accept this challenge," Vajpayee told his party's cadres.

The conference was significant for its other highlights as well: a virulent attack on the Congress(I) by Vajpayee himself; a denunciation of the Congress(I) accepting the "imported leadership" of Sonia Gandhi (State BJP general secretary H. Raja said it was no longer the Indian National Congress but the Italian National Congress); criticism of the Left parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) for "shamelessly supporting Sonia Gandhi for the prime ministership of this country"; and criticism of the DMK Government in the State for allegedly "going soft" on Al-Umma, the Muslim fundamentalist organisation allegedly responsible for the serial blasts in Coimbatore last year.

Union Minister for Power and BJP Lok Sabha member from Tiruchi, Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, came out strongly against the DMK's alleged lenience towards Al-Umma. He recalled how Dr. V. Sridhar, president of the Tiruchi city unit of the BJP, was murdered allegedly by Al-Umma activists in February this year. Kumaramangalam said: "Fundamentalists give fatwas from jail. They killed Dr. Sridhar. Encouragement is given to terrorists (by the DMK Government). The terrorists killed a jail warder (Jayaprakash in Madurai)." Kumaramangalam urged the Prime Minister to ask the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister to look into the law and order situation in the State.

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Addressing the public meeting, Vajpayee responded thus: "Anti-national elements are active in Tamil Nadu. A watch is being kept on this. Since law and order is a State subject, the Tamil Nadu Government should take action." Earlier, at a press conference, the Prime Miniser said that although the State Government had taken some action, "the ISI's (Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan) and fundamentalists' activities have to be rooted out." What was required was more effort by the State Government in this regard, and the Centre was prepared to help it, Vajpayee said.

The conference brought into the open the schism among the BJP's allies in Tamil Nadu - the AIADMK, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Tamilaga Rajiv Congress (TRC). Jayalalitha stayed away, perhaps piqued that she got only faxed invitations and was not personally contacted by any BJP leader. But some BJP leaders said that the real reason for her absence was the presence of MDMK general secretary Vaiko and TRC leader and Union Petroleum Minister Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthi. Both the MDMK and the TRC have now fallen out with the AIADMK, their ally in the February 1998 Lok Sabha elections. Jayalalitha told a top BJP leader who met her recently that AIADMK cadres would not like her attending a public meeting along with Vaiko and Ramamurthi, who had turned against her.

Vajpayee reacted to her absence thus: "I am sorry she did not attend it. I had a similar experience in Calcutta" (a reference to the absence of Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee at the BJP's rally in Calcutta).

This is the third time that Jayalalitha has kept away from a function attended by Prime Minister Vajpayee. She did not attend a public meeting organised by the MDMK in Chennai in September 1998, in which Vajpayee and leaders of other coalition parties took part. She went to Tiruchi then to preside over an AIADMK rally. Again, when Vajpayee came to Chennai in January 1999 to inaugurate the Science Congress, she preferred to be in Hyderabad.

At the public meeting, Vaiko, Dr. S. Ramadoss of the PMK and Ramamurthi unequivocally pledged their support for the continuance of the Vajpayee Government.

According to State BJP leaders H. Raja, Dr. V. Maitreyan and Sukumar Nambiar, Tiruchi was chosen the venue because it was centrally situated in Tamil Nadu. Besides, Union Minister Kumaramangalam represented the constituency.

This was the biggest conference for the State BJP so far in terms of participation of the cadres, their enthusiasm, and pubic turnout. The three previous conferences were held in December 1983-January 1984 in Coimbatore; August 1995 in Madurai; and October 1997 in Tiruchi.

'There is no alternative to the ruling formation'

cover-story

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government at the Centre celebrated one year in office on March 19 although its ability to survive and complete its full term is in doubt. Recent events have proved the Government's vulnerability in the face of sustained opposition from within the coalition and from outside. BJP vice-president and Lok Sabha member Krishan Lal Sharma, in an interview to V. Venkatesan, he explained how the BJP looks at its travails. Excerpts:

A serious Opposition challenge to the Government was witnessed during the Budget session of Parliament. Do you think the majority support of the Government will come under threat?

We have majority support in the Lok Sabha. That is what matters. There is no threat to it. A defeat in the Rajya Sabha does not mean that the Government has lost its majority. Governments with lesser majorities in the Lok Sabha have survived in office. Secondly, there is no alternative to the present ruling formation.

The Congress(I) has supported the government in matters of economic policy, such as the Patents Bill and the Insurance Regulatory Authority Bill. Opposition to the economic policy appears to have come from within the BJP, from the swadeshi lobby.

If there is any disagreement among the allies, we try to sort it out through discussions. It is not that the Congress(I) is supporting the Government. The approaches on these issues have been similar. Otherwise they would have supported us on the Bihar issue also. After all, in a democratic set-up differences can be expressed, and that must be allowed. But every decision taken by the Cabinet and the Prime Minister is being supported by the party.

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The Opposition has demanded an inquiry by a Joint Parliamentary Committee into the dismissal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and the allegations made by Mohan Guruswamy, former adviser to the Finance Minister. Why is the BJP against it?

There is no question of agreeing to a JPC inquiry. We have agreed to a discussion. Parliament has never taken up for investigation an issue raised outside the House. It is the tradition. After all, there should be some concrete issue. If anything arises out of the discussion, then it can be dealt with afterwards. Allegations are there, but he (Mohan Guruswamy) never levelled the allegations when he was part of the Government. When he came out, he lost his credibility. He is violating norms by talking about some official files that were shown to him before he was ousted. Any allegation made by a bureaucrat cannot be the subject-matter of a JPC probe.

Did the Bihar issue cause an embarrassment to the Government? You seem to have suffered a loss of face because of your decision to impose President's Rule and not to seek the Rajya Sabha's approval for it. Your ally, the Samata Party, is split on this issue.

No. The Samata Party is not divided on this issue. The allies (of the BJP) are supporting the Government. The internal affairs of our allies are not of any concern to us. There is no split as far as the Samata Parliamentary Party is concerned. The incidents (the recent massacre committed by the MCC) since the return of the Rabri Devi Government in Bihar have vindicated our stand. This Government (Rabri Devi's) cannot function, cannot maintain law and order. So let the Congress(I) take the blame. They are responsible for what is happening.

We did not seek the Rajya Sabha's approval for the imposition of President's Rule because we knew the fate the move would suffer. But at least now, we can say that the people of Bihar, the Governor of Bihar, the President of India and the Lok Sabha are unanimous on this issue. The Congress(I) was somewhat unnerved by the Prime Minister's bus journey to Lahore; otherwise why should the party change its mind when its president Sonia Gandhi had said that the Rabri Devi regime had lost the moral right to rule? We thought that they would support our move although they did not assure us of support. That is what we assumed after Sonia Gandhi made that statement. But they are now openly supporting the Rabri Devi regime. The Congress(I) has taken a suicidal step. And it did cause embarrassment to the Government.

'The Government has failed in every aspect'

cover-story

Somnath Chatterjee, eminent parliamentarian and veteran leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), feels that the BJP-led Government has failed on several fronts. It is concerned more about placating its allies than about addressing the problems facing the country, he says in an interview to Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay in Calcutta. Excerpts:

How would you rate the BJP-led Government's performance?

The BJP has entered into unprincipled alliances with parties whose programmes or policies have nothing common with its own programmes and policies. There is no unity in the alliance, and the allies are frequently making unreasonable demands or threatening the Government. It is clear that the main ruling party is concerned more about keeping its allies happy than about the welfare of the country. The BJP's allies are concerned only about packages for their respective States, and nobody in the Government is bothered about a package for India as a whole. In the past year the BJP has created a situation that is inimical to the unity and integrity of the country. Look at its policy on minorities. Never before has the country seen such atrocities being committed on the Christian minorities. The brutal and senseless murder of the Australian missionary, Graham Stewart Staines, and his two sons has affected the country's image in the eyes of the world. Targeting Christians on the plea that they are converting Hindus is a deliberate and calculated attack to bring about divisions among the people on the grounds of religion. The Prime Minister called for a national debate on the issue, which further complicated matters.

It is shameful that the BJP is adopting the economic policies evolved by the Congress(I) Government, which it had opposed at that time. The Government is acting against every promise it made. See the way the Pokhran blasts were carried out; it was nothing more than browbeating Pakistan. The Government should be condemned for creating the kind of religious fanaticism that took shape after Pokhran. It is also responsible for introducing communalism in the Army. It even attempted to communalise the educational system. Now the Government is on its hands and knees, making open announcements of its willingness to sign the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) - which again amounts to compromising the national interest. There is no united national policy. The Opposition was not consulted on any major decision that the BJP-led Government took. Charges of corruption in the Government are coming out daily, while the country is rapidly moving towards a helpless situation. Look at the price situation. The growth rate is 3 per cent, agricultural growth is negative, prices are sky-high. Even Doordarshan is being misutilised. In fact, Prasar Bharati should be called Pramod Bharati. For the past one year we have had at the Centre a Government that has been governed by greed for power and has failed in every aspect.

What are your views on Yashwant Sinha's latest Budget?

Who has supported this Budget? Not the common people, anyway. Today only a few big projects are coming into India. Industry is not picking up, the small-scale sector is in jeopardy, and infrastructure development is zero.

It appears that the Opposition has held a serious challenge to the Government in this Budget session. Is this an indication that the Government is under threat?

I hope so. All their policies have gone against the interests of the nation. The Opposition must try to pull down this Government.

The Opposition to the Patents Bill and the Insurance Regulatory Authority Bill appears to be coming from the swadeshi wing of the BJP.

The BJP had vehemently opposed the Congress(I) Government's proposals on these bills. Now these are on top of the BJP's agenda. The Patents Bill is a total sell-out, a surrender to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Now that the Government is facing serious problems because of sanctions, it is trying hard to please the United States. As for the Insurance Bill the BJP had opposed it tooth and nail. It has gone back on every position that it had taken.

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Do you favour the Opposition's demand for an inquiry by a Joint Parliamentary Committee into the dismissal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and into the allegations of financial irregularities in the Government, made by Mohan Guruswamy?

Vajpayee should agree to a JPC inquiry into both the issues. The Centre says that we are trying to politicise the Guruswamy issue. But Guruswamy was one of their most trusted men. The allegations of financial irregularities were made by him, not by us.

Does the move against the Bihar Government have the potential to put the BJP-led Government under strain? The Samata Party in the Bihar Legislature has split. Could this affect the party at the Centre?

Yes, it could. What they did in Bihar was political and constitutional chicanery. Any sensible government would first try and convince the Opposition and elicit its support. They took the advice of an RSS Governor, declared President's Rule and then tried to gather support. We have always opposed the use of Article 356.

Is the Congress(I) ready to bid for power? If its stakes a claim, will the Left extend support?

I think the Congress(I) realises the danger if the present Government continues in power. Under the BJP-led alliance, the country is divided communally and impoverished economically, and it does not have a friend in the world. Today the composition of the Lok Sabha is such that only the Congress(I) can stake a claim to form a government. If it takes the initiative we are willing to extend issue-based support. On matters that we disagree, let them take a second look. But this great danger to the country in the form of the BJP Government must go.

Of INSAT-2E and projects beyond

science-and-technology

Interview with ISRO Chairman K. Kasturirangan.

The year 1999 promises to be a busy year for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). In May, the indigeniously-built Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, PSLV-C2 will be launched from Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. It will put into orbit the Indian Remote-sensing Satellite, IRS-P4. This will be followed by the launch of the third generation INSAT-3B by Arianespace from Kourou, French Guyana. ISRO will launch its own gigantic Geo-stationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), with a Russian cryogenic stage, from Sriharikota by the end of the year or early next year. The GSLV will carry the indigenously built Geostat ionary Satellite, GSAT. But first, in early April, it will be the turn of INSAT-2E.

INSAT-2E is the most advanced multi-purpose satellite built at the ISRO Satellite Centre in Bangalore. It has state-of-the-art payload for telecommunications, television broadcasting and weather forecasting. According to Dr. K. Kasturirangan, ISRO Chairman, it is the heaviest satellite (weighing 2.5 tonnes) built by ISRO. On February 13, it was airlifted to Kourou.

In an hour-long interview given to T.S. Subramanian at ISRO headquarters in Bangalore on March 12, Dr. Kasturirangan (who is also Chairman, Space Commission, and Secretary, Department of Space), spoke of the promise and prospects of India's space programme in the context of the launch of INSAT-2E.

Excerpts from the interview:

How do you assess the progress of the INSAT programme which started with APPLE (Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment), the first experimental telecommunication satellite that India built?

We have come a long way. In the APPLE project we designed and developed a three-axis stabilised satellite for communications, and demonstrated the ability to operate it from a geosynchronous orbit. We mastered the technologies related to this, such as deployment of panels for power generation, design and development of transponders that form the heart of the system, and so on.

Other milestones in satellite communications were SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment) and STEP (Satellite Telecommunica-tions Experiment Project). SITE for the first time showed the efficacy of satellite communications systems for developmental communications. STEP provided a unique opportunity for the use of a satellite system along with a terrestrial network to increase the outreach and capacity of the country's communications network. Both these provided valuable experience and expertise on the applications side. APPLE provided the necessary capability on the communications technology side. So it was a marriage of these capabilities that set off the INSAT programme.

Recognising the need for a system that could meet the requirements in the areas of education, development communication, rural development and information dissemination, we went ahead with the philosophy of procurement in the case of the first generation INSAT series. (India bought INSAT 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D from the United States in the 1980s and early 1990s.)

With the aid of the first generation INSAT series, telecommunications expanded considerably by providing inter-city networks and trunk routes. Today, more than 5,000 of them operate through the Insat system. We also integrated in a novel way the meteorological services into the INSAT series. So it is a novel three-in-one concept that provides satellite television broadcasting, communications and meteorolgical services from a single platform. INSAT-1B and 1D worked well. 1A and 1C did not succeed as well as we expected.

By the end of the first generation of INSAT systems, ISRO had developed its own capability to build the second generation. The second generation had improved capabilities in newer frequencies and an improved radiometer for weather observation. Four of them have been launched. We had one setback in the loss of INSAT-2D. INSAT-2A, 2B and 2C have been fulfilling the objectives set for them. We are now going to launch the final satellite in the second generation series, which is INSAT-2E.

What are the improvements made in INSAT-2E on the basis of the recommendations made by the committee which reviewed the failure of INSAT-2D?

The review committee went into all the details of the problems seen in the orbit of INSAT-2E. It did a lot of ground simulation and analysis of data.

We have provided sufficient isolation to the two power buses (that is, power lines) which are critical to the functioning of the spacecraft. We have put several protection features into the power lines. We have changed the wires that are used to carry high currents. These wires, with specific material characteristics, are less susceptible to radiation damage, brittleness and arcing.

It is said that INSAT-2E is one of the most advanced satellites in terms of technological and electronic software.

At 2.5 tonnes, INSAT-2E is the heaviest satellite we have built. It is the longest - at 18 metres - on end-to-end measurements. We have introduced transponders which are much more powerful. The transponders on 2C and 2D had an outreach from South-East Asia to West Asia. In INSAT-2E, we have transponders which are global in terms of the beam; also zonal beams and national beams. So there are three classes of beams. The global beams cover the whole of Australia on the eastern side to Western Europe on the western side, through South-East Asia, South Asia and West Asia. The zonal beam transponders cover broadcasting capability which covers South-East Asia, the southern regions of China, India and West Asia. Then we have national beam transponders. Totally we will have 17 transponders operating in the normal C-band, the lower extended C-band in 2E.

The other important feature is the meteorological component in which, for the first time, we have introduced a water vapour channel. This will improve the information content for weather modelling and prediction.

For the first time, we are going to fly in INSAT-2E a camera system based on the charge coupled device. This will provide in three bands resolution of the order of 1 km in the visible channel. The previous visible channels in the Very High Resolution Radiometer provided a resolution of 2 km. That is broadly on the payload side.

On the spacecraft side, in view of the larger power requirements - about 2.5 kilowatts - we have introduced gallium arsenide solar cells instead of silicon solar cells. We have put heat pipes so that thermal management is made feasible. For the first time, we have used panels with embedded heat pipes. We have a vastly improved control system design, a new type of processor, a new approach to software realisation, and so on.

Besides, we have introduced a reconfiguration of the power generation and distribution scheme through the isolation of the power buses as called for by the review committee.

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How many transponders of the INSAT-2E are you leasing to INTELSAT? Do you have excess capacity to do this?

Out of 17 transponders, we plan to lease 11 of the 36 megahertz bandwidth each to INTELSAT, which booked them on a bulk lease basis in January 1995. It is not that we have excess capacity. INTELSAT is an inter-governmental consortium and Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited is represented on its Board of Governors. They operate 22 satellites in order to provide telecommunications and television broadcasting services.

They have a kind of benchmarking for their needs, which is very demanding. So once you provide these kinds of transponders to INTELSAT, you have obviously benchmarked yourself for a certain level of performance. I treat this as an important step from that point of view. In the long run, we should look at the commercial aspects of such satellites and our ability to meet the possible increase in private demands.

There are plans to launch the third generation 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D and 3E. Do you think we will need the transponders in all these satellites?

These requirements are generated on the projections made by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and the Department of Telecommunications. So far INSAT is used only by government agencies. With privatisation and globalisation, there can be opportunities for private parties to seek INSAT transponders.

Then you have the important factor of ageing of the second generation of the INSAT series. INSAT-1D and 2A are getting phased out. 2B will get phased out by 2000 or 2001. So there is a gradual reduction in capacity.

Putting all these together, we find that by 2002 or so, India will need 130 transponders in these frequencies. The strategy is to distribute them on the various satellites of the third generation.

Why has the INSAT series been plagued by failures? Short-circuits in power buses, leading to the loss of earth lock, seems to be the bane of the series. INSAT-1A's solar sail did not open up and it was affected by power shortage. It lost the earth lock because of unanticipated moon interference. INSAT-1C suffered from a short circuit in one of the power buses and it was abandoned. INSAT-2D suffered from a short circuit in one of its power buses and ultimately it lost the earth lock. Did these happen because they are multi-purpose satellites?

I will not agree with that. We have proved through the long-lasting life of INSAT-1B and 1D, and 2A, 2B and 2C that their lifetime of seven to eight years has been realised in the multi-purpose configuration.

What we are trying to do in a multi-purpose satellite is to put the Very High Resolution Radiometer (VHRR) - the solar panel on the one side, and the sail and the boom on the other - so that the satellite has an asymmetric configuration. If it is purely a communication or broadcasting mission, we can then have two-sided panels as in 2A and 2C. So the deployment of the sail and the boom, and their operation have been satisfactorily established in four satellites.

There are always failure modes because there are certain levels of reliability of components. There are some hiccups in space in terms of electro-magnetic interference or electro-magnetic compatibility. Everytime we encounter such problems, we learn from it and make sure that the problem does not recur. But every complex system has its own level of reliability or unreliability, and it is not related to the multi-purpose character of the system itself.

Why do we prefer Ariane flights for the INSAT series?

We have over the years developed a working relationship with Arianespace. Then the question is subject to cost competitiveness. You have a couple of companies in the world - Lockheed-Martin and Boeing. Lockheed-Martin is also tied up with Khrunichev, so Russia comes into the picture. That leaves us with China - the Great Wall Industries. But they have a higher latitude launch. If you go for Ariane, you get the advantage of near equatorial inclination with very little correction needed. Correspondingly, you have improved fuel availability - even for on-orbit. Besides, the vehicle gives us a lot of confidence.

INSAT-2E will be launched by Ariane 4. It will be a dedicated launch because there will be no co-passenger. We are also working with Arianespace for possible cooperation to market PSLV.

Will it launch IRS type satellites?

No. Right now, there is an agreement which provides for the launch of 100 kg, 150 kg class of satellites which can piggyback on the PSLV with the main mission. Later, the possibilities are not ruled out that we should get a market for the IRS class of satellites for polar orbits or some other type of mission.

PSLV-C2, which is to be launched in May from Sriharikota, will deploy our own Oceansat besides a German satellite and a Korean spacecraft. What are their applications?

The P-4 is the first ocean satellite we are building. Its ocean colour monitor will provide information on ocean biota and phytoplankton distribution. One of the important things related to global weather change studies is the level to which oceans are able to assimilate carbon dioxide. This will be an important instrument, and at 350-metre resolution, it is the best resolution you will get anywhere.

Another instrument is the multi-frequency scanning radiometer which will be used to measure ocean surface temperature, winds and the structure of waves.

The Korean KITSAT (KIT for Korean Institute of Technology) is 107 kg in weight. It is a technological satellite primarily to develop capabilities and prove many systems for micro-miniaturisation and so on. It also carries a small camera for remote-sensing.

The German satellite TUBSAT (TUB for Technological University of Berlin) is for studies related to three-axis attitude control and to qualify different systems for pointing a high-resolution earth observation (payload). It weighs 45 kg.

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IRS took imagery of the damaged office of the Iraqi intelligence during Operation Desert Storm. Does it mean that our imageries will now be in greater demand?

The IRS capability at five metres is the best that is available in the civilian domain. So when these pictures are available, people will have an appreciation of this kind of imaging system. There can certainly be an interest for IRS pictures for developmental applications. For rural connectivity and urban development, these imageries are of use.

Have the U.S. sanctions, in the aftermath of the nuclear tests, hit ISRO?

Sanctions have become a real-life problem for ISRO. We have learnt to live with it, in a sense. If one has to understand it, one has to look at the totality of work that goes on (in ISRO) in terms of indigenising many areas of space requirements such as components and materials. They (the sanctions) make designs more flexible. It is not the problem of producing these materials and components. It is a question of economics. When the requirements are small and one cannot produce them on a scale that is economically viable, one has to depend on outside help.

What is the progress in building cryogenic stages for the Geo-Stationary Satellite Launch Vehicle?

We are in the process of assembling the engines. The first step is the engines. This itself is a very complicated exercise and we also have to develop critical components related to this for the thrust chamber, turbo-pumps and so on. We are working on all these in a parallel manner. The first step in evaluating the design should start this year. But it is going to be a long journey because these are inherently complex systems. I will keep my fingers crossed at this juncture.

Besides South Korea and Germany, has anyone approached Antrix Corporation (the commercial arm of ISRO) for satellite launches?

We have an agreement with a Belgian agency to launch a satellite called Proba. They want it to go up around 2000-2001.

ISRO is going to build a new launch pad at Sriharikota. We will shortly finalise it and announce it. It will cost Rs.300 crores. It will cater to the PSLVs and the GSLVs.

COMBATIVE MOOD

cover-story

Even as the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies celebrate the completion of a year in power at the Centre, the Opposition is in combat mode.

SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN SUDHA MAHALINGAM in New Delhi

AT the moment when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government was at its most vulnerable following a series of electoral routs in the northern region, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee sought to make a fresh affirmation of purpose. He said little, but his actions were those of a man intent on frontally challenging those who had supposedly hobbled him from within, blunting his administrative will. In this sense, the Assembly elections of November 1998 constitute a distinct point of inflection in the year-long career of the Vajpayee Government, a point when a record of ineptitude and drift was seemingly transformed into a sequence of assertive and purposive actions.

One of Vajpayee's statements of affirmation against the hard-core elements who resisted any departure from the orthodox agenda was to appoint Pramod Mahajan to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. As unorthodox as they come, Mahajan had handled the sensitive aftermath of the Pokhran nuclear tests as a Cabinet-ranking Adviser in the Prime Minister's Office. His ability to transform every situation into adversity had been evident then, prompting a brief banishment into obscurity. Mahajan's track record made his rehabilitation in the Union Cabinet a risky proposition. And in resorting to this gamble, Vajpayee was unmistakably raising the stakes in his simmering conflict with hardline elements within his party.

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Mahajan has, by all accounts, since taken on the job of the Principal Information Officer of the Government, appropriating for himself the functions that are routinely performed by that particular official. He has also successfully managed to make broadcasting policy an opaque commodity, reversing the limited gains made by the United Front regime in the matter and providing ample evidence in every statement of hidden motivations.

It is not known how far the hardline element within the BJP would have endorsed the spirit of the celebrations that Mahajan organised on March 19 to mark the completion of a year in office of the Vajpayee Government. But aside from the speculation surrounding the identities of those who participated and those who stayed away from it, the show was a predictable farce. The Bomb, and the bus to Lahore, were advertised as the principal achievements of the year gone by, culminating in a whirl of song and dance. Five millennia of Indian history was compressed into two hours, after which the most glittering symbols of the BJP epoch were to be put on display. Subtle and figurative representation being an art form that the BJP is innocent of, a deafening detonation was set off at the venue of the performance, symbolising the Pokhran nuclear tests. Following this, the bus to Lahore was trundled onstage, to great public bemusement, causing the platform that had been constructed at Delhi's Hauz Khas monument to buckle under its weight. What had been projected as a grand spectacle had made the transition from exultant celebration to fiasco in little time.

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FARCICAL - that was a word that found numerous applications in the week leading up to the anniversary celebrations. Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha chose that characterisation for the debate that had taken place in the Rajya Sabha on the irregularities under his charge that a disgruntled understudy had blown the whistle on. But ironically, his effort to put a relatively inoffensive construction on these activities itself acquired unmistakably farcical colours.

It was a tumultuous anniversary week for Vajpayee. Parliament remained paralysed for extended lengths of time. When not putting the Government on the mat on the allegations of rampant financial malfeasance raised by Mohan Guruswamy, former Adviser to the Finance Minister, the Opposition was turning the heat on the dismissal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat (story on Page 17). Having held its fire for long, in part because it was undergoing a process of adjusting and realigning its internal equations, the Opposition in the Budget session has mounted a challenge that the Vajpayee Government may not be able to deflect easily.

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The points raised by Guruswamy indicate not merely that the Vajpayee Government is riven by divergent perceptions of policy, but also by differences over which business lobbies should be extended patronage. Although often spoken about, the differences between Vajpayee and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani were not really identifiable, aside from certain rather inchoate notions of policy differences. Guruswamy now seems to indicate that in part the discord stems from rival agendas of patronage. Irrespective of the substantive action, if any, that emerges from the Guruswamy allegations, their immediate impact has been a dramatic erosion of the moral authority of the BJP's two top leaders.

The Finance Minister did not help his party's cause by his manifest ineptitude in Parliament. In seeking to explain the undue interest he had in inducing the Unit Trust of India (UTI) to dump its holding in a major Indian tobacco company, he produced a letter which he claimed had been signed by 40 MPs, advocating precisely such a course. The intention, he said, was not to provide an overseas tobacco company with the opportunity to buy up a controlling interest in the Indian firm, but to enable the UTI to generate the liquid cash necessary to restore the viability of some of its investment programmes.

On being questioned about the authenticity of the letter, Yashwant Sinha faltered. He admitted to being unsure about the identity of the MPs who had signed the letter, since the one member he named lost no time in disclaiming it. He blundered further on the dates when he claimed to have received the letter on March 5, long after Guruswamy's exit.

Similar internal contradictions were evident in Yashwant Sinha's effort to explain away the charge of doctored steel prices. As for the evidence that public sector financial institutions had been seriously over-exposed in lending to the steel industry, Yashwant Sinha denied all responsibility, claiming that the lenders had full discretion without any interference from his Ministry.

There is little prospect that the Guruswamy allegations will vanish in the near future. The Lok Sabha is scheduled to take them up when Parliament convenes after its mid-session recess. And if Yashwant Sinha's performance in the Rajya Sabha is an index of the depth of his conviction, then he is unlikely to escape unscathed from the Lok Sabha.

AS the anniversary week wore on, Guruswamy was relegated to the secondary position among the problem areas for Vajpayee. By far the more serious threat to its internal stability and cohesion comes from Defence Minister George Fernandes' maladroit effort to evade a debate on the dismissal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat from his naval command. The plea of national security that he has all too readily proffered has done little to assuage well-founded suspicions that the Government has much to hide in the matter.

Bhagwat and Guruswamy have provided the ammunition for a newly invigorated Opposition to pillory the Government. But there have been areas of partial concord between the Treasury and Opposition benches. A notable success for the Government was the passage of the Indian Patents Act (Amendment) Bill in Parliament - a feat that had defied every incumbent government since 1995. The BJP had plunged into its adventure in Bihar, promulgating President's Rule in the State in the belief that the Congress(I) would lend it sustenance in the task of winning the endorsement of Parliament. That was not to be. But in economic policy, it looks increasingly likely that the Congress(I) will be a tacit ally of the Vajpayee Government.

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This rather strange new configuration of forces was reflected in the passage of the Patents Act, to the evident displeasure of the Left Opposition. In the rush to the finish line, the Government was disinclined even to consider a serious effort by the Law Commission to modify the amendment bill so that it would incorporate a few additional safeguards against abuse, while remaining in compliance with World Trade Organisation (WTO) obligations. Successive governments had laboured in vain to get the bill passed through Parliament. And when opportunity finally beckoned in the shape of a contingent alliance with the Congress(I), the BJP-led Government was not about to be delayed by subtle nuances.

The move to bring foreign equity participation into the insurance sector is likely to gain fresh momentum with a Parliamentary Standing Committee having recently submitted its recommendations. The committee has suggested, among a few more cosmetic changes, that the foreign equity permitted in insurance should not exceed 26 per cent under any circumstances. This is a notable retreat from the bill that was introduced in Parliament in its winter session which provided for up to 40 per cent equity. The proviso then was that 26 per cent could be held by the foreign promoter and another 14 per cent by non-resident Indians or foreign institutional investors. This in turn was a desperate concession to stem a virtual rebellion within the BJP following the earlier decision to liberalise the rules for participation in the insurance industry. The compromise had then won the acceptance of the recalcitrant leadership of the swadeshi lobby within the BJP, though in grudging fashion. The further retreat is a signal that the truce was far from secure.

The new formula proposed by the Standing Committee has been accepted by the Union Cabinet. The bill, appropriately modified, is likely to be introduced in Parliament shortly after it reconvenes. It will encounter few problems in its passage, since the Congress(I) is today showing few qualms about supporting the BJP in its efforts to further the agenda of liberalisation that began under the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime. The problem, rather, is likely to arise from hardline elements within the BJP itself.

THE advocates of the swadeshi plan within the BJP are lying low for the moment. Their last upsurge of activism was in December, when the Government was already reeling under the impact of the November 1998 election rout. Alarmed at the conjunction with a renewed phase of discord within, the top leadership of the Sangh Parivar had managed to persuade the recalcitrant elements to hold their fire. Between acceding to the demands of economic liberalisation and witnessing the collapse of the Vajpayee Government, the latter, they were told, was by far the greater evil.

Perceptions within the Sangh leadership now are that Vajpayee utilised this rather conditional reprieve with undue alacrity, both to consolidate his position and marginalise the alternative viewpoints. The hardline elements intend soon to resume their campaign for a restoration of the traditional verities of the Sangh ideology.

Religious conversions are an issue on which pressure is likely to be mounted. It is an especially vulnerable point for the Vajpayee Government, which has just managed to win a brief respite from the wave of public outrage that followed the grisly murder of the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in Orissa (Frontline, February 12). The judicial commission that was appointed under a sitting Judge of the Supreme Court recently came out with a scathing indictment of the Union Government for its obstructive and non-cooperative manner. It was a chastening experience for the Union Government, which had branded the Staines killing as an international conspiracy and appointed the judicial commission of inquiry as a demonstration of its confidence that none from the extended ideological fraternity of the Sangh was involved in it.

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The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's intention to restore the issue of religious conversions to centrality is not good news for the Government. Neither is its resolve to step up the resistance to the agenda of economic liberalisation. The contingent alliance with the Congress(I) on economic policy is, in this sense, likely to be a mixed blessing for the BJP leadership. It is only likely to raise the pitch of confrontation with its own ideological overseers in the RSS, imparting an additional degree of virulence to the final confrontation when it comes.

VITAL areas of legislative business have fallen into benign neglect as a consequence of the Vajpayee Government's multiplying preoccupations. The Supreme Court-ordained bill to endow the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) with statutory powers and the authority to oversee the functioning of the principal investigative agencies, failed to make it to the Rajya Sabha after its passage in the Lok Sabha. This was a consequence of the BJP's obstreperous attitude in the Upper House and its refusal to accept reasonable terms to discuss the dismissal of Admiral Bhagwat. The immediate consequence is that the CVC, which has been exercising its statutory powers on the strength of an ordinance, will cease to exist in its current form on April 4.

An element of mutual convenience of the main political players is evident in the failure of the CVC bill to obtain passage. Vulnerable politicians are not over-keen to have an ombudsman overseeing their financial dealings. But their sense of complacence may be misplaced. Anil Divan, amicus curiae (friend of court) in the Supreme Court in a batch of cases involving high-level corruption, points out that the ruling of the highest court is very clear - its verdict will set the parameters of the functioning of the CVC in the interregnum till Parliament passes the necessary legislation.

Parliamentary inaction, in other words, is not a viable strategy for politicians keen to evade public scrutiny and accountability. For a ruling party that has lost its two principal claims to eminence - its special attention to national security and its deep concern for probity in public life - this cannot be very good news.

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ONE year into its tenure, the Vajpayee Government is, in its own public declarations, discovering a new sense of purpose and cohesiveness. This claim is illusory for a number of reasons. The relentless needling from the BJP's allies has probably abated temporarily. Recalcitrant elements have been either appeased - as with Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu - or dissuaded from pressing any further demands by the absence of options, as with Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress. But the epicentre of the disturbances has only shifted to the inner councils of the BJP. And the Opposition is unlikely to provide the ruling coalition with the leeway to allow the inner turmoil to subside of its own.

Bus, Bihar and Budget - in the alliterative exertions of L.K. Advani, the BJP's newfound equanimity is founded upon these three events. In the fortnight following this formulation, the influence of all three factors has begun decidedly to wane. The Opposition today is in a combative mood - a mood that has manifested itself in rather subtle ways for now but may well be running deep. And quite apart from the ideological rifts, the BJP is in deep disquiet by the disingenuous and clumsy handling of the Bhagwat affair, by the licence that has been issued to Defence Minister George Fernandes to run riot over sensitive matters of national security. This matter is likely to provide the main focus for the Opposition offensive in the remaining half of the Budget session. But the battlefield could soon widen to take in a record of governance that remains among the most dismal in the last many years.

A fortifying message

"FROM Rock Fort to Fort St. George by 2001." This was the message that was dinned into the ears of the cadres of the Tamil Nadu unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the party's fourth State conference held on the banks of the Cauvery in Tiruchi on March 20 and 21. The allusions, intended to inspire BJP cadres to work towards capturing power in the State when Assembly elections are held by 2001, were to the landmark site in Tiruchi and the seat of power in Chennai respectively.

The slogan may be an expression of the BJP's overly optimistic outlook: the BJP currently has only one member in the 234-member State Assembly. The party plans to lure the people of the State away from the 30-year reign by Dravidian parties and lead them into the "national mainstream". The theme of the conference was: "Tamil Nadu is on the side of nationalism."

State BJP general secretary L. Ganesan tempered this expression of overweening ambition with realism. He said that it was enough if the party played a substantial role in deciding who should form the next government in Tamil Nadu. Ganesan said: "When we say 'From Rock Fort to Fort St. George', it does not mean we have begun the journey from Tiruchi to Fort St. George. We are clear that we should vanquish the DMK in 2001. The BJP is also clear that an alternative government should be formed in Tamil Nadu and that the BJP should have a substantial role in it."

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, who took part in the conference, however, had a word of caution: he said that this should be done without antagonising the BJP's key ally in the State - the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). This expression of caution was significant in the context of the absence of AIADMK general secretary and former Chief Minister Jayalalitha, who declined invitations to take part in the public meeting organised as part of the conference. Vajpayee said that the BJP in the State was charged with a dual responsibility: of strengthening itself and "working in close cooperation with other friendly parties who are partners in the Government at the Centre." He was glad that the State unit had decided to work for a change of government in the State by 2001. "With the support of the people and cooperation of other friendly parties, it will not be an impossible task. Though it will be a difficult task, I hope you workers will accept this challenge," Vajpayee told his party's cadres.

The conference was significant for its other highlights as well: a virulent attack on the Congress(I) by Vajpayee himself; a denunciation of the Congress(I) accepting the "imported leadership" of Sonia Gandhi (State BJP general secretary H. Raja said it was no longer the Indian National Congress but the Italian National Congress); criticism of the Left parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) for "shamelessly supporting Sonia Gandhi for the prime ministership of this country"; and criticism of the DMK Government in the State for allegedly "going soft" on Al-Umma, the Muslim fundamentalist organisation allegedly responsible for the serial blasts in Coimbatore last year.

Union Minister for Power and BJP Lok Sabha member from Tiruchi, Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, came out strongly against the DMK's alleged lenience towards Al-Umma. He recalled how Dr. V. Sridhar, president of the Tiruchi city unit of the BJP, was murdered allegedly by Al-Umma activists in February this year. Kumaramangalam said: "Fundamentalists give fatwas from jail. They killed Dr. Sridhar. Encouragement is given to terrorists (by the DMK Government). The terrorists killed a jail warder (Jayaprakash in Madurai)." Kumaramangalam urged the Prime Minister to ask the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister to look into the law and order situation in the State.

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Addressing the public meeting, Vajpayee responded thus: "Anti-national elements are active in Tamil Nadu. A watch is being kept on this. Since law and order is a State subject, the Tamil Nadu Government should take action." Earlier, at a press conference, the Prime Miniser said that although the State Government had taken some action, "the ISI's (Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan) and fundamentalists' activities have to be rooted out." What was required was more effort by the State Government in this regard, and the Centre was prepared to help it, Vajpayee said.

The conference brought into the open the schism among the BJP's allies in Tamil Nadu - the AIADMK, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Tamilaga Rajiv Congress (TRC). Jayalalitha stayed away, perhaps piqued that she got only faxed invitations and was not personally contacted by any BJP leader. But some BJP leaders said that the real reason for her absence was the presence of MDMK general secretary Vaiko and TRC leader and Union Petroleum Minister Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthi. Both the MDMK and the TRC have now fallen out with the AIADMK, their ally in the February 1998 Lok Sabha elections. Jayalalitha told a top BJP leader who met her recently that AIADMK cadres would not like her attending a public meeting along with Vaiko and Ramamurthi, who had turned against her.

Vajpayee reacted to her absence thus: "I am sorry she did not attend it. I had a similar experience in Calcutta" (a reference to the absence of Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee at the BJP's rally in Calcutta).

This is the third time that Jayalalitha has kept away from a function attended by Prime Minister Vajpayee. She did not attend a public meeting organised by the MDMK in Chennai in September 1998, in which Vajpayee and leaders of other coalition parties took part. She went to Tiruchi then to preside over an AIADMK rally. Again, when Vajpayee came to Chennai in January 1999 to inaugurate the Science Congress, she preferred to be in Hyderabad.

At the public meeting, Vaiko, Dr. S. Ramadoss of the PMK and Ramamurthi unequivocally pledged their support for the continuance of the Vajpayee Government.

According to State BJP leaders H. Raja, Dr. V. Maitreyan and Sukumar Nambiar, Tiruchi was chosen the venue because it was centrally situated in Tamil Nadu. Besides, Union Minister Kumaramangalam represented the constituency.

This was the biggest conference for the State BJP so far in terms of participation of the cadres, their enthusiasm, and pubic turnout. The three previous conferences were held in December 1983-January 1984 in Coimbatore; August 1995 in Madurai; and October 1997 in Tiruchi.

'There is no alternative to the ruling formation'

cover-story

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government at the Centre celebrated one year in office on March 19 although its ability to survive and complete its full term is in doubt. Recent events have proved the Government's vulnerability in the face of sustained opposition from within the coalition and from outside. BJP vice-president and Lok Sabha member Krishan Lal Sharma, in an interview to V. Venkatesan, he explained how the BJP looks at its travails. Excerpts:

A serious Opposition challenge to the Government was witnessed during the Budget session of Parliament. Do you think the majority support of the Government will come under threat?

We have majority support in the Lok Sabha. That is what matters. There is no threat to it. A defeat in the Rajya Sabha does not mean that the Government has lost its majority. Governments with lesser majorities in the Lok Sabha have survived in office. Secondly, there is no alternative to the present ruling formation.

The Congress(I) has supported the government in matters of economic policy, such as the Patents Bill and the Insurance Regulatory Authority Bill. Opposition to the economic policy appears to have come from within the BJP, from the swadeshi lobby.

If there is any disagreement among the allies, we try to sort it out through discussions. It is not that the Congress(I) is supporting the Government. The approaches on these issues have been similar. Otherwise they would have supported us on the Bihar issue also. After all, in a democratic set-up differences can be expressed, and that must be allowed. But every decision taken by the Cabinet and the Prime Minister is being supported by the party.

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The Opposition has demanded an inquiry by a Joint Parliamentary Committee into the dismissal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and the allegations made by Mohan Guruswamy, former adviser to the Finance Minister. Why is the BJP against it?

There is no question of agreeing to a JPC inquiry. We have agreed to a discussion. Parliament has never taken up for investigation an issue raised outside the House. It is the tradition. After all, there should be some concrete issue. If anything arises out of the discussion, then it can be dealt with afterwards. Allegations are there, but he (Mohan Guruswamy) never levelled the allegations when he was part of the Government. When he came out, he lost his credibility. He is violating norms by talking about some official files that were shown to him before he was ousted. Any allegation made by a bureaucrat cannot be the subject-matter of a JPC probe.

Did the Bihar issue cause an embarrassment to the Government? You seem to have suffered a loss of face because of your decision to impose President's Rule and not to seek the Rajya Sabha's approval for it. Your ally, the Samata Party, is split on this issue.

No. The Samata Party is not divided on this issue. The allies (of the BJP) are supporting the Government. The internal affairs of our allies are not of any concern to us. There is no split as far as the Samata Parliamentary Party is concerned. The incidents (the recent massacre committed by the MCC) since the return of the Rabri Devi Government in Bihar have vindicated our stand. This Government (Rabri Devi's) cannot function, cannot maintain law and order. So let the Congress(I) take the blame. They are responsible for what is happening.

We did not seek the Rajya Sabha's approval for the imposition of President's Rule because we knew the fate the move would suffer. But at least now, we can say that the people of Bihar, the Governor of Bihar, the President of India and the Lok Sabha are unanimous on this issue. The Congress(I) was somewhat unnerved by the Prime Minister's bus journey to Lahore; otherwise why should the party change its mind when its president Sonia Gandhi had said that the Rabri Devi regime had lost the moral right to rule? We thought that they would support our move although they did not assure us of support. That is what we assumed after Sonia Gandhi made that statement. But they are now openly supporting the Rabri Devi regime. The Congress(I) has taken a suicidal step. And it did cause embarrassment to the Government.

'The Government has failed in every aspect'

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Somnath Chatterjee, eminent parliamentarian and veteran leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), feels that the BJP-led Government has failed on several fronts. It is concerned more about placating its allies than about addressing the problems facing the country, he says in an interview to Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay in Calcutta. Excerpts:

How would you rate the BJP-led Government's performance?

The BJP has entered into unprincipled alliances with parties whose programmes or policies have nothing common with its own programmes and policies. There is no unity in the alliance, and the allies are frequently making unreasonable demands or threatening the Government. It is clear that the main ruling party is concerned more about keeping its allies happy than about the welfare of the country. The BJP's allies are concerned only about packages for their respective States, and nobody in the Government is bothered about a package for India as a whole. In the past year the BJP has created a situation that is inimical to the unity and integrity of the country. Look at its policy on minorities. Never before has the country seen such atrocities being committed on the Christian minorities. The brutal and senseless murder of the Australian missionary, Graham Stewart Staines, and his two sons has affected the country's image in the eyes of the world. Targeting Christians on the plea that they are converting Hindus is a deliberate and calculated attack to bring about divisions among the people on the grounds of religion. The Prime Minister called for a national debate on the issue, which further complicated matters.

It is shameful that the BJP is adopting the economic policies evolved by the Congress(I) Government, which it had opposed at that time. The Government is acting against every promise it made. See the way the Pokhran blasts were carried out; it was nothing more than browbeating Pakistan. The Government should be condemned for creating the kind of religious fanaticism that took shape after Pokhran. It is also responsible for introducing communalism in the Army. It even attempted to communalise the educational system. Now the Government is on its hands and knees, making open announcements of its willingness to sign the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) - which again amounts to compromising the national interest. There is no united national policy. The Opposition was not consulted on any major decision that the BJP-led Government took. Charges of corruption in the Government are coming out daily, while the country is rapidly moving towards a helpless situation. Look at the price situation. The growth rate is 3 per cent, agricultural growth is negative, prices are sky-high. Even Doordarshan is being misutilised. In fact, Prasar Bharati should be called Pramod Bharati. For the past one year we have had at the Centre a Government that has been governed by greed for power and has failed in every aspect.

What are your views on Yashwant Sinha's latest Budget?

Who has supported this Budget? Not the common people, anyway. Today only a few big projects are coming into India. Industry is not picking up, the small-scale sector is in jeopardy, and infrastructure development is zero.

It appears that the Opposition has held a serious challenge to the Government in this Budget session. Is this an indication that the Government is under threat?

I hope so. All their policies have gone against the interests of the nation. The Opposition must try to pull down this Government.

The Opposition to the Patents Bill and the Insurance Regulatory Authority Bill appears to be coming from the swadeshi wing of the BJP.

The BJP had vehemently opposed the Congress(I) Government's proposals on these bills. Now these are on top of the BJP's agenda. The Patents Bill is a total sell-out, a surrender to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Now that the Government is facing serious problems because of sanctions, it is trying hard to please the United States. As for the Insurance Bill the BJP had opposed it tooth and nail. It has gone back on every position that it had taken.

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Do you favour the Opposition's demand for an inquiry by a Joint Parliamentary Committee into the dismissal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and into the allegations of financial irregularities in the Government, made by Mohan Guruswamy?

Vajpayee should agree to a JPC inquiry into both the issues. The Centre says that we are trying to politicise the Guruswamy issue. But Guruswamy was one of their most trusted men. The allegations of financial irregularities were made by him, not by us.

Does the move against the Bihar Government have the potential to put the BJP-led Government under strain? The Samata Party in the Bihar Legislature has split. Could this affect the party at the Centre?

Yes, it could. What they did in Bihar was political and constitutional chicanery. Any sensible government would first try and convince the Opposition and elicit its support. They took the advice of an RSS Governor, declared President's Rule and then tried to gather support. We have always opposed the use of Article 356.

Is the Congress(I) ready to bid for power? If its stakes a claim, will the Left extend support?

I think the Congress(I) realises the danger if the present Government continues in power. Under the BJP-led alliance, the country is divided communally and impoverished economically, and it does not have a friend in the world. Today the composition of the Lok Sabha is such that only the Congress(I) can stake a claim to form a government. If it takes the initiative we are willing to extend issue-based support. On matters that we disagree, let them take a second look. But this great danger to the country in the form of the BJP Government must go.

'BJP confronting divided loyalties'

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S. Jaipal Reddy, who was the principal spokesman of the United Front during its tenure in government at the Centre, is a vigilant member of the Opposition. During his brief stint as Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, he pushed through the administrative changes that gave effect to the long-forgotten bill on autonomy for the electronic media. Back in the more familiar role of an Opposition stalwart, he reflects today on the year-long tenure of the A.B. Vajpayee Government and the strategic options available to the Opposition. Excerpts from the interview he gave Sukumar Muralidharan:

The Vajpayee Government seemed for a large part of the year gone by to be tottering, particularly after the Assembly elections in some States in November 1998. But it claims to have stabilised the situation and provided a new sense of purpose to its administration. Now the Opposition is posing a more unified challenge on a variety of issues. Does this suggest a phase of sharpening conflict?

The BJP-led coalition has survived for one year because of the grace shown by the Congress(I). It was well within the power of the Congress(I) to destabilise the BJP Government. Perhaps the Congress(I) wanted the BJP's administrative and political incompetence to be exposed over a longer period. That purpose may well have been served now.

But on economic policies there seems to be a divergence of views among the Opposition parties, with the Congress(I) going along with the Government on the Patents Bill and most likely on the Insurance Regulatory Authority Bill.

That divergence (of opinion) will continue to be there, but the main issue confronting the country is the threat posed by the Sangh Parivar to the secular fabric of the polity. Both the Congress(I) and other secular parties in the Opposition are realising the overriding importance of this issue.

The BJP itself seems to be divided on its economic policy between the swadeshi and the pro-liberalisation wings.

The general perception is that (Atal Behari) Vajpayee turned out to be a weak Prime Minister because of the trouble caused by his party's allies. But I think more trouble came from the sister organisations of the Sangh Parivar and from (Home Minister L.K.) Advani, than from his mercurial allies. On the economic agenda, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are divided. In the late 1970s the erstwhile Janata Party faced the question of dual membership. It is interesting to note that the BJP is today squarely confronting the problem of not only dual but multiple membership - divided loyalties. Whatever is reflected in the Sangh Parivar is also reflected within the BJP. Vajpayee has been pursuing the liberalisation agenda because he wants to be on the right side of the upper middle class and the superpower of the world. So he is having his way right now.

The construction that the BJP has been putting on current events is that the three Bs - Bihar, bus (to Lahore) and Budget - have been a great source of sustenance for it and the new Opposition offensive is only a sign of desperation.

Bihar was a fiasco. I do not think anybody in the BJP wants to remember Bihar. It is a classic example of the mala fide intentions of the BJP and its incapacity to adopt a viable strategic course in politics. But talking of Bs, what about (M.K.) Bezboruah, the former chief of the Enforcement Directorate, who was transferred, recalled and then transferred again? What about their budget rollbacks? What about (Governor Sundar Singh) Bhandari? Broadcasting? They are going against the broadcasting policy outlined in the BJP manifesto and in the National Agenda for Governance.

Speaking of Bs, there is also the issue of Admiral Bhagwat.

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True, the Government has not been able to convince the country about the reasons for his dismissal. It has not been able to convince the retired Service chiefs about this unprecedented decision. That is another example of the monumental ineptitude of the BJP-led Government. They described a serving navy chief as a security risk. And Admiral Bhagwat in turn has levelled many allegations against the Government, which they have been unable to explain. Why should the Government be afraid of an inquiry by a Joint Parliamentary Committee? The more it resists the demand for a JPC inquiry, the more it gives the impression that it has a lot to hide.

Is the Mohan Guruswamy controversy still live?

Mohan Guruswamy has levelled many allegations, not one of which has been satisfactorily dealt with. In the Lok Sabha the matter was partly discussed. It is now spilling over into the second part of the session. It continues to hang fire.

The BJP had two claims to political eminence when it sought to assume office - its special attention to national security and to probity in public life. How do you see these two planks now?

The retired military personnel who were drawn to the BJP before it came to power have been greatly disappointed by the Government's handling of l'affaire Vishnu Bhagwat. The Achilles' heel of the Vajpayee Government is its administration. Advani himself admitted a few months ago that it had been unable to fulfil the expectations because of lack of experience.

How do you now see the emerging pattern of political engagement? Will it be the BJP versus the Congress(I) with the Third Force being an appendage of the Congress(I) or will the Third Force seek an autonomous space?

The Third Force will remain autonomous. The fact remains that the Congress(I) is not a relevant factor in four large States - U.P., Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal - which together account for about 220 Lok Sabha seats. There is no way that any single party can come to power within the framework of the 12th Lok Sabha or through a fresh round of elections. I am not contending that coalitions will be there for ever. But the country is passing through a fairly protracted coalition phase. It will be strategically correct for everybody to reconcile himself or herself to this ground reality.

An RSS action plan

The RSS national executive fixes a time-frame to revive aggressive mobilisation to advance the Hindutva agenda; it also appears to be planning moves to replace A.B. Vajpayee as Prime Minister.

A WEEK before the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Government began its first anniversary celebrations, the Akhil Bharatiya Prathinidhi Sabha (national executive) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) met in Lucknow to deliberate on the questions of ideology and organisation that confront the Hindutva combine at present. The Prathinidhi Sabha, an important supervisory body of the Sangh Parivar, unfolded a three-pronged action plan: a movement against the conversion of Hindus to other religions, especially Christianity; and agitation against Western-oriented economic liberalisation policies, which militate against swadeshi economics; and moves to revive the Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura temple agitations.

K.S. Sudershan, joint general secretary of the RSS, said that the first two items on the agenda would get top priority in the near future; however, he could not say what "near future" meant. Sources in the RSS maintain that the programmes will be launched after three months.

These decisions that can possibly have a far-reaching impact on the future of the Government. However, according to Sangh Parivar insiders, the most interesting discussions revolved around the personality conflicts in the Government, particularly the conflict between Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Home Minister L.K. Advani.

In a sense, the outcome of the Lucknow meet was a reiteration of the ideological and policy thrusts identified by RSS sarsanghachalak Rajendra Singh at the Chinthan Baithak (introspection meet) held in Nagpur in December 1998. Rajendra Singh could not attend the three-day Prathinidhi Sabha that began on March 11 owing to ill-health, but the meeting continued the "churning process" initiated by him. The Nagpur meet, which was attended by all constituents of the Sangh Parivar, was followed by separate conclaves of its wings, including the BJP, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) and the Bajrang Dal. The basic objective of these meetings was to find ways and means to overcome the political and organisational reverses suffered by the Sangh Parivar under the Vajpayee Government, especially the defeat in the November Assembly elections in some States.

The VHP and the Bajrang Dal had at their meetings identified the rise of elements owing allegiance to alien philosophies as the root cause of the problems facing the country. They asserted that the country could be saved only by throwing these forces out. Such forces included "Christian and Muslim missionaries who were converting innocent Hindus, the so-called secular leaders of Opposition parties who supported conversions, particularly those like Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, who herself was a Christian, and alien economic precepts like the policy of liberalisation."

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While these political and social factors were publicly enunciated, there was an unpublicised sub-text. That, according to Sangh Parivar activists, involved an attempt to replace Vajpayee with a candidate who is more amenable to the implementation of a certain agenda. This became obvious from Sudershan's statement at the Chinthan Baithak on the ill-effects of liberalisation and his criticism of the Government for succumbing to pressures from international financial agencies, and the projection - sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle - that the Prime Minister and his supporters, and not the entire Ministry, were responsible for the aberrations. Recent statements by Dattopant Thengdi, leader of the RSS and the BMS, on the Insurance Regulatory Authority Bill and other policy matters of the Government carried personal attacks against the Prime Minister.

According to a senior VHP activist from Uttar Pradesh, sections of the Sangh Parivar had expressed the opinion at the Chinthan Baithak that the personality tussle in the BJP at the top level would be settled in a manner that was most suitable to the Sangh Parivar leadership before the Budget session. Many RSS activists believed that the top brass would face the Prathinidhi Sabha with a "positive outcome". However, events between December and February belied their expectation.

SEVERAL participants of the Prathinidhi Sabha meeting felt that the decision to go for the agitational mode over conversions and economic liberalisation as well as the setting of a three-month time-frame for such action was significant. One of them told Frontline: "There was a pointedly critical reference to Vajpayee's wishy-washy attitude on conversions, including the statement that he did not think that forced conversions took place in the country." Although Vajpayee's call for a national debate on conversions was applauded (RSS general secretary H.V. Seshadri even echoed Vajpayee's call for thrashing out the issue), the general tone of the discussions was that he was not doing enough to advance the interests of Hindutva.

A bureaucrat close to the Prime Minister said that "the revised time-frame is an admission by the anti-Vajpayee campaigners of a setback that they suffered, as they had expected to finish the job by February." Sources in the RSS say that Vajpayee fought the moves on expected lines: he rallied round the BJP's allies - the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Trinamul Congress, the Lok Sakthi and the Telugu Desam - by granting them their demands. "All that was expected. But the unexpected stroke was the bus journey to Lahore, which seemed to have generated a lot of goodwill and popular appeal for the Prime Minister," an aide of Sudershan said.

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The overall assessment at the Prathinidhi Sabha was that Vajpayee had emerged more powerful since December at least within the ruling coalition. The RSS is cautious against making a move against him now. That is why Sudershan talked about an agitation after three months, a pro-Vajpayee Minister in the Uttar Pradesh Government told Frontline.

The Prathinidhi Sabha discussions apparently reflected the well-known differences of opinion over who should succeed Vajpayee. While, Thengdi and H.V. Seshadri prefer Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, for leaders such as Rajendra Singh Advani is the natural choice. Advani continues to be the front-runner for a variety of reasons: he enjoys the confidence of a large number of RSS leaders, has a better mass appeal than Joshi, has the ability to please both the moderate and hardline sections of the BJP.

Meanwhile, Vajpayee's supporters have gone on the offensive. Even as the session was in progress, AIADMK leader Jayalalitha deplored Advani as an associate of Islamic fundamentalists. The provocation for this statement was apparently the withdrawal of the provisions of the National Security Act against Abdul Nasar Mahdani, in jail for his alleged links with the Coimbatore blasts. Clearly, Jayalalitha was sending a message across to the RSS, and the timing and content of her statement have not been lost on the organisation's top brass. This, and the oft-repeated statements by leaders of the Trinamul Congress, the Lok Sakthi and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), indicate that they are more than keen to take up cudgels for Vajpayee. The situation will be clearer three months from now.

In search of direction

The Congress(I)'s recent responses to political developments and its manner of managing internal affairs show it up as a party that is largely undecided on which way to go, despite the flashes of combative spirit it has exhibited.

BEARING flowers and singing paeans, Congress(I) leaders queued up to pay obeisance to party president Sonia Gandhi at 10 Janpath on March 14. In this season of "first anniversaries", even as the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government was preparing to celebrate what can only be called a year of precarious existence, the Congress(I) indulged itself in its own little festivity to mark the completion of a year with Sonia Gandhi at its helm. And, characteristically, much of the proceedings were given over to eulogising the supreme leader for the many miracles she had supposedly performed. A "congratulatory statement" released on the occasion claimed that "Soniaji has transformed the party into a dynamic force" and that "those who branded (her) an outsider have themselves become outsiders before the people." On March 16, at a "celebration" dinner hosted by Congress(I) Parliamentary Party (CPP) secretary T. Subbirama Reddy, another round of felicitations were offered to Sonia Gandhi for having "revived the organisation from political morass".

The celebrations doubtless served another purpose: they unambiguously demonstrated Sonia Gandhi's hold on the party. However, the political signals that came from the party during this period showed it up to be somewhat circumspect. Both in its public posture, most visibly in its interactions with the BJP-led coalition Government and with other Opposition parties, and in its management of internal affairs, clarity of purpose was absent. In fact, in the context of the political stand adopted by the party on one or two issues and the effects thereof, some sections within the party even made bold to question Sonia Gandhi's leadership qualities.

Overtly, during the Budget session of Parliament, the Congress(I) appeared ready to take a more aggressive position against the Government by joining hands with secular Opposition parties on, for instance, the controversies relating to the dismissal of Chief of the Navy Staff Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and the exit of Mohan Guruswamy as adviser to Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. A united Opposition offensive, starting with the demand on March 16 for an inquiry by a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) into Bhagwat's dismissal, led to a situation where both Houses of Parliament could not function.

On Bihar too, the Congress(I) continued to adopt an anti-BJP stance - as reflected in its earlier decision to oppose parliamentary ratification to the imposition of President's Rule - by abstaining during the vote of confidence sought in the Bihar Assembly by the reinstated Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) Government on March 17. This seemed to offer further evidence that the Congress(I) considered fighting the BJP as one of its primary tasks.

However, after the massacre on March 18 of 35 Bhumihars in Senari village in Jehanabad district of Bihar by activists of the banned Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), the Congress(I) appeared to be thrown off balance. The party perhaps felt compelled to adopt a strong anti-RJD stand; Sharad Pawar, leader of the party in the Lok Sabha, issued a statement calling for the resignation of Chief Minister Rabri Devi.

This flip-flop was of a piece with the party's stand in relation to specific issues over the past few months when, despite unequivocal expressions of support from secular parties, it has seemed overly reluctant to make any moves to pull down the A.B. Vajpayee Government and facilitate the coming to power of a secular formation.

IN respect of inner-party affairs too, the Congress(I)'s position has been characterised by extreme indecisiveness and this has had the effect of sending out confusing signals. The most recent manifestation of this was the Congress(I) Working Committee's (CWC) move to dilute the import of the "momentous" declaration made by the party at its Pachmarhi camp in September 1998. The declaration related to the proposal to reserve 33 per cent of party posts for women and 20 per cent for the Scheduled Castes, the Schedule Tribes and minorities. Further, it sought to ban the return to the Congress(I) of "defectors and opportunists"; in exceptional cases, if they were to be readmitted, it would only be after a "considerably long waiting period", the declaration held. It also called for planning and implementing radical programmes for the eradication of social evils and economic backwardness.

These were touted as "policy declarations" and the Congress(I) made claims to the moral high ground, but now the CWC has diluted the status of the declaration by stating that it is only a "reference document". As a result, these proposals will now be put on hold.

According to many CWC members, there was a felt need to allow the return of a large number of former Congress(I) leaders who sought re-entry and this forced the leadership to dilute the Pachmarhi declaration. Many senior leaders felt that the conditions for re-entry should be relaxed at least for a while in order to facilitate the return of those who sought it. "And," added a CWC member, "Soniaji was going along with them." Another reason for the dilution was the perceived need to accommodate the interests of the backward classes in the matter of reservation of party posts, in much the same way that provision had been made for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the minorities. Leaders such as Meira Kumar and Madhavsinh Solanki felt that the Pachmarhi declaration did not address this issue.

P. Shiv Shankar, deputy leader of the Congress(I) in the Lok Sabha, told Frontline that the change in the status of the Pachmarhi declaration was only a temporary shift made in the interests of tempering political idealism with a measure of pragmatism. "We know that the best thing is to follow the idealistic proposals given by the Pachmarhi declaration," he said. "But while tackling day-to-day political matters one needs to mix idealism with pragmatism." And this, in his view, is what the CWC has done.

However, not everyone in the party is swayed by this argument. According to several middle-level leaders from North India who are close to Uttar Pradesh Congress(I) president Salman Khurshid and CWC member Arjun Singh, the so-called pragmatic approach had first been invoked when the party decided to oppose the ratification of President's Rule in Bihar, and from then on, they said, Sonia Gandhi had made one mistake after another. In fact, Khurshid and some others had argued - before the party decided to oppose the imposition of President's Rule - that it would be wrong for the Congress(I) to do so, especially since Sonia Gandhi had said, immediately after the Narayanpur massacre on February 10, that the RJD Government had lost the moral authority to rule. They said that the party should take on forces like the RJD even at the risk of being seen in the same camp as the BJP.

"The overall effect of the decision (to oppose the imposition of President's Rule) is negative," said a leader from U.P. According to him, it conveyed the impression that Sonia Gandhi was not overly interested in the revival of the party in North Indian States such as Bihar. The decision, he added, had generated hope among Congress(I) activists that the party was about to topple the Vajpayee Government and come to power at the Centre, "especially as it was preceded by Sonia Gandhi's message in the journal of the All India Congress(I) Committee (AICC) that the challenges in the New Year would be of a different nature and that the country's responsibilities would fall on the Congress(I) sooner than later. This promise too did not materialise." So, both ways, the leader pointed out, the decision was a failure.

According to this section, Sonia Gandhi's flip-flop on the Bihar issue was in direct contrast to her focussed efforts to rebuild the party ahead of the Assembly elections in a few States in November 1998. A senior leader said: "Remember, it was the steadfast refusal to fall for the temptation of putting together some sort of a secular coalition to pull down the BJP-led coalition Government and form a hotch-potch alternative that paid handsome dividends in the Assembly polls." Sections of the Congress(I) in Uttar Pradesh, who were on a high after the Chintan Manthan Shibir (brainstorming session) organised by the State unit at Hardwar between February 8 and 10, where the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the RJD were criticised, view the Congress(I) line on Bihar as a mistake.

Echoing these views, Khurshid and some others have repeatedly demanded that the Congress(I) withdraw support to the RJD Government at the first opportunity and chalk out its own political path at the earliest. But a section of leaders in the Bihar unit of the Congress(I), who are seen to be close to former party president Sitaram Kesri, oppose this line. Their contention is that the RJD is required as a buffer before the Congress(I) can build up its organisational base, which now stands decimated, in the State.

Leaders such as Shiv Shankar believe, however, that pragmatism will pay. According to them, the Congress(I) is capable of using its unique position as a party on the path of revival to create politically embarrassing situations for the BJP as well as secular forces. This, they say, is what the Congress(I) decision on Bihar has proved. "It has shown that we can upset the Centre's plans even while forcing parties like the RJD to change their ways," a senior party leader told Frontline. In his opinion, the promise made by reinstated Chief Minister Rabri Devi and RJD leader Laloo Prasad Yadav that they would endeavour to protect the interests of Dalits and implement land reforms was made only under Congress(I) pressure. "Ultimately, we might even force the RJD to change the Chief Minister. That would give us greater legitimacy before the people and time to rebuild the party," a former CWC member from Bihar said.

According to another senior leader, Bihar and some other matters had had the effect of upsetting the schedule set by Sonia Gandhi for the Congress(I) to capture power at the Centre. According to this leader, left to herself Sonia Gandhi would have brought down the BJP-led Government in March, after the passage of the Budget, and enabled an interim government to be formed. "She would have wanted to build up the party organisation for the Lok Sabha elections during the October-December period." But the imposition of President's Rule in Bihar and related developments upset this schedule. It hustled Sonia Gandhi to take an antagonistic stand vis-a-vis the Central Government at a much earlier date - in February itself - and she was not able to carry this decision to its logical conclusion and bring down the Government.

In the light of recent political developments, Sonia Gandhi apparently has a revised schedule. According to sources in the Congress(I), this involves another waiting period to capture power at the Centre and primary attention to States where Assembly elections are due by the end of the year. This will mean that the Vajpayee Government might have a smooth run until the beginning of next year, notwithstanding the show of aggression by the Congress(I) in the current session of Parliament. But, as many leaders in the Congress(I) themselves point out, things could take an unexpected, positive turn just as the Bihar developments upset Sonia Gandhi's earlier plans.

'Idealism has to be mixed with pragmatism'

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P. Shiv Shankar, deputy leader of the Congress(I) in the Lok Sabha, is considered to be one of party president Sonia Gandhi's most trusted lieutenants. He is known to have had a role in shaping the policy and organisational initiatives undertaken by the Congress(I) in recent times. In an interview to Venkitesh Ramakrishnan, he evaluates the impact that Sonia Gandhi has had on national politics and on the party organisation during her first year as Congress(I) president. Excerpts:

A year after Sonia Gandhi took over as Congress(I) president, how would you evaulate her contribution to the party organisation and her impact on national politics?

In the 1996 Lok Sabha elections the Congress(I) won 139 seats. If Sonia Gandhi had not campaigned for the party ahead of the 1998 elections, our tally would have been very low... That was the kind of leadership we had. It was Soniaji's emergence that helped us get 140 seats. After taking over as president, she has given a great fillip to the organisation. She has imparted or brought back a sense of scruples and principles to Congress(I) politics, which many of our former leaders had forgotten. Not that these efforts have succeeded completely. But Soniaji has made a beginning. And, most important, she has integrated the party, and its functioning is much more cohesive now. The verdict in the Assembly elections in November 1998 pointed towards this new dynamism. If elections are held in the South Indian States now, the Congress(I) will win overwhelmingly. The nation now knows that there is a leader on whom it can rely.

But there have been suggestions, even from sections within the party, that Sonia Gandhi has bungled in respect of the Bihar situation and the follow-up to the proposals of the Pachmarhi conclave.

This criticism is totally misplaced. About Bihar, the leaders of the BJP and the Samata Party say that Soniaji misled them by initially saying that the RJD had lost its moral authority to rule and later opposing the imposition of President's Rule. There is no dichotomy here. When Soniaji said that the RJD had lost the moral authority to rule, it was not meant as a signal to the Centre to rush in and impose President's Rule. Instead, it was a warning to the RJD to change its leadership in the State and mend its ways.

As for the Pachmarhi proposals, one should understand that they visualise an ideal organisational situation. But in day-to-day politics, idealism has to be mixed with pragmatism. The Congress(I) Working Committee (CWC) realised that many of the proposals could not be implemented immediately. Take, for example, the proposal to reserve 33 per cent of party posts for women. It could not be implemented because we were not able to find enough women leaders who fit the bill. We are sure that we will reach the ideal situation in the future, but until that time idealism has to be mixed with pragmatism. That is why the CWC termed the Pachmarhi proposals as a reference document.

There is also the view that Sonia Gandhi has not really made any attempt to bring down the BJP-led Government.

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We have been playing the role of a constructive Opposition. The BJP asked for a fair chance to rule. And I suppose we have given it exactly that. But they are making a mess of it. Their attitude towards governance is making it more and more difficult for us not to play the role of a natural Opposition - that is, to oppose, chastise and ultimately depose the Government.

Is the Congress(I) getting ready to play this "ultimate role"? The increased level of cooperation with other Opposition parties during the Budget session of Parliament has given rise to this question.

The basic factor with regard to our relationship with the Government is that the parties in the ruling coalition, particularly the BJP, have shown a total lack of governing skills. They talk all the time about consensus, but never call Opposition parties for any discussion on important matters. Take Prasar Bharati, for instance: they did not bring it to the Rajya Sabha, where it cannot be passed without the Opposition's help. The resolution to ratify President's Rule in Bihar was passed in the Lok Sabha but not brought to the Rajya Sabha. They just want to play around with Parliament and the country and make political gains. This approach has brought great harm to the country.

But the Congress(I) has time and again bailed out the Government, especially on economic policy issues such as the Patents Bill.

It is true that the Congress(I) has supported the Government on important economic policy issues. But the problem with the Government is that even here it does not have any cohesion. While one section of the BJP supports economic liberalisation, another section opposes it in the name of swadeshi. What sort of governance is this? I do not think that the country can put up with this for long.

The Admiral Bhagwat challenge

The Ministry of Defence has led a sustained campaign of attrition against Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, but the specific charges against him have been found to be of dubious value when examined against documentary record.

SINCE he was removed from his command by an abrupt and unceremonious withdrawal of "presidential pleasure", the case of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, former Chief of the Naval Staff, has been contested through a sustained campaign of attrition in the media. Specific charges against the Admiral were found to be of dubious value when examined against the documentary record. And as his ramparts crumbled in the battle against the recalcitrant military commander, Defence Minister George Fernandes sought recourse to the enigmatic slogan of national security. Fernandes alleged that Admiral Bhagwat had endangered national security through some of his actions, but that he was not at liberty to reveal these for reasons which should be self-evident (Frontline January 29, 1999).

Yet it was not as if the invocation of this mantra was deemed sufficient to silence the vigorous challenge from Admiral Bhagwat. On February 22 and 23, stories appeared in a Delhi-based newspaper, alleging that Bhagwat had during his tenure as the Navy Chief brazenly violated norms of personnel policy in the Services. He had protected a senior officer dealing with the pivotal function of naval logistics, despite serious allegations of financial malfeasance against him. And he had also "tampered" with the annual confidential reports (ACRs) of officers he was not favourably disposed towards.

These stories, evidently based on high-level leaks from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), were transparent in their intent. After several weeks of seclusion, Admiral Bhagwat had broken his silence on the circumstances of his dismissal at a meeting with the media in Delhi on February 22 (Frontline March 12, 1999). The stories which appeared on that and the following day were an obvious effort to influence public opinion to his disadvantage. The MoD then moved swiftly to capitalise on the supposed strategic advantage it had gained, by referring the newspaper's charges against Bhagwat to Naval Headquarters (NHQ) for a clarification.

On March 18, with both Houses of Parliament in a state of agitation over the Government's handling of the affair, Fernandes was called upon to answer a question dealing with these specific allegations. His response to unstarred question 3358 in the Lok Sabha left little room for ambiguity: "It has been brought to the notice of the Government that ex-CNS (Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat) had tampered with the ACR of an officer by crossing out the report of a previous CNS (Admiral V.S. Shekhawat), and superimposing his own adverse remarks. It is unprecedented for a CNS to alter the assessment report by a previous CNS." Ominously, Fernandes concluded with the assurance that the matter was "being examined."

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Unfortunately for the Defence Minister, Bhagwat seemed to have lost little of his combative instincts after his dismissal from the armed forces. In response to a query from Frontline put on record his version of the event in question:

"The correct factual position is that as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief Western Naval Command, I had made a particular assessment of an officer commanding a sea-going ship. The then Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral V.S. Shekhawat, felt that the particular officer merited a higher grading, and discussed that particular report with me during one of my visits to Delhi. I stated to Admiral Shekhawat that this was my assessment based on my observations of the officer's performance at sea during exercises. I had no reason to change my assessment. However, Admiral Shekhawat, apart from making his endorsement, also wrote that he had consulted with me and I was agreeable to modifying my assessment. This was contrary to facts. However, the Chief of the Naval Staff as the senior reviewing officer has the prerogative to override the initiating and reviewing officers' reports, which he did.

"This report remains intact as per the endorsement of Admiral Shekhawat, without any change whatsoever. The Minister, in his reply to the question on this matter, has therefore misled Parliament."

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Documents in the possession of Frontline indicate that NHQ had sent a detailed set of responses to the MoD's queries on the alleged irregularities. On the generalised complaint of meddling with ACRs, the position of NHQ was very clear. Seven officers, ranging in rank from Vice-Admiral to Lieutenant-Commander, had expressed "anxieties" about the handling of their ACRs by the former Chief of the Naval Staff. A committee of senior naval personnel had gone through the records on their request and concluded that the reviews done by Bhagwat were "as per regulations" and did not indicate any "mala fide intentions".

As for the more specific case of allegedly "scratching out" an ACR written by Shekhawat, the response of NHQ was unequivocal: "As far as Naval Headquarters is aware, there was difference of perception between Admiral V.S. Shekhawat and the ex-CNS regarding the performance assessment of Cmde (Commodore) R.F. Contractor. The ex-CNS recorded his disagreement with Admiral Shekhawat, on the officer's ACR, stating that this issue has not been discussed with him, without giving any numerical grading to the officer's performance. Hence the gradings and performance of Admiral Shekhawat stand."

Sources contacted by Frontline confirmed that this is routine procedure. Performance reviews in the armed forces are an ongoing process. If errors are detected in an earlier assessment, the reviewing officer is at liberty to record these, normally by pasting a sticker over the ACR. These stickers are meant for the personnel section of the service headquarters and do not amount to a substantive change in assessment. In this sense, they do not normally enter into consideration when decisions on the career progression of the officer are made.

Clearly, there is a gulf which separates this reality from the portrayal of dark deeds that Fernandes provided Parliament. There has been no "tampering", nor has there been any "crossing out" or "superimposition" of adverse remarks. What has been recorded is a plain matter of fact - that Shekhawat as the senior reviewing officer had overruled Bhagwat and this difference of opinion, to the extent that it was of material circumstance, was not reflected in the records. If the Defence Minister has drawn his inferences from sources other than NHQ, then these remain unspecified. If he has wilfully misrepresented the factual position as obtained from NHQ, then he clearly owes Parliament an explanation.

Fernandes' most recent exertions cap a consistent record of evasion and obfuscation. Ever since he administered his infamous final solution to the problem of Vishnu Bhagwat on December 30, he has specialised in the art of manoeuvre. Rather than frontally take on the serious dimensions of the matter, he has chosen to run a campaign of selective leaks and disinformation through faithful proxies in the media. These efforts gained in ardour when Parliament convened for its Budget session. The Defence Minister obtained a temporary reprieve on account of initial political preoccupations with the situation in Bihar. Once that matter was dealt with, he has worked strenuously behind the scenes, sparing no threat or blandishment to avoid the basic norms of accountability to Parliament.

On March 4, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee called in leaders of all the major parties in the Rajya Sabha to explain why a debate on the Bhagwat issue was inadvisable. Although he initiated the discussion, Vajpayee only sat by in silent solidarity as Fernandes reportedly read out select extracts from confidential files. Parliamentarians were not given the privilege of examining the documents themselves on grounds of their sensitivity.

The purpose of this intervention from Fernandes was to provide the MPs with a hint of the grave national interests that were supposedly threatened by Bhagwat. Specific citations were read out from files pertaining to Operation Leach, a campaign launched in 1998 by all three wings of the armed services to curtail the flourishing traffic in illicit arms through the Andamans Sea. The campaign had yielded notable results, but one of the operations - in May 1998 - had resulted in six casualties. Elliptically, Fernandes sought to suggest at his meeting with the MPs that innocent civilians had been killed in the tri-service operation, warranting a thorough inquest into the conduct of the armed forces. But Admiral Bhagwat, he claimed, had blocked this perfectly reasonable demand.

Suggestions were also thrown out that the operation in the Andamans Sea endangered a sensitive intelligence operation. But the MPs were unconvinced. Fernandes' gambit had failed - few people were prepared to concede that his unprecedented dismissal of a military chief merited the waiver of parliamentary scrutiny on grounds of national security.

The Government remained unyielding for a while. When Parliament met shortly afterwards, Vajpayee came up with the caustic remark that having exhausted its ammunition on Bihar, the Opposition was now reciting the "Bhagwat purana" to sustain its flagging morale. That only served to deepen the sense of agitation. As the prospect of a paralysis of parliamentary business loomed, a more generous-sounding offer was made from the Government side: the presiding officers of the two Houses would constitute an informal committee drawn from both the Treasury and Opposition benches, to examine the relevant material and determine whether a debate would be appropriate.

This formula seemed for a brief while to enjoy unanimous assent, encouraging Parliamentary Affairs Minister Rangarajan Kumaramangalam to announce the composition of the committee. This was by all accounts a unilateral move, devoid of any prior consultations. Needless to say, the confidence of the Opposition in the efficacy of the proposed mechanism plunged, on account both of the procedure adopted and the composition of the committee. For instance, former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar was designated the convener of the group, though he was by his own avowals in Parliament opposed to a debate. Others such as former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral and Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav too had made no secret of their aversion to a discussion on the matter. Perhaps most damagingly, Fernandes himself figured on the committee though his conduct was supposedly under its direct scrutiny.

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Within the Congress(I), Sharad Pawar seemed inclined to give the committee a chance to function, though his view was not shared by any other leader of substance. Somnath Chatterji of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) and Indrajit Gupta of the Communist Party of India (CPI) - both nominated to be on the committee - remained non-committal about their participation in its deliberations. A debate was unavoidable, they pointed out. What the committee could at most do was set down the parameters that both Houses should follow, to avoid any unseemly intrusions into matters of national security.

By March 15, the committee proposal was in tatters. The following day, Congress(I) MP Rajesh Pilot raised the matter in the Lok Sabha, claiming knowledge of an affidavit that the former Navy Chief had filed which pointed to certain gross abuses of power by the Defence Minister. His party colleague Suresh Pachauri was concurrently pressing for a decision on his notice for a discussion in the Rajya Sabha.

The tide had by now begun to shift. In an ostentatious show of outrage on March 17, Fernandes dismissed the Bhagwat affidavit as a scurrilous and self-serving document. Speaking at a meeting of the informal committee that morning, he accepted the demand for a discussion in both Houses. The parameters of the debate, he said, could be set by the inherent sense of restraint of the members.

Fernandes convinced nobody with his new-found spirit of candour and transparency. The Opposition was insistent that the discussion should not be routine or cursory in nature, leaving all its key concerns unassuaged. Rather, it should entail a vote in both Houses of Parliament on the conduct of the Government. It was willing to relent in the case of the Lok Sabha, since the slender majority of the Government had just been put to test and found to hold in the matter of Bihar. But there was no way that it would be similarly accommodative in the Rajya Sabha.

After days of acrimony, Parliament went into its mid-session recess on March 19 with the matter yet to be resolved. The Lok Sabha is scheduled to discuss the Bhagwat matter on April 12. The Rajya Sabha is yet to agree on the date for its debate, or the rules of procedure under which it will be conducted.

THE parliamentary recess provided the occasion for a fresh offensive from the MoD. An official release was conjured up from the Press Information Bureau which virtually echoed the Defence Minister's reply to the parliamentary question on tampered ACRs. It claimed the endorsement of NHQ for the Minister's stand, though this seemed clearly to be at variance with the facts as revealed by the detailed communication from NHQ sent to the MoD just days prior (A copy of the 14-page communication is in the possession of Frontline). Seeking to draw the naval command hierarchy further into complicity, the official release of March 20 claimed that NHQ was studying the legal implications of Bhagwat's supposed actions, with a view to initiating necessary punitive action against him.

The case of Commodore Contractor had also figured in the Redressal of Grievance petition that Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh filed in March 1998, initiating the cycle of events that was to culminate in Bhagwat's dismissal. Harinder Singh had then avowed quite categorically that Bhagwat had confirmed both to him and the then Chief of Personnel in NHQ, Vice-Admiral Sushil Kumar, that he was in concurrence with Shekhawat's opinion and had no reservations about the altered gradings. Today, a committee of senior naval officers appointed by Admiral Sushil Kumar - who rose to the position of the Chief of the Naval Staff in the wake of Admiral Bhagwat's ouster - has recorded that there was indeed a difference of perception that was not adequately reflected in the official record. If the incumbent Chief of the Naval Staff has any recollection of the event, he has chosen not to express them.

There are broad areas of concord between the allegations that Harinder Singh chose to level against Bhagwat beginning in March last year, and the MoD's current offensive against the former Chief of the Naval Staff. This lends credence to the view that Harinder Singh was designated specifically as the instrument of a particular agenda against the command hierarchy in the Navy. He levelled the most scurrilous charges against his Service Chief seemingly without fear of reprimand. The notice he was issued to show cause why he should not be subject to disciplinary action remained unanswered. Rather, he was encouraged to approach the judiciary for quashing the notice. And when this attempt failed, his patrons stepped in to retrieve the situation - assuring the court that the matter would be handled directly by the MoD rather than NHQ.

Harinder Singh's appointment as the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff on December 9 accelerated the pace of events, leading finally to Bhagwat's removal. Significantly, one of Sushil Kumar's first public statements after taking over as the Chief of the Naval Staff was that this appointment would be reviewed. But the MoD was averse to any such process, since that would effectively have meant an admission of wrongdoing. With Fernandes having successfully converted the matter into one involving the very prestige of the Government, Harinder Singh finally took over as the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff on March 15.

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The DefenceMinister's answer to unstarred Question No. 3358 in the Lok Sabha on March 18 raises a host of questions.

WHEN Parliament resumes on April 12, the Opposition is likely to deploy another big gun in its battle. Bhagwat's sworn affidavit, which was obliquely hinted at on occasion, is known to be in the possession of a Congress(I) member of the Rajya Sabha. If this is tabled in the House, it would impart a new dimension to the debate on the dismissal of the former Chief of the Naval Staff.

It is known from the affidavit, for instance, that Bhagwat had not thought Harinder Singh fit for appointment to a senior position in NHQ for a variety of reasons. Aside from sharing links with arms dealers and being absent from command during Operation Leach, he had only earned the "outstanding" grading for a cumulative period of 16 months in a 36-year career. By contrast, Bhagwat's own choice for the position of the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice-Admiral Madanjit Singh, had a consistent record of earning this grade. It is a mystery why his appointment, sent up for Cabinet approval in June 1998, was not cleared - inscrutable unless it is viewed as part of an elaborate strategy centred on Harinder Singh.

The affidavit makes a forceful claim for unravelling this mystery. The facts that were placed before the Appointments Committee of Cabinet, says Bhagwat, are not known: "What kind of documentation was prepared and what selective material was put forward and what withheld, is a matter which can only be answered by looking at the official records. As the former CNS, I can say with some authority that in normal circumstances an officer who has the kind of record (as Harinder Singh) ... would not have been even considered for appointment as DCNS. The issue is not whether certain officers have moved a court of law. The issue is institutional. The issue relates to the integrity of the armed forces. The issue relates to its politicisation."

Contrary to the Defence Minister's claim at his in camera meeting with members of the Rajya Sabha, Bhagwat states in his affidavit that he had few reservations about the need for a civil inquest into the conduct of Operation Leach. Rather, all that he indicated, with the endorsement of the other defence chiefs, was that the Service personnel called upon to provide evidence in the case should be given the protection that was their due. This was in accordance with the precedent established in the case of m.v. Ahat, the ship that was interdicted on the high seas by the Indian Navy in 1994 and was later found to be ferrying the Tamil Tiger Kittu. Several casualties were incurred in that incident and in October 1998 Bhagwat insisted that the procedures followed then for recording the testimony of the armed forces personnel should be followed in the inquest into Operation Leach. At this, he records, "the Defence Minister appeared to be very upset and wanted expeditious completion of court proceedings in respect of the accused persons on trial."

THE motivations of the Defence Minister, as also of the MoD, remain opaque. But these revelations come as part of a sequence of damaging reports about the conduct of the Ministry in relation to Operation Leach. There was first an effort to restrain the armed forces and to impose on them the condition that they obtain the prior clearance of the Ministry before initiating their combing operations. When the Service chiefs unanimously turned down this condition on grounds both of legality and operational viability, the MoD sought to contain their activities within the country's Exclusive Economic Zone, again with no obvious rationale.

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Various suspicions have been floated in the last two months, without the slightest effort at explanation from the MoD. Bhagwat's affidavit now threatens to ratchet up the intensity of the challenge. It crystallises a series of responses to the grounds that Fernandes has adduced since December 30 to justify the dismissal of the Chief of the Naval Staff.

It is a basic principle of natural justice that no individual can be convicted on the basis of evidence that he is unaware of. In the three months since his ouster, Bhagwat, and indeed the nation, have been at a loss to comprehend the reasons behind the unprecedented action. In the vacuum of reason that the MoD and the Minister in particular have created, Bhagwat has intervened with a special vigour. He has been blunt, as a soldier or a sailor is apt to be. And he has been forceful to the point of being considered '' tactless'', as a man seeking to vindicate his honour is entitled to be. But the points he makes raise serious questions about the management of the national security apparatus.

There seems no realistic option now but a thorough and impartial inquiry in the appropriate forum - whether parliamentary or judicial. Stonewalling on grounds of national security will simply not carry any further credibility. The recent actions of the Defence Minister show how easy it is for low intrigue to flourish behind a camouflage of national interest.

Point-Counterpoint: Responses from NHQ

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The Pioneer newspaper in Delhi carried reports on February 22 and 23 which made out charges of serious wrongdoing against the former Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. The origin of the story and its authenticity were always uncertain since no other news organisation had thought it appropriate to devote space to it. It has since transpired that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had referred the stories to Naval Headquarters (NHQ) for a response.

Frontline has in its possession the detailed 14-page response sent by NHQ on the request of the MoD. The contrast between the wild nature of the allegations and the sobriety of the responses from NHQ is seen as a telling comment on the nature of the war of innuendo under way between the MoD and Service headquarters.

Further insights into this alarming breakdown of civility come from the Defence Minister's evident misrepresentation on the floor of Parliament of information received from NHQ and his effort to make out a case against the former CNS for allegedly tampering with the annual confidential reports of senior naval personnel. Frontline reproduces in facsimile, in the public interest, key sections of NHQ's response to the MoD reference.

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A key appointment under a cloud

The basis on which Dr. S.P. Agarwal was chosen to the post of Director-General of Health Services two years ago comes under question.

ALMOST two years after Dr.S.P. Agarwal was appointed Director-General of Health Services under the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the appointment has come under a cloud. There have been allegations regarding the Annual Confidential Reports (ACR) based on which the appointment was made on April 10, 1997, and certain documents have been made available to Frontline in support of these allegations.

One of the most relevant documents that have evidentiary value is a copy of a letter written by Dr.Narendra Bihari, former Additional DGHS, to the then Health Secretary, P.P. Chauhan, admitting that he had prepared the ACRs pertaining to Agarwal for four years (1988-89 to 1991-92) on one particular date on the instructions of the then DGHS, Dr G.K. Vishwakarma, who signed them as the reviewing officer. This, according to Bihari, was done in the presence of Agarwal himself. Although the letter was sent to the Health Secretary in July-August 1996, no action has been initiated either against Bihari or any other official concerned.

In his hand-written letter to Chauhan, dated July 22, 1996 and marked 'Confidential', Bihari said that the ACRs had not been written year-wise. Bihari wrote: "I was called along with Dr.S.P. Agarwal by the then DGHS and asked to report his ACRs for the above years 'Outstanding', which were reviewed in front of me by Dr. G.K. Vishwakarma." Bihari added that he was not the reporting officer during that period as he was of the same rank as Agarwal and that the ACR should have been written by the DGHS and reviewed by the Health Secretary. The letter said that "necessary action as deemed fit" could be taken.

The fact that these ACRs were not written at the end of the relevant years is borne out by Bihari's official seal, which shows him to be on a pay scale of Rs.7,300-Rs.7,600, for which he was made eligible only by a Government Order dated November 11, 1991. (The ACR for 1988-89 also carries this seal.) Similarly, Vishwakarma could not have reviewed them before this date. The dates mentioned in Vishwakarma's remarks as reviewing officer are June 10, 1990 for 1989-90 and May 25, 1991 for 1990-91, both dates prior to the date on which Bihari could have written the ACRs.

According to another document, on September 11, 1990, Vishwakarma recorded a note saying that as he was not in office during 1989-90 for more than eight months, he had sought the opinion of the Director, Vigilance on the appropriateness of his reviewing the confidential reports concerned. This indicates that by September 11, 1990, he had not reviewed the ACRs of any officer for the year 1989-90 since he doubted his competence to do so. The question, therefore, is whether his remarks as a reviewing officer for Agarwal for 1989-90, with the date of the review being shown as June 6, 1990, will not amount to falsification.

In Bihari's case, apparently after the receipt of his letter of July 22, 1996, the Health Ministry seems to have looked into the matter and decided to "paper over" his remarks as the reporting officer for the year 1990-91. A note from C.L.Bhatia, Under Secretary to the Government of India, dated September 26, 1996, states: "Since Medical Superintendent, Dr.Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, was not the prescribed reporting authority during 1990-91 in respect of Dr. Agarwal, the remarks made by him in his capacity as the reporting officer has been papered over and the remarks of DGHS allowed to stand."

Yet, Agarwal was appointed Director-General on the basis of these ACRs. Moreover, Vishwakarma, the then DGHS, marked the grade 'Outstanding' on the ACRs for the four years. Prashant Bhushan, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court, and member of the Centre of Public Interest Litigation, alleges that Agarwal had participated in a conspiracy to falsify his own ACRs. He argues that it amounts to forgery under Sections 463 and 464 of the Indian Penal Code. The sections define forgery as the making of a document by a person with the intention of causing it to be believed that such document was made at a time at which he knows that it was not made or executed. The writing of four ACRs on one day and back-dating them to make them appear that they had been written year-wise amounted to forgery under Section 463 and 464 of the IPC, Prashant Bhushan says.

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Reproduced in facsimile, the reporting officer's assessment for the purposes of the Annual Confidential Report of Dr.S.P. Agarwal for 1989-90. The official seal of the reporting officer, Dr. Narendra Bihari, mentions his own pay scale as "Rs.7,300 to Rs.7,600", which indicates that the entry was not made at the end of the relevant year. (Below) The Government Order dated November 11, 1991 which fixes the pay scale of Bihari at Rs.7,300-100-7,600 plus a non-practising allowance (NPA) of Rs.1,000.

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The next lot of ACRs, for the years 1994-95 and 1995-96, also appears to have been prepared through a process similar to the one through which the other ACRs were prepared. The ACR for 1994-95 was written by Mukherjee and reviewed by M.S. Dayal on April 12, 1996 after the latter had retired as Health Secretary. Dayal's remarks were papered over on June 19, 1996 on the grounds that having retired, he was not competent to be a reviewing officer. The ACR for 1995-96 was in two parts, one for the period between April 1, 1995 and September 11, 1995 and the other for the period between September 12, 1995 and March 31, 1996. In the first part, Mukherjee is once again seen to have signed without giving a date as the reporting officer and the review by Dayal has been dated April 12, 1996. It was again papered over on July 19, 1996 on the grounds that a retired Health Secretary could not be the competent reviewing officer. Apparently the ACRs for these two years were prepared on or around April 12, 1996 although Dayal retired from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) on January 31, 1996. Despite this, he signed on the ACRs as reviewing officer.

That the ACR for the year 1994-95 was reported by Mukherjee only after March 20, 1996 is evident from a noting he made on a letter from the Joint Secretary, Ministry of Health, on the same date. The Joint Secretary's letter requests Mukherjee to "send the above ACRs duly reported, preferably within the next two or three days". The ACRs mentioned are those of Agarwal, Bihari and Dr.J.L. Srivastava, all Central Government Health Service officers. Mukherjee's handwritten note says that none of the ACRs was with the D-G's office. Hence it is contended that the ACR for 1994-95 was written only after March 20, 1996 and not in 1995. The second part of the ACR for the period between September 12 and March 31, 1996 was again written undated by Mukherjee and was not reviewed because the Health Secretary's post was vacant at that time.

It is alleged that a number of rules have been bent to appoint Agarwal to the post when there were two other contenders - Bihari, who was the ADGHS in 1994-95, and Srivastava, who was the Head of the Department of Burns and Plastic Surgery at Safdarjung Hospital, Delhi. It is alleged that while the competence of these officers could have been tested, more than one person in the Health Ministry went out of the way to ensure that Agarwal became the DGHS.

Although Frontline made repeated attempts to contact Agarwal, he was unavailable for comment.

The Centre for Public Litigation has brought these points to the attention of the Cabinet Secretary and the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC). The centre, in a letter dated March 5, requested the CVC to take action against the officials concerned for criminal misconduct under the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA). Section 13 (1) DII of the PCA defines criminal misconduct as an act of a public servant who "by abusing his position as a public servant obtains for himself or for other persons any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage." The Centre for Public Litigation has contended that the officials abused their positions as public servants by forging the confidential reports of Agarwal in order to get him promoted and appointed DGHS. The letter has warned of legal proceedings unless the investigating agency takes up the issue immediately.

A new tariff regime on hold

The Government keeps in abeyance a new tariff structure announced by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India which sought to align the tariffs for various services to the costs of providing them.

THE Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) proposes and the Government disposes. On March 9, the TRAI announced a new telecom tariff structure in the form of a Telecommunications Tariff Order 1999. The Order sought to "re-balance" the existing tariff structure essentially along the lines of its September 1998 Consultation Paper on telecom pricing. The latter had attracted a fair bit of criticism from telecom experts and consumer forums as well as the utility provider, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) (Frontline, October 9, 1998).

The most contentious component of the TRAI's tariff regime, which was to take effect from April 1, related to a steep hike in telephone rentals and local call rates and a sharp reduction in long-distance (subscriber trunk dialling, or STD) and international (international subscriber dialling, or ISD) call charges. A major share of the DoT's revenue earnings comes from long-distance calls. In the Indian context, therefore, there is an element of "cross subsidisation" of the local network by the long-distance or trunk network. Therefore, the move, in the DoT's view, would eat into its revenues substantially and undermine its plans for expansion in terms of providing greater telephone access and connectivity, both urban and rural.

The Order led to a face-off between the DoT and the TRAI. On March 10, Union Minister for Communications Jagmohan told Parliament that the TRAI proposals had been put on hold. "The Government," Jagmohan said, "has decided to issue policy directives to the TRAI to keep its Order in abeyance till the entire issue is considered by the Government." The TRAI questioned this action of the Government which, it said, violated the powers bestowed on it by Section 11(2) of the TRAI Act of 1997. The TRAI maintained that no circumstance had arisen that allowed the Government to invoke the clauses of Section 25 of the Act and intervene in the exercise of the TRAI's authority under the Act.

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The issue is basically one of whether or not the Order amounts to a statement of policy; Section 25(2) binds the TRAI to adhere to government directives only on questions of policy. Further, Section 25(3) states: "The decision of the Central Government on whether a question is one of policy or not shall be final." The TRAI has, in turn, asked the Government to share the "nature of the policy questions" in the matter because under Section 25(2) the TRAI can express its views "before any direction is given under this section". Of course, given that the new tariff structure seems to run counter to the concept of providing universal telephone access as envisaged in the National Telecom Policy (NTP) of 1994, through such means as cross-subsidisation, one could argue that the TRAI's tariff proposals impinge on policy.

However, the Government's stand in keeping the TRAI proposals in abeyance appears to have less to do with technical or socio-economic considerations than with political considerations. Even so, the rationale for the TRAI's new tariff structure is questionable and it needs to be contested.

THERE are two key elements to the TRAI proposals: one relates to telephone rentals and the second to pricing of local calls and STD and ISD calls. As mentioned earlier, in the Indian context, the higher STD call rates subsidise the local network and thus enable an increase in teledensity, which at present is at an abysmally low figure of 1.7 per 100. The TRAI's new tariff structure was evolved on the premise that the pricing should be pegged to the costs of the service and that for this purpose the local network and the trunk network must be viewed as distinct entities. It recommended that the prices of these services be aligned to costs in a staggered manner, over a period of three years. The underlying assumption, therefore, is that the costs of different elements of the network can be worked out and the price of these services aligned to these. In a bundled network, like the telephone network, both these assumptions are, however, not strictly valid.

Significantly, the DoT too has objected only to the loss of revenue from the downward revision of STD/ISD call charges and not to the increase in the local call charges, which affects the consumer at large. In that sense even the DoT has responded to the new tariff structure more as a monopoly operator which is keen to grow than as a state instrument which ought to be concerned about delivering a service for public good at an affordable cost to the largest numbers. The TRAI has paid lip service to the Universal Service Obligation (USO) mandated by the NTP, but the proposed cost-based tariff goes against this. For, it would result in a situation where access to the telephone in, say, the northeastern region of India would become extremely unaffordable and teledensity in such regions would remain close to zero forever. There may be valid arguments for lowering STD/ISD charges from the present levels, but increasing the local call charges in the name of pegging pricing to costs, and thereby denying access to a vast majority of low-volume users, would only serve to advance another agenda: the removal of the cross-subsidy that exists.

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From Annexure II of the Consultation Paper of September 1998 it becomes clear that the TRAI has sought to recover the capital cost of the local network by increasing rentals and the operating costs by increasing call charges. But the impact of this would defeat the objectives of the NTP. To increase teledensity, the cost of access - rentals, installation and so on - has to be kept low and call charges should be used to recover capital and operating costs. As the Delhi Science Forum (DSF) pointed out in its submission to the TRAI opposing the changes proposed in the Consultation Paper, this is the practice the world over, including in the United States, where private monopolies operate. Indeed, in no other utility can the capital cost be recovered by merely providing a connection, as is being suggested by the TRAI.

Internationally, it is now recognised that it is not possible to separate the cost of each element of the network and that the rental tariffs and the cost of local and long-distance charges should be based on social and economic objectives. The regime that the TRAI has suggested is, however, biased in favour of the long-distance caller. The DSF document points out that under such a scheme local calls will become more expensive while long-distance and international call rates will be lowered. India has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world. In general, even in countries with much higher income levels, the cost of access is generally taken as a small fraction of the capital costs of the local network, and the rest recovered through call charges, for both local and long-distance calls.

LOWERING access costs is the first step towards achieving universal connectivity. Access cost, or per-line cost, has to be brought down from the present level of around Rs.35,000 to less than Rs.10,000. This is essentially an issue of technology and can be achieved by adopting innovative approaches - for instance, by deploying a mix of access technologies, including cellular and wireless technology, as part of a single network. Unfortunately, neither the NTP nor the terms of reference of the TRAI (which is largely made up of officials with a non-technical background) address the issue of low-cost technological choices to achieve universal connectivity.

In the absence of a technological perspective to the problem, access costs will remain high and network expansion has to be achieved mainly through cross subsidies. In its attempt to do away with subsidies, the TRAI sought in its tariff structure to bring down STD call rates by 50 per cent over three years and ISD rates by 52 per cent. While a case could be made for lowering STD/ISD rates by a small factor, the move to reduce it by nearly half is preposterous. The argument that long-distance call charges in India would be higher than those prevailing internationally even after the charges are lowered is not valid because the teledensity in the country is nowhere near international levels. The TRAI appears to have sought to hike local charges in order to offset the huge revenue loss from the planned lowering of long-distance call rates; for a society waiting to be connected, there is the rub.

THE revenue implications of the proposed tariffs have become an issue of disagreement between the DoT and the TRAI. The DoT believes that the volume of STD/ISD traffic will remain unchanged even if the tariffs are lowered. That is, it believes that there is no elasticity of long-distance telecom traffic to price. According to the TRAI, however, even though there are no studies to estimate the elasticity of long-distance call demand, "there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that volume response to price decline will be substantial." Coming from a body that was instituted to guide the growth of telecom in the country, this statement, with its implication that no one has the correct picture about the possible response to tariff changes, is truly amazing. Essentially, therefore, in the matter of revenue implications, it is the DoT's word against the TRAI's word (see Table). According to the TRAI, even the DoT conceded before the Parliamentary Standing Committee that there may be a volume increase of 10-25 per cent in response to a price decline. In the TRAI's reckoning, the 10 per cent and 25 per cent increases it has projected are conservative estimates.

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The reason for the DoT's concern is understandable. Its revenue requirements are primed to enable it to meet Plan targets for expanding the network. The original estimate of cost per direct exchange line (DEL) was Rs.43,362 for a 10-year perspective plan by the DoT. In the Ninth Plan this was pegged at Rs.45,000. The TRAI's argument is that over the years the per-DEL cost has come down to Rs.35,000-38,000. Given this cost, it argues, excess revenue would accrue to the DoT even if there was no increase in STD/ISD traffic in the first year; excess revenue would accrue in the second year if STD/ISD traffic rose by 10 per cent, and in the third year by 25 per cent. The authority considers the scenarios with lower revenue requirements very plausible and therefore believes that the DoT will have adequate resources to fund its expansion plans if the new tariffs are implemented.

The DoT says that it has no revenue surpluses because all its revenue earnings go into network expansion and that at the present stage of telecom growth, no amount would be enough. Data in respect of annual growth in connectivity bear this out. Over the last five years, the DoT and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) have together achieved an average annual growth of 22 per cent. Against a registered demand of 108 lakh lines, the two together added 110 lakh DELs, bringing down the average waiting period. This could well be a result of the fall in the cost per DEL; even so, teledensity is far from good.

Of course, these arguments hide two basic facts. One, the cost of access, even at Rs.35,000, is very high and has to come down below Rs.10,000. Unless that happens, it does not make sense to talk of removing cross-subsidisation. Two, there is absolutely no data on what the traffic volume will be after the tariff adjustments in respect of both local and long-distance call charges. One could certainly do better than to rely on "anecdotal evidence" or arbitrary scenarios.

For example, two years ago the number of slabs for STD call rates was increased from two to three. The DoT must surely have data on the effect that this had on traffic volume between any two points on the trunk network. Statistically, this data must be sizable enough to model the elasticity of demand to price. Similarly, to know the elasticity of demand in the local network, adequate data must be available about the change in traffic volume (in this case, perhaps reduced) after the pulse rate for a metred call was fixed at five minutes against unlimited time per call earlier. Only after a modelling exercise on the basis of these can one decide on the extent of downward revision in long-distance call rates that can be effected if the DoT's revenues are not to end up in large deficits and network expansion can occur as planned.

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THE TRAI Order has another important implication for the average urban/rural subscriber, which has gone unnoticed. From the point of view of the ordinary "general subscriber", the increase in local call rates will result in hefty increases in the bimonthly bills. The TRAI claims that the increases will be inconsequential in view of income increases during the same period, but in fact they will be larger than the TRAI's estimates. This is because the TRAI has not only increased the local call rates but also fixed the pulse rate per metred call at three minutes (as against five minutes earlier), and its estimates do not account for this. This will translate into a larger number of metred calls for a given tele-conversation. The impact on the monthly bills of an average urban/rural low-use subscriber is substantial.

Critics of the Order, including the DSF and consumer forums, believe that the Order essentially bails out private basic service operators who were finding their operations unviable under the existing tariff structure. Since an increase in the local call rates was not really warranted even if long-distance call rates had to be brought down, it is variously believed that the tariff (and the pulse rate) worked out was essentially intended to ensure that basic service providers, who have so far failed to pay even a fraction of the licence fees, are able to survive.

Although it is true that the tariff package that the TRAI has recommended is only a cap and operators are free to offer any lower package, the argument that it will result in competition and the higher limit will not be reached is fallacious because competition results only when there is a surplus. Given the low telecom access, no operator is likely to offer below-the-ceiling rates. And in any case, in any given circle, besides the DoT, only two private basic service providers operate. In this bargain, the average consumer would be hit if the new regime were to be implemented. Indeed, during its consultation process, while the TRAI invited a whole lot of basic service operators, it did not seek the opinion of any consumer organisation. The Government may have had its reasons for deciding to keep the TRAI proposals in abeyance. One hopes that concern for the consumer figures as one of these reasons.

An illogical step

K. VENUGOPAL the-nation

WAS the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) right in raising the rental for the telephone? The question can be answered in two contexts. One, based on the cost of providing the service, and two, based on the need to provide universal access to the telephone. On both counts, the TRAI may have judged wrongly.

If one has to study the cost of providing telephone services in this country, one has only the books of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to go by. And if one goes by them, one finds that the Department and its new corporate avatar, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd, more than cover their costs. They indeed make super normal profits by any standards, 64 paise on every customer rupee.

There are chiefly two sets of costs for the Department. One comprises the costs of the various equipment that go towards creating the network, such as the cable that connects your telephone to your nearest telephone exchange, cables that link up two or more of the exchanges in the town or city, those that connect one town with another and those that connect one country with another. In 1996-97, 12 paise out of the customer rupee went towards depreciation for these assets. The second set of costs, which amounted to 18 paise in the rupee that year, relates to expenses on staff. Other costs are very small.

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The initial deposit that one pays at the time of registering for a telephone connection and the bimonthly rental paid in advance once the telephone is energised are akin to the cover charges at a restaurant. You pay for the privilege of being connected, not for how much you use the facility.

When it set out to restructure the tariff for various telephone services, the TRAI said that it would align them to the costs of providing them. Long-distance rates were way above the costs of providing them, it reckoned. But when it came to fixing bimonthly rentals, it could not clearly determine what proportion of the total costs was to be assigned to rentals. So it decided to increase rentals (fixed in 1993) in line with general inflation and the rise in income levels among the population.

This is where the TRAI's logic does not find support from its own assertions elsewhere. While inflation has driven up prices elsewhere, telecom equipment prices have actually fallen over the past five years. The TRAI, quoting the DoT, finds that the cost of equipment per line has dropped from Rs.46,800 in 1992-93 to Rs.32,800 in 1996-97. Staff costs as a proportion of total revenue have also not risen. So the inflation argument does flounder.

If the TRAI were to defend the rental increase on the ground that income levels of customers have risen, it must apply with equal force to calling charges. Yet for those the TRAI has mandated steep cuts.

The second and equally important reason why rentals should not be raised is in the context of the need to get more people in the country connected. With a teledensity of 1.72 per cent, India is way behind Japan (49 per cent) and even Pakistan (1.8 per cent).

The total number of telephone lines in the country (as provided in the Rajya Sabha in February) is just over 19.8 million. Given that a large chunk of these work in offices and other commercial premises, the number of homes with a telephone must be small. Contrast this with the fact that over 20 million homes in the country, enticed by good entertainment and low entry costs, have plugged into cable television, all in a matter of six or seven years.

High rentals and initial deposits for telphones are entry barriers that would render difficult the task of increasing the teledensity. The TRAI recognises this only too well; indeed, it claims it turned down suggestions to raise them steeply.

The problem is that even at existing levels, the barrier would seem too high for most people in the country. Consider this: ten years ago, there was one person on the waiting list for every three working telephone lines. Today there is only one person on the waiting list for every six who have telephones. If that is a measure of the DoT's success in quickly raising capacity, it also is a measure of perceived affordability. Even if all the people on the waiting list are given telephone connections immediately, the teledensity would rise not much above Pakistan's level. It would seem futile even to hold back increases in rentals; only a reduction in their levels can get more people to own a telephone.

Questions of statistical validity

V. SRIDHAR economy

How valid are questions raised by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy regarding growth rate projections released by the Central Statistical Organisation?

WHEN the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) released its Advance Estimates of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for 1998-99 on February 9 projecting a 5.8 per cent increase, the figures were greeted with surprise. It was generally believed that Indian industry was going through a trough for the third successive year, but the CSO projected a growth rate of 5.7 per cent for the manufacturing sector, 4.7 for industry as a whole and 6.7 per cent for the services sector. Although the agricultural sector was expected to recover only marginally (it had declined by 1.5 per cent in 1997-98), the CSO projected a 5.3 per cent growth.

The scepticism was heightened by the fact that the CSO had changed the base year for computing its estimates of real GDP - the value of all goods and services produced - to 1993-94 from the earlier base of 1980-81. The fact that the new base, which resulted in a higher level of GDP, was used by the Finance Minister in the Union Budget for 1999-2000 in order to show that fiscal deficit as a percentage of GDP had declined fuelled further doubts about the CSO's projections. Was the CSO seeking to aid the Government by providing results that favoured it?

The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), a private think-tank which makes independent forecasts of some basic macroeconomic aggregates, disputed the CSO projections as "overestimates" in its Monthly Review for February. The CMIE said that GDP would grow only by 4.5 per cent in 1998-99. It argued that since foodgrain production was set to increase by only 1.5 per cent, unless the rest of the agricultural sector grew by 10.5 per cent in the remaining three months, 5.3 per cent growth would not be possible. Such a growth rate was unprecedented, it argued.

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The CMIE also forecast a growth rate of 4.2 per cent in the industrial sector and of 6.2 per cent in the services sector. It argued that the Index of Industrial Production (IIP) had grown by only 3.5 per cent in the nine months of 1998-99. Industrial growth would need to be in excess of 7 per cent in the remaining three months in order to cause a higher rate. "This is unlikely," it observed. (When the CSO released its projections, the IIP figures were available only for the April-November period. The latest IIP data indicate that industrial growth has been 3.32 per cent and that manufacturing output has increased by 3.53 per cent between April 1998 and January 1999.)

The CSO maintains that the IIP reflects the value of output and not the value addition in industry, which is the relevant data for computing the GDP emanating from the industrial sector. Officials of the CSO explained that although the IIP was projected to grow by 4.6 per cent, industrial growth in terms of value addition would be 5.7 per cent. This, they said, was because the weighting diagram in the IIP was substantially different from the weighting diagram for value addition determined by using data from the Annual Survey of Industry (ASI), which is based on returns filed by all factories covered by the Factories Act. For instance, transport equipment, which has a weight of 5 per cent in the IIP, contributes about 9 per cent of the value addition in the manufacturing sector as reflected in the ASI data. The CSO projects that this sector will grow by 24 per cent. Since this sector has a higher weightage, it will lend buoyancy to the growth in value addition in industry as a whole. Sources in the CSO told Frontline that given the latest IIP data, the CSO's forecasts for industry may not prove correct. However, they pointed out that this in no way invalidated their earlier estimate.

HOW did the CMIE arrive at its forecast? Its executive director, Mahesh Vyas, told Frontline that the CMIE made a "study of the long-term relationship (15 years) between value addition and output." He explained that in the time series greater weightage was given to "more recent years" and less to earlier years. Vyas admitted that this was an "arbitrary procedure" but argued that this was the only way to capture the effects of "structural changes in the Indian economy in the last few years." "We do not use econometric modelling techniques for forecasting, unlike organisations such as the CSO and the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER), because those kinds of models do not allow structural changes to be captured by their models," Mahesh Vyas said. He said that "structural changes have ensured that the economy is no longer linked to historical data." He also confirmed that the CMIE data did not "capture value addition in unregistered manufacturing". However, many economists would construe that the CMIE's methods take substantial liberties with economic statistics.

The CSO's estimates that the growth in the agricultural sector may be 5.3 per cent are more likely to be accurate. Recent reports indicate that the rabi crop may be the best ever. In fact, there are reports that the good performance of the agricultural sector may even result in a GDP growth of 6.4 per cent.

Mahesh Vyas initially told Frontline that foodgrains accounted for about 55 per cent of the weightage in the CMIE's calculations of the GDP emanating from agriculture. However, when it was pointed out that foodgrains account for only 29 per cent of the weightage in the CSO's method, he admitted that the CMIE's figures would need to be reviewed. The CSO estimates reckon that foodgrain output will increase by 1.5 per cent - by 2.5 per cent in terms of value. A senior CSO official told Frontline that much of the increase, in value terms, would be because of the 7 per cent growth in the value of output from commercial crops.

S.L. Shetty, director of the Economic and Political Weekly Research Foundation, told Frontline that he reckoned that the CMIE "jumped to its conclusion" because its statistical coverage of the agricultural sector may not be as good as that of the CSO. He does not think that the CSO's figures reveal any bias.

Regarding data on industry, Shetty said that his own analysis of industrial data on output and value addition showed that value addition had been occurring faster than the value of output in recent years. He said: "There is a complete change in the 1990s. I suppose it means that liberalisation has meant that productivity has increased in industry; we probably have to accept it."

The CSO has made improvements or included anew 17 economic activities while shifting to a new base using 1993-94 prices. Shetty is of the opinion that the change in the base year can only be good, as it would enable better capturing of the composition of the economy's constituents, which have changed over time.

THE focus on the CSO and its methods of collecting, analysing and disseminating data have also raised questions about the weaknesses of the data system of economic statistics in India. It is not as if the CSO itself is happy with the statistics that it gathers or uses. For many years now, CSO officials and economists have pointed out that there has been a steady deterioration in both the quality and quantity of data gathered in India. There is also a perception that the institutional arrangements for the data gathering system - in both agriculture and industry - have weakened during the last two decades.

The CSO is dependent on the Union Agriculture Ministry for statistics on crop output. The CSO has repeatedly said that crop-cutting estimates, which form the basis for determining yields, are being done in an unscientific manner. The Patwari system in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, under which village officials were responsible for collecting statistics on crops grown three times in a year, had collapsed and "the gap was never filled", according to CSO sources. In States such as West Bengal, Kerala and Orissa - the "permanently settled States" - the concept of a village official who would register the crop area, the area sown and the output never evolved. (In Kerala a "cross-reporting system" has evolved, which, they say, has been "reasonably good".)

Earlier, the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) conducted surveys on the yield and these were used to "cross-check" the data available to the CSO. Sources in the CSO say that there is a need to reintroduce such independent estimates. There is also a perception that data on agriculture needs to be freed from the control of the Ministry so that more unbiased estimates may be arrived at. "There is uneasiness among data compilers and there is need for the CSO to be able to coordinate directly with the bureaus of statistics in the States," Shetty says. The CSO has said that about 40 per cent of the geographical area of India is outside the purview of any scientific estimation techniques on crop yields and output. "We are helpless, all the estimates are coming from the Ministry of Agriculture," says a CSO official. Shetty welcomes the CSO's reported intention to change the base year every five years, coinciding with the quinquennial surveys conducted by the NSSO. He says that this would enable the capture of the changes in the composition of the economy.

A source in the CSO pointed out that it was not as if the inadequacy of accurate data on agriculture was merely a concern for academics; the problem, he said, could be far more serious. He pointed out that in 1995-96, wheat was offloaded in the open market by the Food Corporation of India on the basis of optimistic forecasts by the Agriculture Ministry. However, the wheat crop fell short by 10 million tonnes necessitating substantial imports. The reverse happened in 1996-97 when the output was substantially higher than the estimates. Imports were contracted, based on the estimate.

REGARDING industrial statistics, experts feel that economic processes outside the control of the CSO are at work. There is a growing perception that economic liberalisation has resulted in a deterioration in the quality of economic statistics - particularly data on industry - because economic units no longer report data that they reported earlier under a regulated environment. Under the regulated regime, the Directorate-General of Technical Development (DGTD) not only was responsible for issuing licences, but was empowered to gather industrial data from companies. Its role as a regulator had a powerful effect on compliance by companies and industrial units. A senior CSO official told Frontline that "only 50 per cent of the returns are filed by industrial units." Under-reporting is not confined to small units. Shetty says that many of the bigger companies producing ice-cream are not reporting because the sector is reserved for small-scale units.

Data on industry are now gathered by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion in the Industry Ministry. "The Ministry," Shetty said, "has lost its rationale to gather data after the abolition of the DGTD." He said: "Much of the control has disappeared and these functions ought to be transferred to the Department of Statistics." Sources in the CSO say that after the abolition of the DGTD, data from new enterprises are not captured, nor do they accurately reflect those which have exited."

The CSO plans a new IIP based on returns filed by "200 plus companies", each employing more than 200 persons. Shetty suggests the formation of a national statistical authority that would govern the Department of Statistics, the NSSO, the CSO and other Central statistical bodies gathering economic and social development statistics. He says that regional bodies should have "work carved out for them" to prevent the possibility of excessive centralisation. "It is very important," says Shetty, "that the authority should have powers to command information from regional and private bodies to cross-check data." A CSO official agreed with this suggestion.

'We are responsible for the attacks on Milind Vaidya'

other

Shakeel Ahmad Babu, better known as Chhota Shakeel, is at the centre of the gang war that is being fought in Mumbai along communal lines. A key aide of the Dubai-based underworld leader Dawood Ibrahim, Shakeel has been accused of masterminding the two attempts on the life of Shiv Sena politician and former Mumbai Mayor Milind Vaidya, who was charged by the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry of playing a key role in the 1992-93 riots in Mumbai. In this telephonic interview to Praveen Swami, Shakeel accepted responsibility for the attacks, which he said had been forced on him by his arch-enemy Rajendra Nikhalje alias Chhota Rajan, who too was a key aide of Dawood Ibrahim at one time. Contacted at a cellphone number in Dubai, one of a frequently changing series of contact numbers, Shakeel discussed the murder attempts as well as allegations of his involvement in the Mumbai serial blasts of 1993 and the reasons for his falling out with Chhota Rajan. Excerpts:

Do you accept responsibility for the attempts on the life of Milind Vaidya?

Absolutely. I have no hesitation in saying that we are responsible for the attacks on Milind Vaidya. This war was started by Chhota Rajan when he began killing people accused of having played a role in the Mumbai serial blasts. When I say accused, it is important. They have only been accused of a crime. They have not been found guilty. In fact, they are innocent. No one, neither the courts nor the Government nor anyone else for that matter, has given Chhota Rajan the right to kill these innocent people. Chhota Rajan has forced us to retaliate. We have been left with no option.

Some people say that this is not the real reason for the attempts on Vaidya, because you did not make any claim of responsibility after the first attempt on his life.

This is simply not true. We made it clear a long time ago that we would have to respond to what Chhota Rajan was doing. Eight months ago, after he murdered Mohammad Jindran (a serial blasts accused), we retaliated by killing a Shiv Sena worker. I had hoped that this would be the end of the matter. But Chhota Rajan wants to get the support of Hindus by pretending to be a defender of his community. He wants cheap popularity. No one has given him the right to kill innocent people. He does so for his own interests. So we have no option but to retaliate. If he continues to kill the serial blasts accused, we will respond by killing more Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party workers. Even some very big businessmen are in our sight (nazrein). I know that they too are innocent people, but this has been forced upon us.

You criticise Chhota Rajan, saying that he is killing innocent people, but surely you are doing the same thing. How do you justify that?

As I just explained to you, this whole situation has been forced upon us. Look, after the Babri Masjid was "martyred", or broken, as you might say in your language, some Muslims responded by carrying out the serial blasts in Mumbai. They were infuriated because their religious sentiments were hurt. Jiske dil mein mazhab ki aag nahin jalti woh insaan hi nahin hai (someone who does not have the fire of religion burning in his heart is not human at all). But anyway, whatever happened happened. If you hurt someone's religious sentiments, there will be a retaliation. So, after the Babri Masjid was martyred, the serial blasts took place. That was the end of the matter, and everybody accepted it. But now, by killing innocent people, Chhota Rajan has started the whole battle again.

It is alleged that you and Dawood Ibrahim played an important role in the Mumbai serial blasts. What do you have to say about this?

The Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission Report has gone into this, and so has the trial court. Altogether there are 180 accused. The written statements in the case weigh 55 kg. Everything is before the people. If you read the statements, it will be clear to you as to who was involved in the blasts and who was not. The judges who have heard the case know the truth. It will come out in the open.

If you are actually innocent and were not involved in the serial blasts, why don't you surrender and face trial?

The Government knows what our involvement in the blasts really was. Dawood (Ibrahim) bhai has given an interview about this, and the lawyer, Ram Jethmalani, who is now a Minister, himself knows the truth. The Government should show us the way to present our defence. It is very easy to point fingers at people and accuse them of all kinds of things. But it is not so easy to face the truth.

What is the root cause of the war between you and Chhota Rajan?

Chhota Rajan says that he split with us because of the serial blasts. But why did he stay with us for a year after they took place? Why did he not leave two or three days after the blasts? After all, the names of all the accused, including ours, were in the newspapers by then. Why did he not give statements disassociating himself from us then? The truth is that he became selfish. Jis thali se kha raha tha, usi mein chhed bana raha tha. Woh apne aap ko white collar dikhana chah raha tha, lekin uske white collar se daag nahin mita sakta hai (He was making holes in the plate he was eating from. He wanted to portray himself as a white collar person, but he cannot wipe off the stains from his white collar).

'BJP confronting divided loyalties'

cover-story

S. Jaipal Reddy, who was the principal spokesman of the United Front during its tenure in government at the Centre, is a vigilant member of the Opposition. During his brief stint as Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, he pushed through the administrative changes that gave effect to the long-forgotten bill on autonomy for the electronic media. Back in the more familiar role of an Opposition stalwart, he reflects today on the year-long tenure of the A.B. Vajpayee Government and the strategic options available to the Opposition. Excerpts from the interview he gave Sukumar Muralidharan:

The Vajpayee Government seemed for a large part of the year gone by to be tottering, particularly after the Assembly elections in some States in November 1998. But it claims to have stabilised the situation and provided a new sense of purpose to its administration. Now the Opposition is posing a more unified challenge on a variety of issues. Does this suggest a phase of sharpening conflict?

The BJP-led coalition has survived for one year because of the grace shown by the Congress(I). It was well within the power of the Congress(I) to destabilise the BJP Government. Perhaps the Congress(I) wanted the BJP's administrative and political incompetence to be exposed over a longer period. That purpose may well have been served now.

But on economic policies there seems to be a divergence of views among the Opposition parties, with the Congress(I) going along with the Government on the Patents Bill and most likely on the Insurance Regulatory Authority Bill.

That divergence (of opinion) will continue to be there, but the main issue confronting the country is the threat posed by the Sangh Parivar to the secular fabric of the polity. Both the Congress(I) and other secular parties in the Opposition are realising the overriding importance of this issue.

The BJP itself seems to be divided on its economic policy between the swadeshi and the pro-liberalisation wings.

The general perception is that (Atal Behari) Vajpayee turned out to be a weak Prime Minister because of the trouble caused by his party's allies. But I think more trouble came from the sister organisations of the Sangh Parivar and from (Home Minister L.K.) Advani, than from his mercurial allies. On the economic agenda, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are divided. In the late 1970s the erstwhile Janata Party faced the question of dual membership. It is interesting to note that the BJP is today squarely confronting the problem of not only dual but multiple membership - divided loyalties. Whatever is reflected in the Sangh Parivar is also reflected within the BJP. Vajpayee has been pursuing the liberalisation agenda because he wants to be on the right side of the upper middle class and the superpower of the world. So he is having his way right now.

The construction that the BJP has been putting on current events is that the three Bs - Bihar, bus (to Lahore) and Budget - have been a great source of sustenance for it and the new Opposition offensive is only a sign of desperation.

Bihar was a fiasco. I do not think anybody in the BJP wants to remember Bihar. It is a classic example of the mala fide intentions of the BJP and its incapacity to adopt a viable strategic course in politics. But talking of Bs, what about (M.K.) Bezboruah, the former chief of the Enforcement Directorate, who was transferred, recalled and then transferred again? What about their budget rollbacks? What about (Governor Sundar Singh) Bhandari? Broadcasting? They are going against the broadcasting policy outlined in the BJP manifesto and in the National Agenda for Governance.

Speaking of Bs, there is also the issue of Admiral Bhagwat.

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True, the Government has not been able to convince the country about the reasons for his dismissal. It has not been able to convince the retired Service chiefs about this unprecedented decision. That is another example of the monumental ineptitude of the BJP-led Government. They described a serving navy chief as a security risk. And Admiral Bhagwat in turn has levelled many allegations against the Government, which they have been unable to explain. Why should the Government be afraid of an inquiry by a Joint Parliamentary Committee? The more it resists the demand for a JPC inquiry, the more it gives the impression that it has a lot to hide.

Is the Mohan Guruswamy controversy still live?

Mohan Guruswamy has levelled many allegations, not one of which has been satisfactorily dealt with. In the Lok Sabha the matter was partly discussed. It is now spilling over into the second part of the session. It continues to hang fire.

The BJP had two claims to political eminence when it sought to assume office - its special attention to national security and to probity in public life. How do you see these two planks now?

The retired military personnel who were drawn to the BJP before it came to power have been greatly disappointed by the Government's handling of l'affaire Vishnu Bhagwat. The Achilles' heel of the Vajpayee Government is its administration. Advani himself admitted a few months ago that it had been unable to fulfil the expectations because of lack of experience.

How do you now see the emerging pattern of political engagement? Will it be the BJP versus the Congress(I) with the Third Force being an appendage of the Congress(I) or will the Third Force seek an autonomous space?

The Third Force will remain autonomous. The fact remains that the Congress(I) is not a relevant factor in four large States - U.P., Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal - which together account for about 220 Lok Sabha seats. There is no way that any single party can come to power within the framework of the 12th Lok Sabha or through a fresh round of elections. I am not contending that coalitions will be there for ever. But the country is passing through a fairly protracted coalition phase. It will be strategically correct for everybody to reconcile himself or herself to this ground reality.

An RSS action plan

The RSS national executive fixes a time-frame to revive aggressive mobilisation to advance the Hindutva agenda; it also appears to be planning moves to replace A.B. Vajpayee as Prime Minister.

A WEEK before the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Government began its first anniversary celebrations, the Akhil Bharatiya Prathinidhi Sabha (national executive) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) met in Lucknow to deliberate on the questions of ideology and organisation that confront the Hindutva combine at present. The Prathinidhi Sabha, an important supervisory body of the Sangh Parivar, unfolded a three-pronged action plan: a movement against the conversion of Hindus to other religions, especially Christianity; and agitation against Western-oriented economic liberalisation policies, which militate against swadeshi economics; and moves to revive the Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura temple agitations.

K.S. Sudershan, joint general secretary of the RSS, said that the first two items on the agenda would get top priority in the near future; however, he could not say what "near future" meant. Sources in the RSS maintain that the programmes will be launched after three months.

These decisions that can possibly have a far-reaching impact on the future of the Government. However, according to Sangh Parivar insiders, the most interesting discussions revolved around the personality conflicts in the Government, particularly the conflict between Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Home Minister L.K. Advani.

In a sense, the outcome of the Lucknow meet was a reiteration of the ideological and policy thrusts identified by RSS sarsanghachalak Rajendra Singh at the Chinthan Baithak (introspection meet) held in Nagpur in December 1998. Rajendra Singh could not attend the three-day Prathinidhi Sabha that began on March 11 owing to ill-health, but the meeting continued the "churning process" initiated by him. The Nagpur meet, which was attended by all constituents of the Sangh Parivar, was followed by separate conclaves of its wings, including the BJP, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) and the Bajrang Dal. The basic objective of these meetings was to find ways and means to overcome the political and organisational reverses suffered by the Sangh Parivar under the Vajpayee Government, especially the defeat in the November Assembly elections in some States.

The VHP and the Bajrang Dal had at their meetings identified the rise of elements owing allegiance to alien philosophies as the root cause of the problems facing the country. They asserted that the country could be saved only by throwing these forces out. Such forces included "Christian and Muslim missionaries who were converting innocent Hindus, the so-called secular leaders of Opposition parties who supported conversions, particularly those like Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, who herself was a Christian, and alien economic precepts like the policy of liberalisation."

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While these political and social factors were publicly enunciated, there was an unpublicised sub-text. That, according to Sangh Parivar activists, involved an attempt to replace Vajpayee with a candidate who is more amenable to the implementation of a certain agenda. This became obvious from Sudershan's statement at the Chinthan Baithak on the ill-effects of liberalisation and his criticism of the Government for succumbing to pressures from international financial agencies, and the projection - sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle - that the Prime Minister and his supporters, and not the entire Ministry, were responsible for the aberrations. Recent statements by Dattopant Thengdi, leader of the RSS and the BMS, on the Insurance Regulatory Authority Bill and other policy matters of the Government carried personal attacks against the Prime Minister.

According to a senior VHP activist from Uttar Pradesh, sections of the Sangh Parivar had expressed the opinion at the Chinthan Baithak that the personality tussle in the BJP at the top level would be settled in a manner that was most suitable to the Sangh Parivar leadership before the Budget session. Many RSS activists believed that the top brass would face the Prathinidhi Sabha with a "positive outcome". However, events between December and February belied their expectation.

SEVERAL participants of the Prathinidhi Sabha meeting felt that the decision to go for the agitational mode over conversions and economic liberalisation as well as the setting of a three-month time-frame for such action was significant. One of them told Frontline: "There was a pointedly critical reference to Vajpayee's wishy-washy attitude on conversions, including the statement that he did not think that forced conversions took place in the country." Although Vajpayee's call for a national debate on conversions was applauded (RSS general secretary H.V. Seshadri even echoed Vajpayee's call for thrashing out the issue), the general tone of the discussions was that he was not doing enough to advance the interests of Hindutva.

A bureaucrat close to the Prime Minister said that "the revised time-frame is an admission by the anti-Vajpayee campaigners of a setback that they suffered, as they had expected to finish the job by February." Sources in the RSS say that Vajpayee fought the moves on expected lines: he rallied round the BJP's allies - the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Trinamul Congress, the Lok Sakthi and the Telugu Desam - by granting them their demands. "All that was expected. But the unexpected stroke was the bus journey to Lahore, which seemed to have generated a lot of goodwill and popular appeal for the Prime Minister," an aide of Sudershan said.

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The overall assessment at the Prathinidhi Sabha was that Vajpayee had emerged more powerful since December at least within the ruling coalition. The RSS is cautious against making a move against him now. That is why Sudershan talked about an agitation after three months, a pro-Vajpayee Minister in the Uttar Pradesh Government told Frontline.

The Prathinidhi Sabha discussions apparently reflected the well-known differences of opinion over who should succeed Vajpayee. While, Thengdi and H.V. Seshadri prefer Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, for leaders such as Rajendra Singh Advani is the natural choice. Advani continues to be the front-runner for a variety of reasons: he enjoys the confidence of a large number of RSS leaders, has a better mass appeal than Joshi, has the ability to please both the moderate and hardline sections of the BJP.

Meanwhile, Vajpayee's supporters have gone on the offensive. Even as the session was in progress, AIADMK leader Jayalalitha deplored Advani as an associate of Islamic fundamentalists. The provocation for this statement was apparently the withdrawal of the provisions of the National Security Act against Abdul Nasar Mahdani, in jail for his alleged links with the Coimbatore blasts. Clearly, Jayalalitha was sending a message across to the RSS, and the timing and content of her statement have not been lost on the organisation's top brass. This, and the oft-repeated statements by leaders of the Trinamul Congress, the Lok Sakthi and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), indicate that they are more than keen to take up cudgels for Vajpayee. The situation will be clearer three months from now.

In search of direction

The Congress(I)'s recent responses to political developments and its manner of managing internal affairs show it up as a party that is largely undecided on which way to go, despite the flashes of combative spirit it has exhibited.

BEARING flowers and singing paeans, Congress(I) leaders queued up to pay obeisance to party president Sonia Gandhi at 10 Janpath on March 14. In this season of "first anniversaries", even as the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government was preparing to celebrate what can only be called a year of precarious existence, the Congress(I) indulged itself in its own little festivity to mark the completion of a year with Sonia Gandhi at its helm. And, characteristically, much of the proceedings were given over to eulogising the supreme leader for the many miracles she had supposedly performed. A "congratulatory statement" released on the occasion claimed that "Soniaji has transformed the party into a dynamic force" and that "those who branded (her) an outsider have themselves become outsiders before the people." On March 16, at a "celebration" dinner hosted by Congress(I) Parliamentary Party (CPP) secretary T. Subbirama Reddy, another round of felicitations were offered to Sonia Gandhi for having "revived the organisation from political morass".

The celebrations doubtless served another purpose: they unambiguously demonstrated Sonia Gandhi's hold on the party. However, the political signals that came from the party during this period showed it up to be somewhat circumspect. Both in its public posture, most visibly in its interactions with the BJP-led coalition Government and with other Opposition parties, and in its management of internal affairs, clarity of purpose was absent. In fact, in the context of the political stand adopted by the party on one or two issues and the effects thereof, some sections within the party even made bold to question Sonia Gandhi's leadership qualities.

Overtly, during the Budget session of Parliament, the Congress(I) appeared ready to take a more aggressive position against the Government by joining hands with secular Opposition parties on, for instance, the controversies relating to the dismissal of Chief of the Navy Staff Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and the exit of Mohan Guruswamy as adviser to Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. A united Opposition offensive, starting with the demand on March 16 for an inquiry by a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) into Bhagwat's dismissal, led to a situation where both Houses of Parliament could not function.

On Bihar too, the Congress(I) continued to adopt an anti-BJP stance - as reflected in its earlier decision to oppose parliamentary ratification to the imposition of President's Rule - by abstaining during the vote of confidence sought in the Bihar Assembly by the reinstated Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) Government on March 17. This seemed to offer further evidence that the Congress(I) considered fighting the BJP as one of its primary tasks.

However, after the massacre on March 18 of 35 Bhumihars in Senari village in Jehanabad district of Bihar by activists of the banned Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), the Congress(I) appeared to be thrown off balance. The party perhaps felt compelled to adopt a strong anti-RJD stand; Sharad Pawar, leader of the party in the Lok Sabha, issued a statement calling for the resignation of Chief Minister Rabri Devi.

This flip-flop was of a piece with the party's stand in relation to specific issues over the past few months when, despite unequivocal expressions of support from secular parties, it has seemed overly reluctant to make any moves to pull down the A.B. Vajpayee Government and facilitate the coming to power of a secular formation.

IN respect of inner-party affairs too, the Congress(I)'s position has been characterised by extreme indecisiveness and this has had the effect of sending out confusing signals. The most recent manifestation of this was the Congress(I) Working Committee's (CWC) move to dilute the import of the "momentous" declaration made by the party at its Pachmarhi camp in September 1998. The declaration related to the proposal to reserve 33 per cent of party posts for women and 20 per cent for the Scheduled Castes, the Schedule Tribes and minorities. Further, it sought to ban the return to the Congress(I) of "defectors and opportunists"; in exceptional cases, if they were to be readmitted, it would only be after a "considerably long waiting period", the declaration held. It also called for planning and implementing radical programmes for the eradication of social evils and economic backwardness.

These were touted as "policy declarations" and the Congress(I) made claims to the moral high ground, but now the CWC has diluted the status of the declaration by stating that it is only a "reference document". As a result, these proposals will now be put on hold.

According to many CWC members, there was a felt need to allow the return of a large number of former Congress(I) leaders who sought re-entry and this forced the leadership to dilute the Pachmarhi declaration. Many senior leaders felt that the conditions for re-entry should be relaxed at least for a while in order to facilitate the return of those who sought it. "And," added a CWC member, "Soniaji was going along with them." Another reason for the dilution was the perceived need to accommodate the interests of the backward classes in the matter of reservation of party posts, in much the same way that provision had been made for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the minorities. Leaders such as Meira Kumar and Madhavsinh Solanki felt that the Pachmarhi declaration did not address this issue.

P. Shiv Shankar, deputy leader of the Congress(I) in the Lok Sabha, told Frontline that the change in the status of the Pachmarhi declaration was only a temporary shift made in the interests of tempering political idealism with a measure of pragmatism. "We know that the best thing is to follow the idealistic proposals given by the Pachmarhi declaration," he said. "But while tackling day-to-day political matters one needs to mix idealism with pragmatism." And this, in his view, is what the CWC has done.

However, not everyone in the party is swayed by this argument. According to several middle-level leaders from North India who are close to Uttar Pradesh Congress(I) president Salman Khurshid and CWC member Arjun Singh, the so-called pragmatic approach had first been invoked when the party decided to oppose the ratification of President's Rule in Bihar, and from then on, they said, Sonia Gandhi had made one mistake after another. In fact, Khurshid and some others had argued - before the party decided to oppose the imposition of President's Rule - that it would be wrong for the Congress(I) to do so, especially since Sonia Gandhi had said, immediately after the Narayanpur massacre on February 10, that the RJD Government had lost the moral authority to rule. They said that the party should take on forces like the RJD even at the risk of being seen in the same camp as the BJP.

"The overall effect of the decision (to oppose the imposition of President's Rule) is negative," said a leader from U.P. According to him, it conveyed the impression that Sonia Gandhi was not overly interested in the revival of the party in North Indian States such as Bihar. The decision, he added, had generated hope among Congress(I) activists that the party was about to topple the Vajpayee Government and come to power at the Centre, "especially as it was preceded by Sonia Gandhi's message in the journal of the All India Congress(I) Committee (AICC) that the challenges in the New Year would be of a different nature and that the country's responsibilities would fall on the Congress(I) sooner than later. This promise too did not materialise." So, both ways, the leader pointed out, the decision was a failure.

According to this section, Sonia Gandhi's flip-flop on the Bihar issue was in direct contrast to her focussed efforts to rebuild the party ahead of the Assembly elections in a few States in November 1998. A senior leader said: "Remember, it was the steadfast refusal to fall for the temptation of putting together some sort of a secular coalition to pull down the BJP-led coalition Government and form a hotch-potch alternative that paid handsome dividends in the Assembly polls." Sections of the Congress(I) in Uttar Pradesh, who were on a high after the Chintan Manthan Shibir (brainstorming session) organised by the State unit at Hardwar between February 8 and 10, where the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the RJD were criticised, view the Congress(I) line on Bihar as a mistake.

Echoing these views, Khurshid and some others have repeatedly demanded that the Congress(I) withdraw support to the RJD Government at the first opportunity and chalk out its own political path at the earliest. But a section of leaders in the Bihar unit of the Congress(I), who are seen to be close to former party president Sitaram Kesri, oppose this line. Their contention is that the RJD is required as a buffer before the Congress(I) can build up its organisational base, which now stands decimated, in the State.

Leaders such as Shiv Shankar believe, however, that pragmatism will pay. According to them, the Congress(I) is capable of using its unique position as a party on the path of revival to create politically embarrassing situations for the BJP as well as secular forces. This, they say, is what the Congress(I) decision on Bihar has proved. "It has shown that we can upset the Centre's plans even while forcing parties like the RJD to change their ways," a senior party leader told Frontline. In his opinion, the promise made by reinstated Chief Minister Rabri Devi and RJD leader Laloo Prasad Yadav that they would endeavour to protect the interests of Dalits and implement land reforms was made only under Congress(I) pressure. "Ultimately, we might even force the RJD to change the Chief Minister. That would give us greater legitimacy before the people and time to rebuild the party," a former CWC member from Bihar said.

According to another senior leader, Bihar and some other matters had had the effect of upsetting the schedule set by Sonia Gandhi for the Congress(I) to capture power at the Centre. According to this leader, left to herself Sonia Gandhi would have brought down the BJP-led Government in March, after the passage of the Budget, and enabled an interim government to be formed. "She would have wanted to build up the party organisation for the Lok Sabha elections during the October-December period." But the imposition of President's Rule in Bihar and related developments upset this schedule. It hustled Sonia Gandhi to take an antagonistic stand vis-a-vis the Central Government at a much earlier date - in February itself - and she was not able to carry this decision to its logical conclusion and bring down the Government.

In the light of recent political developments, Sonia Gandhi apparently has a revised schedule. According to sources in the Congress(I), this involves another waiting period to capture power at the Centre and primary attention to States where Assembly elections are due by the end of the year. This will mean that the Vajpayee Government might have a smooth run until the beginning of next year, notwithstanding the show of aggression by the Congress(I) in the current session of Parliament. But, as many leaders in the Congress(I) themselves point out, things could take an unexpected, positive turn just as the Bihar developments upset Sonia Gandhi's earlier plans.

'Idealism has to be mixed with pragmatism'

cover-story

P. Shiv Shankar, deputy leader of the Congress(I) in the Lok Sabha, is considered to be one of party president Sonia Gandhi's most trusted lieutenants. He is known to have had a role in shaping the policy and organisational initiatives undertaken by the Congress(I) in recent times. In an interview to Venkitesh Ramakrishnan, he evaluates the impact that Sonia Gandhi has had on national politics and on the party organisation during her first year as Congress(I) president. Excerpts:

A year after Sonia Gandhi took over as Congress(I) president, how would you evaulate her contribution to the party organisation and her impact on national politics?

In the 1996 Lok Sabha elections the Congress(I) won 139 seats. If Sonia Gandhi had not campaigned for the party ahead of the 1998 elections, our tally would have been very low... That was the kind of leadership we had. It was Soniaji's emergence that helped us get 140 seats. After taking over as president, she has given a great fillip to the organisation. She has imparted or brought back a sense of scruples and principles to Congress(I) politics, which many of our former leaders had forgotten. Not that these efforts have succeeded completely. But Soniaji has made a beginning. And, most important, she has integrated the party, and its functioning is much more cohesive now. The verdict in the Assembly elections in November 1998 pointed towards this new dynamism. If elections are held in the South Indian States now, the Congress(I) will win overwhelmingly. The nation now knows that there is a leader on whom it can rely.

But there have been suggestions, even from sections within the party, that Sonia Gandhi has bungled in respect of the Bihar situation and the follow-up to the proposals of the Pachmarhi conclave.

This criticism is totally misplaced. About Bihar, the leaders of the BJP and the Samata Party say that Soniaji misled them by initially saying that the RJD had lost its moral authority to rule and later opposing the imposition of President's Rule. There is no dichotomy here. When Soniaji said that the RJD had lost the moral authority to rule, it was not meant as a signal to the Centre to rush in and impose President's Rule. Instead, it was a warning to the RJD to change its leadership in the State and mend its ways.

As for the Pachmarhi proposals, one should understand that they visualise an ideal organisational situation. But in day-to-day politics, idealism has to be mixed with pragmatism. The Congress(I) Working Committee (CWC) realised that many of the proposals could not be implemented immediately. Take, for example, the proposal to reserve 33 per cent of party posts for women. It could not be implemented because we were not able to find enough women leaders who fit the bill. We are sure that we will reach the ideal situation in the future, but until that time idealism has to be mixed with pragmatism. That is why the CWC termed the Pachmarhi proposals as a reference document.

There is also the view that Sonia Gandhi has not really made any attempt to bring down the BJP-led Government.

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We have been playing the role of a constructive Opposition. The BJP asked for a fair chance to rule. And I suppose we have given it exactly that. But they are making a mess of it. Their attitude towards governance is making it more and more difficult for us not to play the role of a natural Opposition - that is, to oppose, chastise and ultimately depose the Government.

Is the Congress(I) getting ready to play this "ultimate role"? The increased level of cooperation with other Opposition parties during the Budget session of Parliament has given rise to this question.

The basic factor with regard to our relationship with the Government is that the parties in the ruling coalition, particularly the BJP, have shown a total lack of governing skills. They talk all the time about consensus, but never call Opposition parties for any discussion on important matters. Take Prasar Bharati, for instance: they did not bring it to the Rajya Sabha, where it cannot be passed without the Opposition's help. The resolution to ratify President's Rule in Bihar was passed in the Lok Sabha but not brought to the Rajya Sabha. They just want to play around with Parliament and the country and make political gains. This approach has brought great harm to the country.

But the Congress(I) has time and again bailed out the Government, especially on economic policy issues such as the Patents Bill.

It is true that the Congress(I) has supported the Government on important economic policy issues. But the problem with the Government is that even here it does not have any cohesion. While one section of the BJP supports economic liberalisation, another section opposes it in the name of swadeshi. What sort of governance is this? I do not think that the country can put up with this for long.

The Admiral Bhagwat challenge

The Ministry of Defence has led a sustained campaign of attrition against Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, but the specific charges against him have been found to be of dubious value when examined against documentary record.

SINCE he was removed from his command by an abrupt and unceremonious withdrawal of "presidential pleasure", the case of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, former Chief of the Naval Staff, has been contested through a sustained campaign of attrition in the media. Specific charges against the Admiral were found to be of dubious value when examined against the documentary record. And as his ramparts crumbled in the battle against the recalcitrant military commander, Defence Minister George Fernandes sought recourse to the enigmatic slogan of national security. Fernandes alleged that Admiral Bhagwat had endangered national security through some of his actions, but that he was not at liberty to reveal these for reasons which should be self-evident (Frontline January 29, 1999).

Yet it was not as if the invocation of this mantra was deemed sufficient to silence the vigorous challenge from Admiral Bhagwat. On February 22 and 23, stories appeared in a Delhi-based newspaper, alleging that Bhagwat had during his tenure as the Navy Chief brazenly violated norms of personnel policy in the Services. He had protected a senior officer dealing with the pivotal function of naval logistics, despite serious allegations of financial malfeasance against him. And he had also "tampered" with the annual confidential reports (ACRs) of officers he was not favourably disposed towards.

These stories, evidently based on high-level leaks from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), were transparent in their intent. After several weeks of seclusion, Admiral Bhagwat had broken his silence on the circumstances of his dismissal at a meeting with the media in Delhi on February 22 (Frontline March 12, 1999). The stories which appeared on that and the following day were an obvious effort to influence public opinion to his disadvantage. The MoD then moved swiftly to capitalise on the supposed strategic advantage it had gained, by referring the newspaper's charges against Bhagwat to Naval Headquarters (NHQ) for a clarification.

On March 18, with both Houses of Parliament in a state of agitation over the Government's handling of the affair, Fernandes was called upon to answer a question dealing with these specific allegations. His response to unstarred question 3358 in the Lok Sabha left little room for ambiguity: "It has been brought to the notice of the Government that ex-CNS (Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat) had tampered with the ACR of an officer by crossing out the report of a previous CNS (Admiral V.S. Shekhawat), and superimposing his own adverse remarks. It is unprecedented for a CNS to alter the assessment report by a previous CNS." Ominously, Fernandes concluded with the assurance that the matter was "being examined."

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Unfortunately for the Defence Minister, Bhagwat seemed to have lost little of his combative instincts after his dismissal from the armed forces. In response to a query from Frontline put on record his version of the event in question:

"The correct factual position is that as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief Western Naval Command, I had made a particular assessment of an officer commanding a sea-going ship. The then Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral V.S. Shekhawat, felt that the particular officer merited a higher grading, and discussed that particular report with me during one of my visits to Delhi. I stated to Admiral Shekhawat that this was my assessment based on my observations of the officer's performance at sea during exercises. I had no reason to change my assessment. However, Admiral Shekhawat, apart from making his endorsement, also wrote that he had consulted with me and I was agreeable to modifying my assessment. This was contrary to facts. However, the Chief of the Naval Staff as the senior reviewing officer has the prerogative to override the initiating and reviewing officers' reports, which he did.

"This report remains intact as per the endorsement of Admiral Shekhawat, without any change whatsoever. The Minister, in his reply to the question on this matter, has therefore misled Parliament."

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Documents in the possession of Frontline indicate that NHQ had sent a detailed set of responses to the MoD's queries on the alleged irregularities. On the generalised complaint of meddling with ACRs, the position of NHQ was very clear. Seven officers, ranging in rank from Vice-Admiral to Lieutenant-Commander, had expressed "anxieties" about the handling of their ACRs by the former Chief of the Naval Staff. A committee of senior naval personnel had gone through the records on their request and concluded that the reviews done by Bhagwat were "as per regulations" and did not indicate any "mala fide intentions".

As for the more specific case of allegedly "scratching out" an ACR written by Shekhawat, the response of NHQ was unequivocal: "As far as Naval Headquarters is aware, there was difference of perception between Admiral V.S. Shekhawat and the ex-CNS regarding the performance assessment of Cmde (Commodore) R.F. Contractor. The ex-CNS recorded his disagreement with Admiral Shekhawat, on the officer's ACR, stating that this issue has not been discussed with him, without giving any numerical grading to the officer's performance. Hence the gradings and performance of Admiral Shekhawat stand."

Sources contacted by Frontline confirmed that this is routine procedure. Performance reviews in the armed forces are an ongoing process. If errors are detected in an earlier assessment, the reviewing officer is at liberty to record these, normally by pasting a sticker over the ACR. These stickers are meant for the personnel section of the service headquarters and do not amount to a substantive change in assessment. In this sense, they do not normally enter into consideration when decisions on the career progression of the officer are made.

Clearly, there is a gulf which separates this reality from the portrayal of dark deeds that Fernandes provided Parliament. There has been no "tampering", nor has there been any "crossing out" or "superimposition" of adverse remarks. What has been recorded is a plain matter of fact - that Shekhawat as the senior reviewing officer had overruled Bhagwat and this difference of opinion, to the extent that it was of material circumstance, was not reflected in the records. If the Defence Minister has drawn his inferences from sources other than NHQ, then these remain unspecified. If he has wilfully misrepresented the factual position as obtained from NHQ, then he clearly owes Parliament an explanation.

Fernandes' most recent exertions cap a consistent record of evasion and obfuscation. Ever since he administered his infamous final solution to the problem of Vishnu Bhagwat on December 30, he has specialised in the art of manoeuvre. Rather than frontally take on the serious dimensions of the matter, he has chosen to run a campaign of selective leaks and disinformation through faithful proxies in the media. These efforts gained in ardour when Parliament convened for its Budget session. The Defence Minister obtained a temporary reprieve on account of initial political preoccupations with the situation in Bihar. Once that matter was dealt with, he has worked strenuously behind the scenes, sparing no threat or blandishment to avoid the basic norms of accountability to Parliament.

On March 4, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee called in leaders of all the major parties in the Rajya Sabha to explain why a debate on the Bhagwat issue was inadvisable. Although he initiated the discussion, Vajpayee only sat by in silent solidarity as Fernandes reportedly read out select extracts from confidential files. Parliamentarians were not given the privilege of examining the documents themselves on grounds of their sensitivity.

The purpose of this intervention from Fernandes was to provide the MPs with a hint of the grave national interests that were supposedly threatened by Bhagwat. Specific citations were read out from files pertaining to Operation Leach, a campaign launched in 1998 by all three wings of the armed services to curtail the flourishing traffic in illicit arms through the Andamans Sea. The campaign had yielded notable results, but one of the operations - in May 1998 - had resulted in six casualties. Elliptically, Fernandes sought to suggest at his meeting with the MPs that innocent civilians had been killed in the tri-service operation, warranting a thorough inquest into the conduct of the armed forces. But Admiral Bhagwat, he claimed, had blocked this perfectly reasonable demand.

Suggestions were also thrown out that the operation in the Andamans Sea endangered a sensitive intelligence operation. But the MPs were unconvinced. Fernandes' gambit had failed - few people were prepared to concede that his unprecedented dismissal of a military chief merited the waiver of parliamentary scrutiny on grounds of national security.

The Government remained unyielding for a while. When Parliament met shortly afterwards, Vajpayee came up with the caustic remark that having exhausted its ammunition on Bihar, the Opposition was now reciting the "Bhagwat purana" to sustain its flagging morale. That only served to deepen the sense of agitation. As the prospect of a paralysis of parliamentary business loomed, a more generous-sounding offer was made from the Government side: the presiding officers of the two Houses would constitute an informal committee drawn from both the Treasury and Opposition benches, to examine the relevant material and determine whether a debate would be appropriate.

This formula seemed for a brief while to enjoy unanimous assent, encouraging Parliamentary Affairs Minister Rangarajan Kumaramangalam to announce the composition of the committee. This was by all accounts a unilateral move, devoid of any prior consultations. Needless to say, the confidence of the Opposition in the efficacy of the proposed mechanism plunged, on account both of the procedure adopted and the composition of the committee. For instance, former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar was designated the convener of the group, though he was by his own avowals in Parliament opposed to a debate. Others such as former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral and Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav too had made no secret of their aversion to a discussion on the matter. Perhaps most damagingly, Fernandes himself figured on the committee though his conduct was supposedly under its direct scrutiny.

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Within the Congress(I), Sharad Pawar seemed inclined to give the committee a chance to function, though his view was not shared by any other leader of substance. Somnath Chatterji of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) and Indrajit Gupta of the Communist Party of India (CPI) - both nominated to be on the committee - remained non-committal about their participation in its deliberations. A debate was unavoidable, they pointed out. What the committee could at most do was set down the parameters that both Houses should follow, to avoid any unseemly intrusions into matters of national security.

By March 15, the committee proposal was in tatters. The following day, Congress(I) MP Rajesh Pilot raised the matter in the Lok Sabha, claiming knowledge of an affidavit that the former Navy Chief had filed which pointed to certain gross abuses of power by the Defence Minister. His party colleague Suresh Pachauri was concurrently pressing for a decision on his notice for a discussion in the Rajya Sabha.

The tide had by now begun to shift. In an ostentatious show of outrage on March 17, Fernandes dismissed the Bhagwat affidavit as a scurrilous and self-serving document. Speaking at a meeting of the informal committee that morning, he accepted the demand for a discussion in both Houses. The parameters of the debate, he said, could be set by the inherent sense of restraint of the members.

Fernandes convinced nobody with his new-found spirit of candour and transparency. The Opposition was insistent that the discussion should not be routine or cursory in nature, leaving all its key concerns unassuaged. Rather, it should entail a vote in both Houses of Parliament on the conduct of the Government. It was willing to relent in the case of the Lok Sabha, since the slender majority of the Government had just been put to test and found to hold in the matter of Bihar. But there was no way that it would be similarly accommodative in the Rajya Sabha.

After days of acrimony, Parliament went into its mid-session recess on March 19 with the matter yet to be resolved. The Lok Sabha is scheduled to discuss the Bhagwat matter on April 12. The Rajya Sabha is yet to agree on the date for its debate, or the rules of procedure under which it will be conducted.

THE parliamentary recess provided the occasion for a fresh offensive from the MoD. An official release was conjured up from the Press Information Bureau which virtually echoed the Defence Minister's reply to the parliamentary question on tampered ACRs. It claimed the endorsement of NHQ for the Minister's stand, though this seemed clearly to be at variance with the facts as revealed by the detailed communication from NHQ sent to the MoD just days prior (A copy of the 14-page communication is in the possession of Frontline). Seeking to draw the naval command hierarchy further into complicity, the official release of March 20 claimed that NHQ was studying the legal implications of Bhagwat's supposed actions, with a view to initiating necessary punitive action against him.

The case of Commodore Contractor had also figured in the Redressal of Grievance petition that Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh filed in March 1998, initiating the cycle of events that was to culminate in Bhagwat's dismissal. Harinder Singh had then avowed quite categorically that Bhagwat had confirmed both to him and the then Chief of Personnel in NHQ, Vice-Admiral Sushil Kumar, that he was in concurrence with Shekhawat's opinion and had no reservations about the altered gradings. Today, a committee of senior naval officers appointed by Admiral Sushil Kumar - who rose to the position of the Chief of the Naval Staff in the wake of Admiral Bhagwat's ouster - has recorded that there was indeed a difference of perception that was not adequately reflected in the official record. If the incumbent Chief of the Naval Staff has any recollection of the event, he has chosen not to express them.

There are broad areas of concord between the allegations that Harinder Singh chose to level against Bhagwat beginning in March last year, and the MoD's current offensive against the former Chief of the Naval Staff. This lends credence to the view that Harinder Singh was designated specifically as the instrument of a particular agenda against the command hierarchy in the Navy. He levelled the most scurrilous charges against his Service Chief seemingly without fear of reprimand. The notice he was issued to show cause why he should not be subject to disciplinary action remained unanswered. Rather, he was encouraged to approach the judiciary for quashing the notice. And when this attempt failed, his patrons stepped in to retrieve the situation - assuring the court that the matter would be handled directly by the MoD rather than NHQ.

Harinder Singh's appointment as the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff on December 9 accelerated the pace of events, leading finally to Bhagwat's removal. Significantly, one of Sushil Kumar's first public statements after taking over as the Chief of the Naval Staff was that this appointment would be reviewed. But the MoD was averse to any such process, since that would effectively have meant an admission of wrongdoing. With Fernandes having successfully converted the matter into one involving the very prestige of the Government, Harinder Singh finally took over as the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff on March 15.

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The DefenceMinister's answer to unstarred Question No. 3358 in the Lok Sabha on March 18 raises a host of questions.

WHEN Parliament resumes on April 12, the Opposition is likely to deploy another big gun in its battle. Bhagwat's sworn affidavit, which was obliquely hinted at on occasion, is known to be in the possession of a Congress(I) member of the Rajya Sabha. If this is tabled in the House, it would impart a new dimension to the debate on the dismissal of the former Chief of the Naval Staff.

It is known from the affidavit, for instance, that Bhagwat had not thought Harinder Singh fit for appointment to a senior position in NHQ for a variety of reasons. Aside from sharing links with arms dealers and being absent from command during Operation Leach, he had only earned the "outstanding" grading for a cumulative period of 16 months in a 36-year career. By contrast, Bhagwat's own choice for the position of the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice-Admiral Madanjit Singh, had a consistent record of earning this grade. It is a mystery why his appointment, sent up for Cabinet approval in June 1998, was not cleared - inscrutable unless it is viewed as part of an elaborate strategy centred on Harinder Singh.

The affidavit makes a forceful claim for unravelling this mystery. The facts that were placed before the Appointments Committee of Cabinet, says Bhagwat, are not known: "What kind of documentation was prepared and what selective material was put forward and what withheld, is a matter which can only be answered by looking at the official records. As the former CNS, I can say with some authority that in normal circumstances an officer who has the kind of record (as Harinder Singh) ... would not have been even considered for appointment as DCNS. The issue is not whether certain officers have moved a court of law. The issue is institutional. The issue relates to the integrity of the armed forces. The issue relates to its politicisation."

Contrary to the Defence Minister's claim at his in camera meeting with members of the Rajya Sabha, Bhagwat states in his affidavit that he had few reservations about the need for a civil inquest into the conduct of Operation Leach. Rather, all that he indicated, with the endorsement of the other defence chiefs, was that the Service personnel called upon to provide evidence in the case should be given the protection that was their due. This was in accordance with the precedent established in the case of m.v. Ahat, the ship that was interdicted on the high seas by the Indian Navy in 1994 and was later found to be ferrying the Tamil Tiger Kittu. Several casualties were incurred in that incident and in October 1998 Bhagwat insisted that the procedures followed then for recording the testimony of the armed forces personnel should be followed in the inquest into Operation Leach. At this, he records, "the Defence Minister appeared to be very upset and wanted expeditious completion of court proceedings in respect of the accused persons on trial."

THE motivations of the Defence Minister, as also of the MoD, remain opaque. But these revelations come as part of a sequence of damaging reports about the conduct of the Ministry in relation to Operation Leach. There was first an effort to restrain the armed forces and to impose on them the condition that they obtain the prior clearance of the Ministry before initiating their combing operations. When the Service chiefs unanimously turned down this condition on grounds both of legality and operational viability, the MoD sought to contain their activities within the country's Exclusive Economic Zone, again with no obvious rationale.

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Various suspicions have been floated in the last two months, without the slightest effort at explanation from the MoD. Bhagwat's affidavit now threatens to ratchet up the intensity of the challenge. It crystallises a series of responses to the grounds that Fernandes has adduced since December 30 to justify the dismissal of the Chief of the Naval Staff.

It is a basic principle of natural justice that no individual can be convicted on the basis of evidence that he is unaware of. In the three months since his ouster, Bhagwat, and indeed the nation, have been at a loss to comprehend the reasons behind the unprecedented action. In the vacuum of reason that the MoD and the Minister in particular have created, Bhagwat has intervened with a special vigour. He has been blunt, as a soldier or a sailor is apt to be. And he has been forceful to the point of being considered '' tactless'', as a man seeking to vindicate his honour is entitled to be. But the points he makes raise serious questions about the management of the national security apparatus.

There seems no realistic option now but a thorough and impartial inquiry in the appropriate forum - whether parliamentary or judicial. Stonewalling on grounds of national security will simply not carry any further credibility. The recent actions of the Defence Minister show how easy it is for low intrigue to flourish behind a camouflage of national interest.

Point-Counterpoint: Responses from NHQ

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The Pioneer newspaper in Delhi carried reports on February 22 and 23 which made out charges of serious wrongdoing against the former Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. The origin of the story and its authenticity were always uncertain since no other news organisation had thought it appropriate to devote space to it. It has since transpired that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had referred the stories to Naval Headquarters (NHQ) for a response.

Frontline has in its possession the detailed 14-page response sent by NHQ on the request of the MoD. The contrast between the wild nature of the allegations and the sobriety of the responses from NHQ is seen as a telling comment on the nature of the war of innuendo under way between the MoD and Service headquarters.

Further insights into this alarming breakdown of civility come from the Defence Minister's evident misrepresentation on the floor of Parliament of information received from NHQ and his effort to make out a case against the former CNS for allegedly tampering with the annual confidential reports of senior naval personnel. Frontline reproduces in facsimile, in the public interest, key sections of NHQ's response to the MoD reference.

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A key appointment under a cloud

The basis on which Dr. S.P. Agarwal was chosen to the post of Director-General of Health Services two years ago comes under question.

ALMOST two years after Dr.S.P. Agarwal was appointed Director-General of Health Services under the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the appointment has come under a cloud. There have been allegations regarding the Annual Confidential Reports (ACR) based on which the appointment was made on April 10, 1997, and certain documents have been made available to Frontline in support of these allegations.

One of the most relevant documents that have evidentiary value is a copy of a letter written by Dr.Narendra Bihari, former Additional DGHS, to the then Health Secretary, P.P. Chauhan, admitting that he had prepared the ACRs pertaining to Agarwal for four years (1988-89 to 1991-92) on one particular date on the instructions of the then DGHS, Dr G.K. Vishwakarma, who signed them as the reviewing officer. This, according to Bihari, was done in the presence of Agarwal himself. Although the letter was sent to the Health Secretary in July-August 1996, no action has been initiated either against Bihari or any other official concerned.

In his hand-written letter to Chauhan, dated July 22, 1996 and marked 'Confidential', Bihari said that the ACRs had not been written year-wise. Bihari wrote: "I was called along with Dr.S.P. Agarwal by the then DGHS and asked to report his ACRs for the above years 'Outstanding', which were reviewed in front of me by Dr. G.K. Vishwakarma." Bihari added that he was not the reporting officer during that period as he was of the same rank as Agarwal and that the ACR should have been written by the DGHS and reviewed by the Health Secretary. The letter said that "necessary action as deemed fit" could be taken.

The fact that these ACRs were not written at the end of the relevant years is borne out by Bihari's official seal, which shows him to be on a pay scale of Rs.7,300-Rs.7,600, for which he was made eligible only by a Government Order dated November 11, 1991. (The ACR for 1988-89 also carries this seal.) Similarly, Vishwakarma could not have reviewed them before this date. The dates mentioned in Vishwakarma's remarks as reviewing officer are June 10, 1990 for 1989-90 and May 25, 1991 for 1990-91, both dates prior to the date on which Bihari could have written the ACRs.

According to another document, on September 11, 1990, Vishwakarma recorded a note saying that as he was not in office during 1989-90 for more than eight months, he had sought the opinion of the Director, Vigilance on the appropriateness of his reviewing the confidential reports concerned. This indicates that by September 11, 1990, he had not reviewed the ACRs of any officer for the year 1989-90 since he doubted his competence to do so. The question, therefore, is whether his remarks as a reviewing officer for Agarwal for 1989-90, with the date of the review being shown as June 6, 1990, will not amount to falsification.

In Bihari's case, apparently after the receipt of his letter of July 22, 1996, the Health Ministry seems to have looked into the matter and decided to "paper over" his remarks as the reporting officer for the year 1990-91. A note from C.L.Bhatia, Under Secretary to the Government of India, dated September 26, 1996, states: "Since Medical Superintendent, Dr.Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, was not the prescribed reporting authority during 1990-91 in respect of Dr. Agarwal, the remarks made by him in his capacity as the reporting officer has been papered over and the remarks of DGHS allowed to stand."

Yet, Agarwal was appointed Director-General on the basis of these ACRs. Moreover, Vishwakarma, the then DGHS, marked the grade 'Outstanding' on the ACRs for the four years. Prashant Bhushan, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court, and member of the Centre of Public Interest Litigation, alleges that Agarwal had participated in a conspiracy to falsify his own ACRs. He argues that it amounts to forgery under Sections 463 and 464 of the Indian Penal Code. The sections define forgery as the making of a document by a person with the intention of causing it to be believed that such document was made at a time at which he knows that it was not made or executed. The writing of four ACRs on one day and back-dating them to make them appear that they had been written year-wise amounted to forgery under Section 463 and 464 of the IPC, Prashant Bhushan says.

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Reproduced in facsimile, the reporting officer's assessment for the purposes of the Annual Confidential Report of Dr.S.P. Agarwal for 1989-90. The official seal of the reporting officer, Dr. Narendra Bihari, mentions his own pay scale as "Rs.7,300 to Rs.7,600", which indicates that the entry was not made at the end of the relevant year. (Below) The Government Order dated November 11, 1991 which fixes the pay scale of Bihari at Rs.7,300-100-7,600 plus a non-practising allowance (NPA) of Rs.1,000.

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The next lot of ACRs, for the years 1994-95 and 1995-96, also appears to have been prepared through a process similar to the one through which the other ACRs were prepared. The ACR for 1994-95 was written by Mukherjee and reviewed by M.S. Dayal on April 12, 1996 after the latter had retired as Health Secretary. Dayal's remarks were papered over on June 19, 1996 on the grounds that having retired, he was not competent to be a reviewing officer. The ACR for 1995-96 was in two parts, one for the period between April 1, 1995 and September 11, 1995 and the other for the period between September 12, 1995 and March 31, 1996. In the first part, Mukherjee is once again seen to have signed without giving a date as the reporting officer and the review by Dayal has been dated April 12, 1996. It was again papered over on July 19, 1996 on the grounds that a retired Health Secretary could not be the competent reviewing officer. Apparently the ACRs for these two years were prepared on or around April 12, 1996 although Dayal retired from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) on January 31, 1996. Despite this, he signed on the ACRs as reviewing officer.

That the ACR for the year 1994-95 was reported by Mukherjee only after March 20, 1996 is evident from a noting he made on a letter from the Joint Secretary, Ministry of Health, on the same date. The Joint Secretary's letter requests Mukherjee to "send the above ACRs duly reported, preferably within the next two or three days". The ACRs mentioned are those of Agarwal, Bihari and Dr.J.L. Srivastava, all Central Government Health Service officers. Mukherjee's handwritten note says that none of the ACRs was with the D-G's office. Hence it is contended that the ACR for 1994-95 was written only after March 20, 1996 and not in 1995. The second part of the ACR for the period between September 12 and March 31, 1996 was again written undated by Mukherjee and was not reviewed because the Health Secretary's post was vacant at that time.

It is alleged that a number of rules have been bent to appoint Agarwal to the post when there were two other contenders - Bihari, who was the ADGHS in 1994-95, and Srivastava, who was the Head of the Department of Burns and Plastic Surgery at Safdarjung Hospital, Delhi. It is alleged that while the competence of these officers could have been tested, more than one person in the Health Ministry went out of the way to ensure that Agarwal became the DGHS.

Although Frontline made repeated attempts to contact Agarwal, he was unavailable for comment.

The Centre for Public Litigation has brought these points to the attention of the Cabinet Secretary and the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC). The centre, in a letter dated March 5, requested the CVC to take action against the officials concerned for criminal misconduct under the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA). Section 13 (1) DII of the PCA defines criminal misconduct as an act of a public servant who "by abusing his position as a public servant obtains for himself or for other persons any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage." The Centre for Public Litigation has contended that the officials abused their positions as public servants by forging the confidential reports of Agarwal in order to get him promoted and appointed DGHS. The letter has warned of legal proceedings unless the investigating agency takes up the issue immediately.

Millennium at Khajuraho

A major effort is launched to showcase and put in perspective the legacy of the temple town of Khajuraho.

IT is celebration time at the temple town of Khajuraho, the capital of the medieval Chandella kings, in Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh. President K.R. Narayanan launched on March 6 the year-long Khajuraho Millennium festival in a high-profile event. The main objective of the festival is to revive and showcase, through research, documentation and composition of new repertoires by artists, the cultural heritage of the tourist destination of central India in order to make it relevant to the present generation. President Narayanan described the celebrations as a landmark event in the cultural history of India. He saluted the thousand-year-old architectural splendour of Khajuraho observing that the clutch of temples had for centuries provided aesthetic joy and spiritual exaltation to millions of Indians and wonder and delight to the whole world.

The inaugural event, held at the picturesque Sivasagar lake, was conceived in keeping with the spirit of the process of globalisation (details of the Millennium show were provided online). A select group of high-profile Indians and persons from abroad were invited. The event began with the traditional blowing of the conch. A colourful tableau on a floating raft depicted symbols of the Chandella dynasty. The events climaxed with the rendition of the theme song by India's leading fusion band, Indian Ocean, with the silhouettes of Khajuraho's famed temples providing the backdrop. The President lit the lamp marking the inauguration of the Khajuraho Dance Festival, the annual festival of classical dance organised by the Madhya Pradesh Kala Parishad.

The first lady, Usha Narayanan, who released an anthology on Khajuraho published by the Bharatiya Jnanpith, said: "Even though we are an ancient civilisation, the beauty and aesthetics of civilised life is something we have to search for in our daily struggle for survival." She asserted that "we have not yet fully succeeded in making our people take pride in our culture," adding that instead of realising the greatness of India's culture and heritage, Indians tended to undermine their importance.

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No nation could forge ahead without taking pride in its own cultural heritage, she said, describing the temple complex as a monument to the celebration of life in all its complexity - from the mundane to the sublime.

THE magnificent edifices in Khajuraho, built during A.D. 950-1050, were lost in dense forests and were discovered in the last century. Between 1852 and 1885, Alexander Cunningham, after a survey, submitted a detailed report describing the inscriptions, mounds and images that were found. But it was only when India's first President, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, visited Khajuraho that the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) began clearing the forest, fencing the area and restoring the temples. In 1969, the foundation of the first modern hotel was laid in Khajuraho; simultaneously the place was provided an air link by Indian Airlines. Today there are several hotels at Khajuraho, luxury hotels and hotels meant for the budget traveller. The rush of tourists gives one the impression that the benefits of the tourism industry in Khajuraho have percolated down; however, the life of the local people and the residents of neighbouring villages presents a less comfortable picture.

Villages in the area are inhabited by marginal farmers. The Indian National Trust for Art, Culture and Heritage (INTACH), in collaboration with the organisation, Development Alternatives, had submitted to the Madhya Pradesh Government in December 1997 a proposal for "Sustainable Development Strategy for Khajuraho". Subsequently the Khajuraho Planning Team was constituted with professionals in environment and landscape planning, heritage conservation, infrastructure development and tourism planning with an overall perspective of sustainable development. The team was supported by advisers and a technical review committee set up by INTACH. An executive summary which came out of this initiative pointed out that although agriculture was the predominant occupation in the region, it did not help provide enough employment to the youth who were gradually moving towards non-farm activities. The team suggested the supply of processed and semi-processed farm products to the tourism industry in addition to the starting of travel and tourism related services. It also identified income generating opportunities based on traditional skills and crafts, such as bamboo crafts, pottery, carpentry and goldsmithy.

Tourism is the next important contributor to the local economy. Fresh assessments have indicated that over the next six years the entire Khajuraho Heritage Region will host double the number of tourists currently visiting the town, 2.3 lakhs a year. Union Minister for Communications Jagmohan, who attended the celebrations, said that special care should be taken to ensure that the huge resources generated through tourism are not cornered by the travel trade industry. He said the revenue should be utilised to help improve the quality of life of the common people.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh told mediapersons after the inaugural function that an integrated plan was being launched for the all-round development of Khajuraho. He said that the emphasis was not only on the conservation of the temple complex but also on the integrated development of Khajuraho and its surrounding areas. He admitted that the roads to Khajuraho were in poor shape but maintained that there had been some improvement in the road link between Jhansi and Khajuraho. The State Government was giving priority to the Bhopal-Sagar-Chhatarpur road, he said.

Digvijay Singh said that the Khajuraho Millennium celebrations would provide an opportunity to present before the world a new picture of Khajuraho and its legacy. He hoped that the understanding of the beauty of the temple town would not be restricted to its erotic sculptures.

Later, in an interview to Frontline, Digvijay Singh said that while the beginning of a new millennium was being celebrated throughout the world, Khajuraho was the only heritage site celebrating its millennium simultaneously.

Reflecting on his plans and vision for Khajuraho, he said: "The Government is concerned not only about the conservation of the temples but about improving the quality of life of the people living in Khajuraho and creating the right kind of environment for the sustainable development of the area." The objective, he said, was integrated development.

Tourism being an environment-friendly and labour-intensive industry, the Government was keen to develop the sector, he said. However, owing to a resource crunch it wanted more private initiative in this area, he added.

The Chief Minister stressed the need to provide the kind of ambience and facilities that would encourage tourists to stay for longer periods and spend more in Khajuraho. In this respect, he suggested conducted tours to the Panna National Park as also facilities such as a golf course, an amusement park and mahseer fishing in the Ken river that flows through the town. He said the handicrafts sector should be given an impetus to project the tribal and folk arts and crafts of the State.

Efforts would also be made to attract tourists visiting Khajuraho to other places of interest in the State, such as Maheshwar, Ujjain, Omkareshwar and Bastar, he said. Digvijay Singh said the State Government planned to provide a permanent air link between Bhopal and Khajuraho so that Sanchi and Bhimbetaka as well as Indore and Mandu could become part of an interesting tourist circuit along with Khajuraho.

On an ongoing debate whether to open casinos as a means to increase tourist income, he said this kind of destination needed a clientele different from that patronising other tourist spots. Khajuraho is a mature tourist destination, which needed highly trained guides to give the right kind of message regarding the real ethos behind the sculptures and the religious thought behind the building of these temples, he pointed out.

PRESIDENT Narayanan wound up his visit to Khajuraho by inaugurating on March 8 the Museum of Tribal and Folk Art. Madhya Pradesh has a rich tradition of tribal and folk arts. The Khajuraho Museum, established by the Madhya Pradesh Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, displays artefacts that form a "continuing tradition coming down from time immemorial and are quite akin to archaeological objects in their timelessness," according to Alok Shrivastava, Director of the State Archaeology Department. The President, who spent almost 80 minutes at the museum, wrote in the visitors' book: "I am delighted to see this Tribal Museum. It is a treasure house of the tribal art of Madhya Pradesh. It shows the genius of our tribal people flowering in beautiful art forms of daily use."

Erotic ironies

PERHAPS the most important feature of erotic imagery in early and medieval India, whether in the temples of Khajuraho or the Konark temple complex in Orissa is its importance in the religious iconography of this period. In the Chandella temples of Khajuraho, built between the 10th and 12th centuries, erotic sculpture constitutes less than 10 per cent of the artistic representation. Even so, the variety and boldness of erotic expression here, its spatial positioning on the temples, and the remarkable detail of its execution, suggest that it was meant to hold the attention of the pilgrim and devotee, and was an essential part of the temple-going experience.

The self-appointed guardians of Hinduism and Hindu culture today often turn violent when Hindu goddesses are shown nude in artistic representation. The imagery of Khajuraho offers with unambiguous visual clarity the role of sexuality in certain cultural and religious customs of Hinduism. The broad umbrella of Hinduism could accommodate diverse cultural and philosophical strands - of renunciation, asceticism and detachment on the one hand, and of religio-cultural practices in which sex played an important part, on the other. And it was the religious environment of the temple rather than any secular space that formed the setting for the depiction of erotic themes.

In a scholarly study of erotic sculpture in India, Devangana Desai has traced the historical development of erotic motifs, the role of sex in a religion which sanctioned sexual depiction in temple art, and the socio-economic milieu in which sexual depiction was sustained and glorified (Erotic Sculpture of India: A Socio-Cultural Study, Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, New Delhi, 1975). Desai has recently published a book exclusively on Khajuraho (The Religious Imagery of Khajuraho, Franco-Indian Research Pvt Ltd, Mumbai, 1997) in which she has extensively used textual and inscriptional sources to contextualise the art and architecture of Khajuraho.

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By the 10th century, the depiction of sex in art entered a qualitatively new phase. Erotic motifs were no longer confined to less prominent spaces in temples. All forms of sexual depiction, ranging from the sexual and auto-erotic attitudes of men and women, including gods and goddesses, members of the aristocracy, and ascetics to group sexuality and bestiality were displayed ostentatiously on the exteriors and in the interiors of the temples. This was a period when in Central India, feudalism developed and temple building became an important activity and statement of power of the feudal ruling classes. Temples became larger and grander with ample space for artistic expression. According to Devangana Desai the four principal dynasties that spread across Central India - the Chandellas of Jejakabhukti (who built the Khajuraho temples), the Kalachuris of Dahala, the Khachchapaghatas of Gwalior and the Paramaras of Malwa - engaged in extensive temple building, which shared common building conventions despite differences owing to the stamp of the particular dynasty and other local factors.

It was under the Chandella rulers that Khajuraho acquired religious and political importance. It was a place of Sakta worship in the 9th century. By the middle of the 10th century a fully developed style of Nagara temple architecture emerged. Devangana Desai has divided the temples of Khajuraho into two groups based on the treatment of erotic motifs in their art. The first group comprises the structures built between A.D. 950 and 1050, which include the Lakshmana, Parsvanatha, Vishvanatha, Devi Jagadamba, Chitragupta and Kandariya Mahadeva shrines. The second group, constructed between A.D. 1050 and 1150, includes the Vamana, Adinatha, Javari, Chaturbhuja and Duladeva temples. The shrines in the first group, built when the Chandellas were in the ascendant and Khajuraho became the capital city of a wealthy ruling class, depict a large number of erotic motifs, whereas those constructed when the dynasty was on the decline have fewer representations of a sexual nature.

Different erotic motifs are represented on the Lakshmana temple; a Vaishnava shrine built in the Nagara style and one of the earliest of the temples to be built in Khajuraho by Yasovarman. The temple's consecration took place under Yasovarman's son Dhangadeva. The motifs - of coital and pre-coital couples and erotic groups - are depicted in prominent and recessed parts of the temple. According to Devangana Desai, one of the most frenzied orgiastic scenes in Indian art is depicted on the Lakshmana temple on a one-foot-long frieze, which also depicts persons involved in the preparation of an aphrodisiac. Erotic motifs are present also at the Parsvanatha temple, a Jain temple built soon after the construction of the Lakshmana temple. This is significant as Jains were known for their puritanical attitude towards sex. Devangana Desai suggests that the presence of erotic representation may have been owing to the influence of Tantrism on Jainism in the medieval period; it may also have been because of the fact that the same guild of artisans built the Lakshmana and Parsvanatha temples and introduced common motifs on them. The erotic representation on the latter is, however, more restrained than on the former - orgiastic representation, for example, is absent in the Parsvanatha temple.

The other 11th century temples belonging to the first group - the shrines of Visvanatha, Chitragupta, Devi Jagadamba and Kandariya Mahadeva - present more or less the same kind of erotic images. Of these the Visvanatha and Kandariya Mahadeva temples, the largest and the most beautiful of the Khajuraho temples, are Saiva shrines. The Devi Jagadamba temple was originally a Vaisnava shrine, and the Chitragupta temple is the only Saura shrine on the site. Devangana Desai points to the fact of the more chaste and restrained divine erotic group in the Visvanatha temple being replaced by the orgiastic group in the Kandariya Mahadeva temple built 25 years later, which supports the hypothesis that there was an increase in sensuality in this period. The fact that people who figure in the orgiastic representations in Khajuraho are members of high society or ascetics also suggest that the occasions depicted may have been religious rituals in which royal families and Tantriks participated. The second group of temples were built between the middle of the 11th century and the middle of the 12th century, a period which saw the political decline of the Chandellas. These temples, which belong to the Jaina, Vaishnava and Saiva faiths, treat erotic motifs with more restraint. This has nothing to do with sectarian differences. In fact, Devangana Desai points to the interesting fact that shrines of the same faith, situated on the same site and built within 50 years of each other, treat erotic motifs with considerable difference. That there was a decline in the affluence of the patron of the temples during this period may partially explain the sobering in the sexual representation. Alongside there was also a change in attitudes and something of a backlash against the milieu of eroticism, says Devangana Desai, pointing to the Prabhodachandrodaya, a pronouncedly anti-erotic play written by the court dramatist, Krisna Misra.

Sexual depiction in religious art first served a magico-religious function. The worldly interest in sex changed the sacred nature of sexual depictions leading to its secularisation and sensualisation and to it acquiring an aesthetic of its own. The historical progression of erotic imagery in Indian art, Devangana Desai argues, reveals the constant interaction of its magico-religious origins, which centre around fetishistic beliefs and fertility cults, and the worldly, pleasure-giving aspects of sex, outlined in the texts on eroticism written at that time. The profuse depiction of sex in temple art from A.D. 900 onwards suggests the permeation of Tantric elements into Puranic Hinduism and its influence on all major religions. The highly secretive nature of the Tantric religion, including its sexual-religious practices, does not fit in with the public display of erotic themes in temples at this time. Tantrism may have influenced erotic temple art, without being functionally related to its cultist and secretive aspects.

An important socio-cultural factor that contributed to the profusion of erotic imagery in temples was the growth of feudalism and the spurt in temple building activity - not just in Khajuraho but all over India - by feudal chiefs, military officers and other dignitaries. These persons competed among themselves in constructing splendid and ornate palaces. Feudalism also led to the disintegration of centralised polities and the strengthening of local interests and forces. Regionalism and the development of regional conventions strongly influenced art forms, just as they influenced other aspects of cultural life, such as literature, language and costume. This had its influence on the erotic motif, between A.D. 900 and AD 1400, which got standardised and cannonised into regional patterns of art.

A new imprint

The CPI(M) launches a publishing venture, with a view to enlarging the domain of socialist theory and restoring some of the traditional concerns ofLeft-wing politics to their earlier centrality.

INDIAN industry is in recession, though there seems to be no slump in the bazaar for ideas. Publishing as a business is flourishing as never before, in harmonious step with the burgeoning of literary talent in India. Since it is by definition driven by a spirit of opportunism - the eye for the main chance being the main determinant of commercial success - the marketplace of ideas has, inevitably, closely mirrored the fortunes of various political doctrines.

Left-wing ideas and Marxist doctrine have at first look fallen upon lean days ever since the breakdown of the socialist system in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The moral atmosphere created by the decisive rejection of a 75-year old experiment in the Soviet Union was far from conducive to the sustenance of a creative Left-wing political discourse. In addition, there were the material difficulties created by the drying up of the sources of Left-wing literature. Publishing houses in the Soviet Union and the erstwhile eastern bloc had played a crucial role in maintaining the availability of the classics of Marxist-Leninist literature. In the 1990s, these were simply forced to close down on account of the crisis of economic viability.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has now initiated a publishing venture outside its established party channels, in order to remedy the latter problem. LeftWord Books, an imprint of a publishing firm controlled by the party, will seek to enlarge the domain of socialist theory and restore some of the traditional concerns of Left-wing politics to their earlier centrality. The first offering of this publishing venture, a collection of essays to commemorate the passage of 150 years since The Communist Manifesto, was released in Delhi on March by CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet.

The volume takes its title, A World to Win, from that stirring phrase of The Communist Manifesto. Edited by Prakash Karat, a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau, the volume has essays by the historian Irfan Habib, the economist Prabhat Patnaik, and the political theorist and literary critic Aijaz Ahmad. It presents the full English text of The Communist Manifesto, as translated by Samuel Moore in 1888. It also reproduces Friedrich Engels' preface to the 1888 English translation and a detailed publishing history of the tract in various Indian languages.

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SPEAKING on the occasion of the launch, Aijaz Ahmad described the manifesto as a tract that was ahead of its time. All its prophecies about the evolution of capitalism were made at a time when the system was in its incipient phase of growth in Britain. France was still very much an agrarian society and Germany was yet to attain the basic level of political unity and bourgeois solidarity that is essential for capitalist development.

Yet the forecast that capitalism would operate on a world scale to accelerate the polarisation of society into two antagonistic classes, had proven remarkably prescient. There were, naturally, aspects of this evolution which remained obscure to even the sharpest perception 150 years back. Ahmad drew pointed attention to the growing productive role of women. The centrality of the so-called "women's question" was not a consequence of intangibles, such as their work in households and farmsteads, but of their direct contribution to capitalist output. This made it essential that the Left movement should reckon actively with the specific question of gender justice, and not cede the leadership of the women's movement to anti-Communist forces.

Prabhat Patnaik drew attention to the rapid extinction of the celebratory mood in right-wing circles since the break-up of the Soviet Union. It seemed less than a decade back that the triumph of capitalism was complete. But the 1990s have brought unforeseen miseries to the majority of the global population. Latin America and Africa, which suffered the worst of the 1980s - now recognised as the "lost decade" for the project of world development - saw a pronounced aggravation of their economic plight in the following decade. And they were joined in their gloom by Asia, which had seemingly held out against the tide of the 1980s. Indeed, said Patnaik, today the entire global economy, with the exception of the United States and the United Kingdom, is sunk in recession. And ongoing processes seem to indicate that these two countries will not be able to resist the onset of a generalised crisis for too long.

The prognosis, then, is that capitalism will mount a savage campaign to maintain the system of privileges that it has built up over the years. As Ahmad put it, the political choice was very clear - between a universal war of devastation and the liberation of all for the liberation of each. In the memorable words of Rosa Luxembourg, the choice was between socialism and barbarism.

In the creation of LeftWord, Patnaik saw an opportunity to redress one of the most serious shortcomings of Indian socialist thought. Although in practical terms the Left movement in India had been extremely innovative in the range of responses it had managed to evolve to concrete circumstances, the theoretical contributions had been relatively modest.

The crisis of capitalism did not mean that socialism would revive spontaneously. Rather, the circumstances for reintroducing socialism into the political agenda were more appropriate than at any time in the last decade. This called for a reconstitution of the socialist project as a "theoretical whole", said Patnaik. And this in turn required the Indian Left to shed its reticence and take up actively the challenge of theoretical work.

Releasing the book, Surjeet pointed out that the demand for the classic works of Marxism-Leninism had been rising all over the world since the demise of the Soviet Union. LeftWord could step into the breach created by the withdrawal of low-cost publishers from Moscow and East Berlin. At the same time, in addressing current topics it would not be constrained, as the Soviet publications were, by reasons of state. Surjeet recalled that the tendency of Soviet political theorists to take an overly lenient and accommodative stance towards the Indian ruling classes was always an irritant in relations with the Left movement in India.

A World to Win is dedicated to the memory of E.M.S. Namboodiripad, the doyen of Indian Marxism who passed away exactly a year ago. He had in the last weeks of his life consented to write the foreword to the proposed volume on The Communist Manifesto. That promise remained unfulfilled. But in launching the publication project, Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechury and Sukomal Sen - the three trustees of LeftWord - obviously hope to reinvigorate the rich vein of theoretical work that E.M.S. sought all through his life to explore.

A long-awaited South Asian atlas

Ecological and Agrarian Regions of South Asia, circa 1930 edited by Daniel Thorner; Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1996; pages 148; Pakistan Rs.1,700.

THIS atlas, which depicts the agrarian and ecological landscape of the Indian subcontinent in 1930 from a regional-historical perspective, has been published by the Oxford University Press, Karachi. A remarkable product of collaborative scholarship, it was planned, edited and fully prepared for the press by 1965 under the supervision of Daniel Thorner, eminent economic historian, well-known to generations of Indian students, researchers and government officers. Publication, however, was held up until 1996, more than 20 years after Thorner's death.

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The core of the project is a definitive monograph on regional development in the Indian subcontinent, researched and written in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the Chinese historian Chen Han-seng.

The monograph, "the most thorough and penetrating analysis known to me of the data pertaining to regional differentiation in South Asia," as Daniel Thorner wrote in his preface, is presented in full in the Regions. The other important aspect of the book - cartographic illustration of Chen's 21 regions and the accompanying tables - was an idea that matured and bore fruit after Thorner joined the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Institute of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences) in Paris as a Visiting Professor in 1960 (he was subsequently elected to a permanent Chair). A research team set up within the Institute gathered, sifted and consolidated the crop and land use information reproduced in the tables as well as the additional data on irrigation systems, population of towns and so on, shown on the maps.

There are two maps - one displaying topography, water resources, roads, railways and cities and the other providing district-wise crop patterns - for each of Chen's 21 geographical regions. The only work to which this may be compared is the path-breaking Atlas of the Mughal Empire by Irfan Habib, depicting the economic and political contours of 17th century India. The striking difference between the two is, of course, the more consistent data sources upon which the present work could draw, material which became available only with the statistical proclivities of the British raj.

Given the subcontinent's shared past, it should not come as a surprise that an atlas on South Asia has been published in Pakistan. Ideally, such a work should have been brought out simultaneously in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the three contemporary nations whose common economic history it documents. In fact the road to Karachi was paved with Daniel Thorner's successive attempts to place the manuscript with publishing houses in Mumbai, the Netherlands and England, and, after his death in 1974, the herculean efforts made by Alice Thorner, Daniel Thorner's widow, a social and economic historian herself, to bring out the Atlas in India. In her foreword to the book, she tells but one part of the publication story.

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Alice Thorner, who spoke to Frontline in Bangalore during her recent visit to India, recounted the final segment of this story - her experiences with bureaucratic rigidity and incompetence which effectively drove out of India the printing and publication of a splendid book of both topical and reference interest. Since the volume may not legally be imported into this country, most Indian readers are effectively denied access to this work.

Chen Han-seng, the author of the original monograph, came to India in the early 1940s as a pro-Communist refugee from Kuomintang oppression in China. He had studied history in Germany and the United States and had been associated with Mme Sun-Yat- Sen's Shanghai group. Chen was a major contributor to a volume on the agrarian regions of China, brought out by the Institute of Pacific Relations in the 1930s. It was in Delhi in 1944 that he met Daniel Thorner, who had come to India as a member of the U.S. Lend-Lease Mission. The variety and complexity of agrarian regimes in the subcontinent proved to be an area of shared interest, and they quickly became good friends. The ever-curious Chen travelled extensively in India, asking questions wherever he went and learning about crops, wages, prices, crafts and so on. He came into contact with a number of Indian intellectuals, notably the Kisan Sabha leader N.G. Ranga who frequently took him along on his rural tours. "Chen had a fantastic memory. He noticed everything and remembered everything," recalled Alice Thorner.

In 1948, when Daniel Thorner joined the faculty of the South Asia Regional Studies Programme at the University of Pennsylvania as Assistant Professor, he recommended Chen's name for a senior research fellowship to work on a regional approach to the Indian agrarian question. The distinguished Sanskritist W. Norman Brown, who had created the programme, the first of its kind in the U.S., agreed. By 1952, Chen had succeeded in completing a manuscript, two copies of which he left with Thorner before he returned to China. He was given an honoured place in the Chinese academic world and became one of the editors of the glossy journal China Reconstructs.

Chen and Daniel Thorner did not meet again, although they remained in touch through mutual friends. In 1952, Thorner was given a sabbatical year which he planned to spend in India. Shortly before leaving he was summoned to testify before the Committee headed by Senator Pat McCarran, which was investigating the allegedly pro-Communist activities of the Sinologist Owen Lattimore, and was accordingly interrogating persons who had been associated with him. Thorner refused to cooperate with the Committee. When he finally arrived in India in October 1952, Thorner carried a copy of the Chen manuscript with him. The second manuscript, which he had left in a file cabinet in his office in the University, never reached him, although the rest of his books and papers were eventually shipped to him in Mumbai.

The Thorners remained in India until 1960, when Daniel Thorner was invited as a Visiting Professor to the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. It was here that he met Jacques Bertin, Director of the Cartographic Laboratory of the Ecole. Between the two of them the idea of illustrating Chen's text in map form took shape. Although the work on the maps, the statistical tables and the graphic representations as well as Chen's text was completed by 1965, all of Thorner's negotiations with prospective publishers came to naught. When he died in 1974, three publishing concerns had successively taken up and dropped the work, largely for reasons of cost.

"From that moment on anything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong," said Alice Thorner. After a series of avoidable delays, one of the owners of the publication house finally sent the maps to the Survey of India for permission to print. He neglected to mention that the maps were historical. The Survey refused permission on the grounds that the district boundaries were wrongly drawn, the rivers, deltas and coastlines inaccurate and above all, the international boundaries with Bangladesh and Pakistan did not appear. (The maps in fact pertained to the year 1930, when neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh existed.) It was at this point that an important person involved in the project - "an eminent geographer from the JNU," in Alice Thorner's words - sent a "draftsman" to the Survey of India office to "correct" the maps. Sitting in the Survey headquarters in Dehra Dun, this young man "who had no notion of map making," said Alice Thorner, effectively mutilated the elegantly designed pages. He inserted the Pakistan and Bangladesh frontiers and redrew stretches of rivers as well as the entire coastlines in thick black strokes. Originally these had been delineated in a light grey to highlight other features such as contour, forest cover and command of irrigation works. Apparently the Survey staff did not realise that they were dealing with maps drawn on an earlier projection used by the Survey itself in the years before 1930. "As a result the newly added borders ran through pie graphs and legends, coastal cities like Porbander and Veraval in Gujarat left out in the sea, symbols for trees in the Sunderbans were removed and so forth," recounted Alice Thorner. Neither she nor any member of the French cartographic team was informed of these alterations.

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In December 1981 the publishers presented her with a printed-up version of the text, tables and disgracefully disfigured maps. "I wrote a seven or eight page memo in cold fury, indicating that there was no question of publication," she said. The ICSSR then appointed a committee, which, after a year of deliberations, recommended that four of the maps might be reprinted. Nothing happened at all for another five years until Alice Thorner succeeded in redeeming the manuscript and handing it over to the Oxford University Press in New Delhi. New negotiations with the Survey of India resulted in new stalemates. At long last, OUP Pakistan agreed to take over the job; it did an excellent job of printing and binding.

Chen's written text - precise, concise and well-documented - bears the unmistakable impress of a qualitative input as well, one that reflects his familiarity with the Indian reality as well as the printed material available. Chen's single-most important source was the huge body of Evidence (14 volumes) presented to the Royal Commission on Agriculture (the Linlithgow Commission, 1928). Chen's 21 economic regions were based essentially upon five criteria: the topographical situation, water supply (rainfall and all forms of irrigation), crop patterns, landholding systems, and general economic development (transport and communication, urbanisation and population growth). The maps illustrate four out of the five criteria. Land relationships, an important aspect of each of Chen's chapters, could not, of course be represented in the maps. As Thorner wrote: "For the agrarian problem these relationships are of course central, but statistically they are well nigh intractable."

The crop pattern maps and tables on land utilisation are based upon statistics taken from the Agricultural Statistics of India, 1930-31. Chen's text, on the other hand, reflects the agrarian situation up to 1950-51, and to that extent there is in certain areas a mismatch between the text and maps. For example, the Mettur dam, discussed by Chen in his text, does not appear in the topographical map of the Tamil Region (page 52). That does not, however, in any way diminish the value of the maps and tables, which provide a valuable benchmark study on the regional agrarian economy of India.

Putting policing on the public agenda

Policing A Democracy by R.K. Raghavan; Manohar, New Delhi, 1999; pages 312 (hardback).

THIS book presents a lucid comparative review of the management of crime in the United States of America and India. Authored by R.K. Raghavan, a senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officer who now heads the Central Bureau of Investigation, it is important for at least two reasons other than its rich empirical content.

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For one, it places the ongoing debate over the practice of Indian policing in its historical and social context. More important, it offers not inconsiderable insights into how another police force operating in a democratic context has sought to address suprisingly similar problems of ethnicity, class and growing violence.

Despite the obvious differences in their historical evolution, Raghavan argues, India and the U.S. face remarkably similar policing issues. The book surveys the ways in which their very different police systems - one rooted in a centralising colonial heritage and a cash-strapped present and the other more resource-rich and structurally diffused - have coped with new problems.

In the build-up to India's independence, Raghavan shows, the major themes of contemporary policing were already evident. In August 1893, Mumbai suffered its first major communal riot, and the period between 1921 and 1947 was to see police forces engaging similar violence on a regular basis. The U.S., interestingly, saw rising levels of race and class violence in the same period, culminating in the 1917 East St. Louis massacre of blacks. Race violence was to explode again from 1965, when riots broke out in the predominantly black locality of Watts in Los Angeles.

Terrorism, too, was a theme that was to emerge in the pre-Independence period in India. Although the U.S. had encountered terrorism through history, witnessing the assassination of high political figures as India did, its experience of the phenomenon in recent years is different from that of India. Raghavan points out that the principal threat in the U.S. has come from domestic fascist groups, fringe organisations, small, highly motivated terrorist cells rather than widespread and brutal insurgencies, often with international backing.

Apart from these and other similar grand themes in policing, both police forces have had to confront allegations of gender bias, corruption, and insensitivity to local crime and community problems. As early as 1929, the Wickersham Commission in the U.S. pointed out that third-degree methods were "extensively practised". That the practice did not disappear was illustrated in 1997, when Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was tortured in custody by the New York Police Department.

Things were not significantly different in India. "It is tyrannical and dishonest," the Police Commission of 1902 said of the British Indian police, an observation the National Police Commission of 1977 said would "fully apply to the present situation". Successive surveys of the public perception of the police, Raghavan points out, have been discomfiting. Rudeness and misbehaviour by the constabulary, refusal to register complaints and demands for bribes have been shown to be endemic practices.

Police forces in the U.S. have attempted a number of initiatives to resolve these problems. Raghavan surveys efforts, for example, to recruit more women and candidates from minority groups. Although these efforts have had varying levels of success, they stand in sharp contrast to the reluctance of the Indian police forces to reach out consciously to communities traditionally excluded from policing.

As important, initiatives to expose rank and file police personnel to higher education and job-related training appear to have proliferated in the U.S., with significant results. Training programmes in the New York Police, for example, were set in place after it recorded high rates of dismissal of parking violation summons. These initiatives have obvious relevance to India. Sadly, there seem to have been few similar efforts here.

Technology has played a critical role in upgrading the responses of the U.S. police forces to crime. Since the U.S. set up its first crime laboratory in 1923, similar institutions have proliferated. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, has over 20 police and 110 civilian specialists at its disposal. Computerisation has spread deep through the system. Although technology has been anything but free from problems, and delays in expert processing of forensic evidence are a cause for concern, the facilities are in stark contrast to those in India.

If the U.S.' efforts to reform and restructure its police forces have had varying outcomes, the fact remains that serious initiatives to address the problems have been made. Raghavan points to "two striking differences" in dealing with corruption, which are illustrative of the attitude to other issues as well.

The first is that there have been at least two public investigations of police corruption, while India has seen "no credible in-depth analysis of the problem". Second, "there is a greater transparency of public discussion of police corruption in the U.S.... Whenever the issue is debated in public forums, the tendency is toward vague generalisations."

THE lack of serious public debate on policing in India has had predictable consequences. At the grassroots level, where U.S. police officials enjoy credible union representation and well-established contractual rights, Indian police personnel face terms of service "heavily weighted against the average policeman". Little concerted pressure has been brought to bear on politicians to bring about long-debated changes in the mode of appointment and autonomy of senior police officials, including Directors-General of Police. And there has been nothing resembling a political initiative to modernise police forces and upgrade personnel skills.

Perhaps the most important point that emerges from Policing A Democracy is that the entire spectrum of issues needs participative debate: policing is too serious a business to be left to policemen and politicians alone. At one level, this means more publicly available research on questions, to answer which there is no hard data base. One question Raghavan poses, for example, is whether the changing class and caste composition of the IPS has led to changes in police attitudes to the rural poor.

Similarly, much of what passes for a critque of policing consists of polemic. Writing of terrorism in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, Raghavan points out that police excesses were rooted in the failure of conventional policing methods. Despite the abundance of literature, there are as yet no coherent ideas about the alternatives that need to be found.

The problems in Indian policing have little to do with lack of talent. Indian police forces have seen a plethora of exceptional officers who have evolved creative responses to new problems. Yet, these responses have rarely found institutional expression, or led to structural reform. Without informed public debate, that is unlikely to take place. Raghavan's book will hopefully attract not only professionals, but journalists, politicians and other public figures.

Some parts of Raghavan's review may seem cursory to informed observers, perhaps inevitable in a survey of this scope, and the editing on occasion leaves something to be desired. For example, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), rather than the CPI(ML), is held responsible for the recent naxalite violence in Bihar, while sections on several State-specific problems in India are somewhat dated. Despite these minor flaws, Policing A Democracy is a vital initiative in bringing real debate on policing on to the agenda.

A surgical artist

In 1983, in Curitiba near Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, in a tiny rural hospital with the most rudimentary of facilities, 36-year-old Dr. Randas J. Vilela Batista performed an unconventional, path-breaking procedure called ventricular remodelling, trimming an enlarged heart to normal size.

The established medical schools received the news with disbelief, scepticism, even ridicule, for the procedure defied a cardinal principle in cardiology - that live tissue of the heart not be removed. But today, after 16 years during which a number of demonstrations of the procedure were performed in hospitals and international seminars on it were organised, the "Batista Procedure" has found a certain level of acceptance worldwide. Experts in the United States, Japan and Europe see it as a "new course in cardiac surgery" and "a breakthrough in treating certain types of heart failures". Hospitals in Buffalo, Cleveland, Texas, Louisville and Boston in the U.S. as well as in Germany and Japan have adopted the procedure with good results. Research is being carried out on this procedure in different parts of the world.

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Dr. Batista, who has performed 1,000 of the 3,000 procedures of this type done until now, says that it has gained greater acceptance abroad than in his own country. However, Dr. Batista, who calls himself a "surgical artist", is not overly concerned about numbers. To him what matters is that "dying patients are given a chance to survive". While the Batista Procedure could well be a substitute for the heart transplant procedure in the case of some persons, it certainly serves as an intermediate procedure for those waiting for a donor heart.

After acquiring a medical degree in Brazil, Dr. Batista (his first name, Randas, is pronounced Handas; born in 1947, he was named after Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi) went to Boston in 1972 to specialise in general surgery. After spending six years there, he went to Canada, England and France to learn new cardiac surgical techniques and returned to his native town, Curitiba, south of Rio, in 1983. Since then he has lived in the small town, content to work for and with the poor. Recently, he set up a Foundation for cardiac patients at Curitiba.

Dr. Batista was recently in Chennai to demonstrate his procedure at the Institute of Cardio-Vascular Diseases, Madras Medical Mission. He spoke to Asha Krishnakumar about his technique, the underlying scientific principles, the advantages of the procedure, the resistance it faced initially and its acceptance now. Excerpts from the interview:

When did you employ your unique surgical procedure first?

The year I started my practice in the small hospital in Curitiba, I got an opportunity to try this procedure. I performed the procedure on a poor 24-year-old woman from Paraguay: she had an Ebstein Anomaly - a congenital condition in which the right ventricle becomes thin and big and malfunctions. The only way she could have survived was by this procedure. No one wanted to operate on her. But we were not willing to give up so easily.

First, we corrected the tricuspid valve and ASD. She did not come off the extra-corporeal circulation pump, commonly called the bypass, after the operation. To help her, we had to reduce the size of her right ventricle and the only way to do that was by this procedure. So we went ahead and did it. That was the first time.

Had you done some theoretical work on this procedure or did it just happen on the surgical table?

My interest in cardiology goes back to my childhood. Later, I was surprised to learn that although the heart size varied - as between a snake and a buffalo - there was an equilibrium of the forces inside. The shapes were the same. I realised that what was crucial was the equilibrium of forces; pressure was not important, tension was. If the heart was big, the ratio between the muscle mass and the radius would not be normal. The equilibrium of forces would, thus, not be normal and the increased tension would prevent the heart from contracting efficiently. So, if I cannot provide the heart with more muscle to contract efficiently, I need to reduce its size.

I thought about it for quite some time. And all of a sudden the principle struck me. And I went ahead with the procedure. I also worked out a formula:

The heart muscle mass = 4 x (heart radius)^3.

This is the criterion I use while reducing the size of a heart.

Could you provide some more details of the Batista Procedure?

It is a ventricular remodelling procedure used on end-stage heart patients to excise an enlarged heart. The heart can get enlarged owing to several reasons - congenital malfunctions, valvular diseases, infections and so on. Tension is most important for the efficient contraction of the heart. So, when the heart is enlarged, the pressure in the heart is the same, but the tension is very high. This impedes heart contraction. Hence, there is a need to bring the heart to normal size, and the only unconventional method is to excise it.

This is done by cutting out a large slice of living muscle from the main pumping chamber, which is then stitched together when the heart is still beating. It can be done at any age. I have done this procedure on a six-month-old baby as well as on a 95-year-old woman.

What are the chances of recurrence of the enlargement?

There is a 10 per cent chance. It depends on how much of the heart is excised. If the size has been brought to normal, then the chances of recurrence are low.

How was the procedure received initially?

First, everyone thought I was crazy as it went against the conventional wisdom of not removing live tissue. In Brazil they wanted to get my diploma and my licence cancelled. In 1993, Dr. Tom Salerno from the Buffalo General Hospital came to Brazil and saw me do this procedure. Initially he too thought I was crazy. Then, in 1995, he invited me to Boston for an international meeting. At the conference they did not allow me to talk about this procedure and I was asked to present a paper on "Lung Volume Reduction". I started by saying that lung volume reduction is a good procedure, but it was not new, and that Jewish people had been doing this for 2,000 years. Then I went on to talk about the Batista Procedure. They all thought I was mad.

In a way, their response was good because it had one effect: they started to take notice of me and think about the procedure. Some thought I was crazy, but others thought there was something in what I said. Thereafter, some doctors from the U.S., Japan and Europe came to Brazil to see me do the operation, and were convinced about the efficacy.

Dr. Salerno started helping me. He started talking about it in international conferences, apart from doing the procedure himself.

Is the Batista Procedure an alternative to a transplant?

For some it could well be. Many of my patients are leading a normal life after a Batista. My first patient from Paraguay is still alive, 16 years after the operation.

Some sections within the medical community say that Batista is not a scientific procedure, that the success rate is not very good, and so on...

Most of my patients are poor. They do not come for a follow-up. There is no way I can keep track of them. I do not even have the staff required to do a follow-up. Many patients disappear into the Brazilian jungles after the operation. I do not even know whether they are alive.

A good proportion of my patients consist of those who have been given up by other doctors. I am not overly concerned about results. My principle is that I should give everyone a chance to live, however hopeless the case. I do not select my patients.

I do not have the facilities to keep tabs on my patients. I did not even have the facilities to address the three major, common post-operative problems - bleeding, renal failure and arrythmia.

Also, only through experience can one do this procedure well. How much to excise, where to excise, how to excise... these are aspects that one perfects over time.

We cannot give figures right now. But I am sure that will not be the case with the next 1,000 such procedures I do. Even though I do not have any reliable figures to show right now, considerable scientific data are available on this procedure done in various other hospitals in different parts of the world.

According to data available with the Cleveland Clinic, patients who have undergone the Batista have the same survival rate as patients who have undergone transplant - 90 per cent after one year. But in the case of the Batista, post-operative care and costs are nil. You need no immunosuppressants, no frequent tests and there is no worry of infection and rejection. If you have survived the operation for three years, you have a good chance of leading a normal life after that.

In a country like India, where there is donor scarcity and where hardly 1 per cent of those waiting for a donor heart get one, this procedure is a breakthrough. Several patients who would otherwise die waiting for a donor heart can be saved and they can live absolutely normally for the rest of their lives.

What further research is being done in this area?

A lot of controlled experiments and research are being done in Berlin by Dr. F. Konertz, in Munster (Germany) by Dr. P. Lunken Heimer, in Japan by Dr. F. Kawaguchi and in Louisville by Dr. Bob Dowling.

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Earlier, during a heart failure, the ventricles were thought to be dead. Their size itself became the disease. No one thought they could be repaired. Now there is a lot of research being carried out on ventricles.

To begin with we used to look at the ventricles as being good or bad. But now we find that they grow differently in different directions. So different procedures can be used to excise the enlarged portions. All that is being worked out now.

After the Germans became convinced about the procedure, they worked on it and found that it conforms to the Laplace mathematical law. That is, Wall tension is equal to

(Pressure x Heart Diameter x Pi) / 2 (thickness of the heart).

The procedure has a very sound mathematical basis and is slowly being accepted. But still there is a lot of opposition to this. Some doctors and pharmaceutical companies are against this. They are scared that they will not be able to make money from this procedure.

Floral stars

Two Indian horticulturists, father and son, have been awarded U.S. patents for hybrid ornamental plant varieties they have bred imaginatively and through painstaking efforts.

TWO Indian horticulturists, working on their own and branching out of a strong family tradition with imagination and painstaking effort, have broken into the sophisticated United States market for ornamental indoor foliage plants. G. Parthasarathy and son P. Mukundan were awarded U.S. patents in October 1998 for two hybrid varieties of Aglaonema developed by them. They are the first Indian horticulturists to be awarded U.S. patents for ornamentals.

Their patented cultivars, Jewel of India and Emerald Star, which are among the 26 patented varieties of Aglaonema in the U.S., have the brand name of Stars of India. The patents for Jewel of India and Emerald Star (U.S. patent numbers PP10,658 and PP10,659 respectively) have been awarded for the plants' robust and vigorous growth rate, full and dense appearance, unique and distinct foliage pattern, rapid root initiation and development and resistance to diseases common to Aglaonema. The plant breeders applied for patents in August 1997. Another Aglaonema hybrid, Silver Ribbons, is undergoing pre-patent trials.

"We are proud to have been able to give something new to the horticultural world," said Parthasarathy as he strolled through his potted Aglaonema collection in the greenhouse behind his home in Bangalore. It is here that father and son developed their cultivars through an elaborate and time-consuming process of cross pollination from a pool of parent stock of Aglaonema.

"What motivated us was the desire to produce world-class hybrids from India. Hybridisation has been our family tradition," says Mukundan, who runs the Chennai branch of KSG's Farm & Nursery (the Bangalore unit is in Chamarajapet) started by Parthasarathy's father K.S. Gopalaswamiengar. (KSG, as he was called, introduced outstanding hybrids in Crotons, Hibiscus, and Bougainvillaeas. An authority in the field of horticulture, KSG authored Complete Gardening in India, which is now in its fourth edition.)

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Aglaonema is a popular ornamental foliage plant. As it is relatively pest-free and can tolerate low light levels and fluctuations in potting medium moisture, it has become one of the most sought after ornamentals in Western countries where it is used extensively for interiorscapes. Its scientific name originates from the Greek aglos (bright) and nema (thread). Commonly called "Chinese evergreen", the plant spread from its original home in China to South-East Asia and later to the Americas and Europe.

Aglaonemas were not part of KSG's original repertoire. Parthasarathy and Mukundan branched into Aglaonema breeding in the late 1970s. Mukundan, who has a degree in Agricultural Sciences, is a former Ranji Trophy cricketer. An all-rounder, he played for Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, captained the latter team, and retired from cricket in 1980 to concentrate on horticulture. On a visit to the U.S. in 1976 he met Bob McColly, a plant breeder working on Phillodendrons, who suggested that he take up the breeding of Aglaonemas which were in demand in the U.S. market.

In 1978, Mukundan and his father started the breeding programme. "By 1986, we had a huge set of hybrids which we were ready to market, but we picked the wrong companies to put them through the necessary trials and market them for us." There was a recession in the foliage market in the U.S. in 1988-89 and one of the companies that was given exclusive marketing rights pulled out. "Our mistake was that we chose multinational companies. We now work with family concerns where there is a personal commitment to new introductions," Mukundan explained. Their trial growers - Florida-based Butler's Nurseries and Tropical Ornamentals - became their licencees in the U.S. once the patents were received.

"During trial the Aglaonemas were put through two winters," said Parthasarathy. Aglaonemas are highly susceptible to 'winter injury' when the leaves of the plant turn brown. Both Jewel of India and Emerald Star were able to withstand winter conditions.

The grant of a plant patent precludes others from asexually reproducing, selling or using the patented plant. A mutant of the patented plant will not be considered of the same genotype and will have to be patented separately. In the U.S. a plant patent holds good for 20 years. The licencees of KSG Farm & Nursery have been allowed to propagate, grow and sell the patented varieties on payment of a royalty.

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THE development of a hybrid involves a long process of trial and error, in which "breeder's intuition" plays not a small role. Although plant breeding is governed by well-established scientific techniques and parameters, horticulturists confess to an element of serendipity, which gives the process its special flavour and excitement. Parthasarathy and Mukundan started the Aglaonema breeding programme with a parent stock of around 10 species of this variety. "Basically you start the process of cross-pollination looking for the dominant features in each species that you would like present in your final hybrid," explains Mukundan. Thus, species are crossed for appearance, vigour, leaf form, branching ability and disease resistance: there is of course no guarantee that the offspring from a healthy parent stock will acquire all its features. Plant sterility is a major pitfall; an otherwise perfect-looking hybrid may actually be sterile, in which case the process must start all over again. In the case of the Jewel of India, Parthasarathy and Mukundan crossed an Aglaonema species called A. crispum Singapore, which is a large-leafed plant with low branching ability, with smaller hybrids. "The result was a bolt from the blue," Mukundan recalls. The new hybrid had small, narrow leaves with excellent suckering abilities. With the Jewel of India the breeders also reached a dead end as the cultivar is sterile and can only be reproduced vegetatively. "For all the time and patience needed, there is a tremendous sense of excitement that motivates us," Mukundan said. Jewel of India produces 18 suckers a year, which is a record (other Aglaonema varieties produce four to six suckers a year).

The first phase of the breeding programme, that is, hybridisation and seed production, was carried out in the breeders' greenhouse and on their 15-acre farm near Bangalore. The second phase, which involves plant germination and an initial culling or selection of hybrids, was done on their farm in Chennai. In the third phase, the selected hybrids were put through a final selection and evaluation in Bangalore. "We have not released our varieties in India as we have no protection for them," Parthasarathy said. "We need a home base but we also need protection for our varieties. Even if a patent law comes into force in India, the policing of the patent is not going to be easy." They plan to apply for patents in Europe, Australia and South Africa. The horitculturists hope that the Aglaonema hybrids currently being developed will replace Dieffenbachia, which bears close resemblance to the hybrid and whose popularity is on the wane owing to its poisonous properties. The leaves of Dieffenbachia, also known as "dumb cane", if eaten can result in temporary loss of speech.

These committed plant breeders also have an ongoing programme in developing hybrid varieties of Anthurium. Five such cultivars are undergoing pre-patent trials in the U.S. By successive crossing they have evolved Anthurium cultivars that can produce more than 10 blooms of medium-sized flowers in one plant. These plants look like tastefully arranged bouquets with a spray of blooms above a generous cluster of green leaves. Unlike the usual large-leafed Anthuriums, the leaves of the hybrids are smaller but more profuse, with clear leaf markings. Parthasarathy and Mukundan have also achieved a considerable measure of success in their work with Caladium hybrids, bringing out a range of new hybrids with remarkable colours and leaf patterns. The Hibiscus has been part of the family tradition. By successive breeding they have produced highly floriferous hybrids in a range of rich monocolours and multicolours. They are also cultivating the attractive Adenium in their Chennai farm, and exporting its seeds. In view of the large demand for hybrids, KSG's Farm & Nursery have set up a tissue culture laboratory to mass propagate their hybrids.

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