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Pointers from a reshuffle

Print edition : Feb 28, 2003 T+T-

The January 29 reshuffle of the Union Ministry, a BJP-specific exercise, reveals a further erosion of Atal Behari Vajpayee's prime ministerial authority.

in New Delhi

IN a parliamentary system of democracy, it is the prerogative of the Prime Minister as the head of the government to have a Council of Ministers of his choice. Inherent in the prime ministerial privilege is the opportunity to revamp a Ministry from time to time on the basis of an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of its members and their performance. In a multi-party coalition like the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the Centre, a reshuffle is also a test of the freedom and a measure of the manoeuvrability enjoyed by the Prime Minister in relation to his colleagues and allies. It could also be a pointer to the different pressures being brought on the Prime Minister by various interest groups. On these counts, the January 29 reshuffle carried out by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee reveals a serious erosion of his authority.

The Prime Minister may listen to and consult his senior colleagues in the government and his party with regard to such changes, and even seek to make sense of the pressures being brought to bear on him by various individuals and groups before he takes a decision: on this count there could be no serious complaint against his style of functioning. In fact, such a gesture enhances his stature as it displays his belief in collective leadership and democratic decision-making. However, under close scrutiny, the exercise, it seemed, was but one intended to paper over the conflicts within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Prime Minister inducted a few new Ministers, by way of recognising symbolically certain social aspirations, and brought back the former Union Law Minister, Arun Jaitley, within seven months of his leaving the government to undertake party work, thus exposing a dearth of ministerial talent within the government. He also changed the portfolios of certain Ministers to send subtle political messages and secured the resignations of some whom he found to be too inconvenient or embarrassing to retain. In all this, the Prime Minister allowed his authority to be brazenly usurped by Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and his proxy-president of the party, M. Venkaiah Naidu, and allowed individual Ministers with considerable influence to demand - and secure - the size of the ministerial cake they would have.

Thus, Disinvestment Minister Arun Shourie managed to secure the portfolios of Information Technology and Communications, almost by default. Having threatened to resign in the wake of reports that he might be divested of the Disinvestment portfolio, Shourie managed to secure the two additional portfolios as well. Finance Minister Jaswant Singh, who was tipped to take charge of Disinvestment, declined to accept it, and was content to retain Company Affairs, and the running of the Foreign Investment Promotion Board. The former was earlier with the Law and Justice Ministry and the latter with the Commerce Ministry. Jaitley, who missed the Communications and Information Technology portfolios because it was discovered that he was legal counsel for one of the mobile phone operators, was compensated with the Commerce and Industry portfolios. Ministers Uma Bharati, Vasundhararaje Scindia and Raman Singh had to quit to lead the party units in the States of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh respectively, even though their leadership abilities in the context of these States that are due to have Assembly elections later this year, remain to be tested. Sushma Swaraj was shifted from Information and Broadcasting to Parliamentary Affairs and Health, a sign of the party leadership's confidence in her. Yet, the Prime Minister was reported to be reluctant to back her for the party president's post last July. Minister of State for Law Ravi Shankar Prasad was shifted as Minister of State (with independent charge) for Information and Broadcasting, to make room for Jaitley.

Inconsistencies in the stated reasons for the reshuffle were obvious. As in the case of the July 2002 reshuffle that saw also Advani's elevation as Deputy Prime Minister, the author of the latest reshuffle in the Ministry and the party was indeed Advani. He claimed that the impetus for the reshuffle came from Vajpayee, who wanted Jaitley back in the Cabinet. The reason he suggested was that Vajpayee had agreed to send Jaitley to the party as general secretary in July 2002 only in the context of gearing the party for the Gujarat elections. As Jaitley had completed his task remarkably well with the BJP managing to retain power in the State in the December 12 Assembly elections, his continuance as general secretary was no longer needed, it was felt.

For Jaitley, a short stint in the party hierarchy was useful to pick up and put into practice the techniques of winning an election. He had quit the government in July 2002 with reluctance, at the suggestion of Venkaiah Naidu and Advani.

As the party's chief spokesperson and general secretary, Jaitley was in charge of the Gujarat election campaign, and he had the responsibility to defend Chief Minister Narendra Modi from an allround onslaught, including from large sections of the media. While the media attributed the BJP's victory in Gujarat to Modi's communal propaganda, many party insiders believe that it is Jaitley's efficient electoral strategy that resulted in the landslide victory. This strategy involved, according to the insiders, preparing the organisational machinery in every constituency, achieving a fair degree of cohesion within the State unit, identifying and neutralising the opponents' strengths through a variety of means, and indulging in motivated propaganda in order to influence public opinion. It is pointed out in party circles that but for this "excellent strategy", executed efficiently on the eve of the elections by Jaitley, by himself Modi could not have made a difference in Gujarat.

Vajpayee, Advani and Venkaiah Naidu are aware that Jaitley has devised an elaborate strategy - on the lines of that deployed to mobilise the party machinery in Gujarat - for the February 26 Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh. Yet, Jaitley returned to the government, because it was felt that he could devote himself to party work and oversee the implementation of his strategy in Himachal Pradesh even while being a Minister. As the BJP prepares to face a series of Assembly elections (in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi among others) this year and the general elections next year, it appears that the blurring of the distinction between party and government would become even more pronounced than has been evident so far.

In July 2002 it had seemed that Vajpayee had reluctantly accepted Jana Krishnamurthi's insistence that the portfolio of Law should be offered to him as a precondition to his joining the Cabinet. It would have been politically unwise to disregard publicly the views of someone who had become party president in the trying circumstances following the resignation of Bangaru Laxman after the Tehelka tapes expose showing him as the recipient of moneys from persons posing as arms dealers. In less than seven months, Vajpayee found Krishnamurthi to be dispensable, and he expressed his displeasure over the South Indian leader's refusal to accept other portfolios suggested by him in place of Law.

The shifting of Jaitley suited both the party and the government, which wanted to make use of his legal acumen in the context of the renewed attack from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) on the eve of its Dharma Sansad in New Delhi on February 22. The VHP protests against the Vajpayee government's failure to remove in time the legal hurdles to meeting its demand to transfer to it the extent of undisputed land acquired by the government in Ayodhya, to begin the construction of a Ram temple there. With the VHP threatening an agitation unless its demand is met before the deadline, the government's compulsions are obvious. The Centre filed an application in the Supreme Court on February 5 seeking an early hearing of the case relating to the Ayodhya dispute and for the vacation of the interim order passed by the court on March 13, 2002, banning any religious activity on the government-acquired land in Ayodhya. On the eve of a similar crisis last year, the Prime Minister had sought an opinion from Jaitley on whether the VHP's demand could be conceded without falling foul of the court. Jaitley's opinion - which was not made public - was that the Supreme Court's 1994 judgment on the validity of the Acquisition of Certain Area at Ayodhya Act, 1993, could be interpreted to mean that there was no harm in transferring the ownership of the undisputed land to its owners (in this case, the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas) and that this extent of land could be delinked from the disputed land, the title in respect of which was yet to be decided in the Allahahad High Court, and with respect to which the government was required to maintain the status quo. With Jaitley back as Law Minister, it appears that the government has got a fresh opportunity to pursue its unfinished agenda. Krishnamurthi, despite his Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) leanings, made no apparent effort to pursue this agenda during his tenure in office and thus failed to inspire confidence in the Sangh Parivar in him.

But it is not Jaitley's return to the government alone that forced the pace of events surrounding the reshuffle. What mattered most to Advani and his group in the party was the exit of Information Technology Minister Pramod Mahajan. In the July 2002 reshuffle Mahajan's name did the rounds as the possible replacement for Jana Krishnamurthi as party president. However, as the Prime Minister considered him to be useful also as Parliamentary Affairs Minister (the other portfolio he held) in managing the disparate coalition, as well as in tackling the aggressive Opposition, Venkaiah Naidu became the compromise choice between Vajpayee and Advani for the party president's post.

However, things have been different in January 2003. Mahajan had proved to be an embarrassment to the Prime Minister and the government, having openly sided with a corporate group during the telecom turmoil (Frontline, February 14, 2003). His role in the ongoing tussle between cellular operators and providers of the wireless in local loop (WiLL) mobile phone service, in particular, became the precipitating factor that hastened his exit from the Cabinet. As Communications Minister, Mahajan was accused of helping the Reliance group smoothen its entry into the WiLL sector.

Having decided to divest Mahajan of the Communications portfolio for this indiscretion, the Advani-Venkaiah Naidu duo suggested to Mahajan to keep Information Technology and swap his two other portfolios, Communications and Parliamentary Affairs, with Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj. The proposal was unacceptable to him. It appears that the Prime Minister, who was all along defending Mahajan, now sided with the Advani-Venkaiah Naidu duo, having conveyed his displeasure over Mahajan's public display of his loyalties to the corporate group. Mahajan's open campaign in favour of awarding the Bharat Ratna to the late chairman of this group earned the wrath of both Vajpayee and Advani.With the oust-Mahajan campaign getting the Prime Minister's backing, the Maharashtra leader's isolation seemed complete. It was at this point that Mahajan offered to return to party work, rather than face the humiliation of losing two of his key portfolios to a colleague. Advani promptly accepted this offer.

Jaitley's return to the Cabinet facilitated Mahajan's honourable rehabilitation in the party apparatus, holding the post of spokesperson and general secretary that Jaitley had held. However, the campaign against Mahajan affected another Minister of State, known as his loyalist. Vijay Goel was thus shifted from the Prime Minister's Office as one in charge of Programme Implementation, to Parliamentary Affairs and Labour, being looked after separately by Cabinet Ministers Sushma Swaraj and Sahib Singh Verma. To make matters worse, both these leaders, as former Chief Ministers of Delhi, seem determined to cut to size Goel, the Member of Parliament from Chandni Chowk in Delhi.

Mahajan's role in the party will be watched keenly. He has to work under Venkaiah Naidu, who may be wary of his ambitions. Mahajan is certain to angle for the party president's post after Venkaiah Naidu's term, but the RSS apparently is not behind him. The Sangh Parivar considers Mahajan as a "necessary evil" in the party: on the one hand it credits him with excellent fund-raising abilities, but on the other hand it detests his inability to command the loyalty and confidence of the party cadre because of what it perceives to be his lack of ethics. Curiously, the pro-Mahajan section in the party points to his role in the BJP's victory in the recent byelections to three Assembly seats in Rajasthan, where the Congress(I) alleged that money power tilted the scales in favour of the BJP. Mahajan's rise in the party hierarchy is certain to fuel the debate on the conflicting pulls of money power and ethics within the BJP.

The reshuffle has also raised questions about the party's affairs after the 2004 round of Lok Sabha elections. Observers see the declining influence of the Prime Minister in shaping his Council of Ministers as a sure sign of his eventual exit from the political scene after the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, by which time, they say, he would have outlived his utility for the Sangh Parivar in expanding the BJP's electoral reach in geographical terms. The decision to transfer the Department of Personnel - minus the Central Bureau of Investigation - from the Prime Minister's Office to the Home Ministry, being looked after by Advani, is seen as a signal of Advani's growing ascendancy in the power structure.

Advani will now control key appointments in the government and in the public sector, even while seeming to keep a distance from the CBI - which was earlier part of the Department of Personnel, but is now attached to the Cabinet Secretariat, answerable to the Prime Minister - in view of the fact that the investigative agency is handling the case against Advani along with Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati in connection with the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

However, several party insiders overrule the possibility of the BJP abandoning Vajpayee altogether. As long as Vajpayee is agile and about, the transition to an Advani era cannot come easily and abruptly, and Vajpayee will continue to have some role or the other, even if symbolic, in guiding the party's destiny, party circles believe. Secondly, the RSS has reasons to be unhappy with both Vajpayee and Advani, and its distrust of the former need not be construed as its support for the latter. The RSS' role in the latest reshuffle may not be as distinct and obvious as it had seemed to be in the case of Vajpayee's earlier reshuffles; but it has always maintained a subtle and indirect influence on key decisions relating to the government's and the BJP's functionaries. The RSS might have been indifferent to the latest reshuffle, as it did not find in the changes that Vajpayee made, anything to be enthused about.

The decision to draft Human Resource Development Minister and former party president Murli Manohar Joshi to mediate between the VHP and the government on the Ayodhya issue, for instance, stems from the RSS' intervention, it is learnt.

Joshi's record in saffronising education has endeared him to the Sangh Parivar, and he has been asked to persuade the VHP to tone down its hate campaign so as to create a conducive atmosphere for the judiciary to accommodate its demand for the return of the undisputed land. The RSS' love for Joshi stems from its perception that Advani, in his quest for primacy in the ruling coalition, has often downplayed ideology so as to increase his acceptability within and outside the coalition. It is felt that Joshi has no such ambitions, and remains wedded to the ideology despite the strident secular opposition to his saffron agenda.

The reshuffle has indeed exposed the Prime Minister's inability to achieve any degree of cohesion within the NDA. He has promised that he would soon opt for another reshuffle to accommodate the interests of the BJP's allies, but has not given any reason why he could not have done the needful in the course of the latest reshuffle. Instead, the fact that the reshuffle catered only to the BJP has made many an ally sore, including the Trinamul Congress and the Samata Party. The promise of ministerial berths appears to be the Prime Minister's way of keeping the allies on a leash and securing their silence should the BJP start blatantly pursuing its goals in violation of the moratorium on bringing into play contentious issues as imposed by the National Agenda for Governance (NAG) that was adopted by the NDA at the time of its formation in 1999.