Dissonance and dissension

Print edition : November 22, 2002

The constraints imposed by governance are fraying the internal solidarity of the Sangh Parivar on several fronts.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani.-RAVEENDRAN/AP

IT had all the signs of a medieval monarch troubled in the administration of his temporal powers seeking solace and guidance from a moral preceptor. But Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee found little of either from his twice-postponed meeting with K.S. Sudarshan, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. A mere week later, the RSS concluded a three-day conclave of its higher leadership in Indore and authorised its affiliate, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), to raise the pitch of its campaign against the economic policies of the Vajpayee government.

Sudarshan's meeting with the Prime Minister was part of a sequence of consultations on matters of policy, which have been legitimised by the partly collusive, though often tense, relationship that Vajpayee himself has come to have with the larger Hindutva fraternity. This time around the discussions centred on a range of issues that have aggravated strife within the saffron brotherhood. The policy underpinnings of the Tenth Five Year Plan drafted by the Planning Commission came in for scrutiny. Also discussed were the festering Ayodhya dispute, Kashmir and the government's approach to the fight against terrorism. Sudarshan was accompanied to the meeting by H.V. Seshadri, RSS joint general secretary, and Madan Das Devi, the functionary who handles the RSS' relations with its political affiliates. On his side of the table, Vajpayee was accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and Bharatiya Janata Party president M. Venkaiah Naidu.

In a formal briefing afterwards, Venkaiah Naidu explained that no specific matters of policy had been discussed. Rather, the meeting was in conformity with the government's policy of consulting all "nationalist forces'' on matters of governance. Asked specifically about personal attacks on members of Vajpayee's inner circle of advisers, which have been read accurately as attacks on the Prime Minister himself, Venkaiah Naidu confirmed that these would cease.

Shortly afterwards, the Cabinet met to approve the Tenth Plan with its extravagant growth targets and disinvestment projections. In evident deference to RSS sensitivities that were articulated within by Minister for Human Resource Development Murli Manohar Joshi, the Cabinet chose to reduce the emphasis that had been placed by the Planning Commission on disinvestment targets and foreign direct investment. This was a shift in emphasis rather than in substance. But fundamentally it seemed to suggest a policy fudge.

The Planning Commission has projected a stream of revenues totalling Rs. 16,000 crores annually over the Tenth Plan period from disinvestment proceeds. This would be virtually impossible without a large scale sell-off of government holdings in the most profitable public sector enterprises, including the oil companies and the telecom service providers. His political antenna sharply attuned to this, Joshi suggested to the Cabinet that approval be deferred until members had a chance to study the bulky documents prepared by the Planning Commission. Finance Minister Jaswant Singh, who has been rather ambivalent about policy matters since assuming charge of his portfolio in July, administered the firm rebuff. There had been one postponement too many already, he pointed out, and one more of its kind would give rise to serious public misgivings. With Vajpayee, Advani and Defence Minister George Fernandes joining him in this push for immediate approval, the Plan document managed to sail through without further dissent.

The belief guiding the government now is that disinvestment is only one among its many options in raising resources for the Plan. If other productive sources of revenue could be tapped, the dependence on disinvestment would be considerably curtailed. This, of course, is stating the obvious. The devil here lies in the details. And neither the Planning Commission nor the Finance Ministry has shown much imagination in identifying alternative sources of revenue. If anything, they have only shown a special eagerness to commit themselves to newer and unplanned expenses, such as the serial bailouts that are being devised for the country's financial institutions in utter disregard of the issue of moral hazard.

THE disciplines imposed by governance are fraying the internal solidarity of the parivar, which was cemented in defiance of legally constituted authority. The BJP's declaration of lawlessness during the Ayodhya campaign was very attractive to elements that relished the climate of impunity that it created. They show little inclination now to draw in their horns and observe the basic restraints that the BJP's survival in government would seem to require.

Ashok Singhal, the international working president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, is today a frustrated man. His promise to erect a massive temple on the ruins of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya has been thwarted at every turn and he is convinced that the fault lies entirely with the equivocal attitude of the government. Rather than target the Prime Minister directly, he has chosen to direct his ire at his Principal Secretary, the former Indian Foreign Service officer Brajesh Mishra. Singhal's anger is supposedly aroused by the foreign policy shifts towards the U.S., which he holds Mishra singularly responsible for. But there is little doubt about his real target and the true purpose of his vituperation: to build up pressure on the government before the VHP charts the next step in its Ayodhya campaign in February 2003.

RSS leader Madan Das Devi and BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu meet the press after a meeting of RSS leaders and the Prime Minister last month.-

Singhal's principal lieutenant in the saffron brotherhood, VHP general secretary Praveen Togadia, has been more voluble if anything. His excursions into the zoological domain in search of epithets to describe the leader of the principal Opposition party have caused acute embarrassment to the BJP, which is yet to shake off the international opprobrium relating to the recent communal carnage in Gujarat.

Not to be left behind in the new politics of abuse, the Shiv Sena chieftain Bal Thackeray has from his citadel in Mumbai been pouring scorn on the government's seeming impotence in the face of the terrorist threat. His exhortation to Hindus that they should form suicide squads to fight the menace earned him a deserved indictment for ``hate speech''. Prosecution is unlikely, though the fraying of the Sena's political equations with the BJP leadership is very much a reality.

After seeing a number of State governments slip away from its grasp over the last many years, the BJP now stands to lose its toehold in Uttar Pradesh too (see following story). The coalition government with the Bahujan Samaj Party, in which Vajpayee had invested much of his political authority, was on the verge of collapse after resentments burst out into the open over the distribution of the fruits of power. As with much else that happens with the BJP, the U.P. turmoil is being read as a proxy battle between the Advani and Vajpayee camps. It is a silent war of attrition that has shown little signs of abating despite the elevation of Advani as Deputy Prime Minister in July.

There have been several occasions in the past when the BJP leadership has used the passions stirred within its constituency as an alibi for inaction. By this criterion, they would have much reason to put on hold the public sector disinvestment drive which has been advertised so far as the most significant economic policy achievement of the Vajpayee government. When officials from a multinational investment bank and the Aditya Birla group sought recently to visit the factory of the public sector aluminium manufacturer NALCO, they were set upon by a group of employees intent on resisting the privatisation process. The State government of Naveen Patnaik, whose Biju Janata Dal is formally affiliated with the BJP at the Centre, has thrown its weight behind the protest. And Union Minister for Mines Uma Bharti has disavowed the move to sell NALCO to the private sector.

These are agitational forces whose disruptive power Vajpayee is all too familiar with. The fact that three years into his second tenure he finds himself on the wrong side of the forces that propelled his rise to power must be a source of chagrin for the troubled Prime Minister.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor