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For a place in history

A visit to a hospital, even under the most innocent circumstances, often brings a man face to face with the notion of his own mortality. I do not know whether the Prime Minister experienced any such intimations of the transience of human existence during his sojourn at the Breach Kandy hospital at Bombay, but his presence there certainly created a great deal of lurid speculation about his health and about a war of 'succession and control' that appeared to have been inspired by little more than the media's hunger for sensation. Nevertheless, there were at least some among the Prime Minister's colleagues and allies who fuelled such speculations, and their own dreams of power, on images irrationally conjured out of nothing more than a knee operation that modern science and contemporary medical skills have rendered simple.

The Prime Minister is now back in harness and, pictures and reports in the media appear to suggest, in fine fettle, almost - it would seem after the images of the debilitating arthritic pains he was so obviously suffering from during his US visit - in a new life. He returns to the tasks of governance with an apparent strength that goes beyond the merely physical. This is significantly because his political situation has been consolidated by a number of factors that were played out during his brief absence. One of these was a sequence of miscalculations by several second-line leaders who overplayed their hand in their expectations of his untimely demise. Today, many of those who were desperately, albeit privately, proposing themselves as Prime Ministerial candidates stand embarrassed and rather discredited for there impatience. The combined Opposition, if there really is any thing that can rightly answer to that description in the country today, is, moreover, presently entirely incapable of offering a credible challenge to Vajpayee's leadership. His political position is, consequently, at this time, unchallenged.

--But the nation has long awaited a true leader - one who can guide it out of the fruitless cycles of poverty, disorder and mis-governance. Does Vajpayee have the prescience, the imagination and the determination to answer the call?

The idea of 'a new life' is worth pursuing, in this context. Vajpayee is said to be a man of vision. If he seizes his moment in history, the present opportunities can help him translate that vision into reality. But he would have to escape the infirmities of his own past to do this, and these include, among a range of other associations, affiliations and habits of thought, the pattern of 'consensual' politics - the amoral purchase of conditional political support for the survival of the government at the expense of the fundamental interests of the nation - that he has been forced into by the imperatives of a coalition government. In a sense, he would have to assume a new avatar, a transformation from pragmatic politician to dynamic leader.

In this context, despite the many constraints, the achievements of his regime have not been altogether insignificant. In a country where governments have squandered a three-fourths majority in Parliament within a few years, the survival of a coalition government for over a year is itself commendable. But Vajpayee has not only survived, he has given the country a sense of stability, and this is despite continuing and widespread violence in various theatres across the country, despite economic reverses, despite endemic misgovernance in several States, and despite the harrying campaign against his government both by allies and by a section within his own party and the extended Sangh Parivar.

It would be wrong to ascribe this stability to purely negative factors, particularly to the absence of a credible alternative. Governments in the past have been brought down, and arrant opportunists and pygmies have been placed in the highest seats of power with little care for the impact on the country. For all the bickering, the tantrums, the blackmail and the roll backs, Vajpayee's management of political dissent within the NDA is not without merit. His government has, moreover, presided over the formation of three new States, a promise that several predecessor governments failed to fulfil. This is a signal achievement, and will have enormous impact, especially on the spiraling chaos that is Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

The government's internal security policy has been far from consistent or adequate. Nevertheless, a sea change has taken place, though largely as the result of a constellation of factors, many of them accidental. The sores of militancy in Kashmir and in the Northeast continue to fester, but there is an increasing sense of exhaustion and loss of direction in terrorist ranks. Most significantly, while the Vajpayee government's successes on the ground may have been qualified, its successes in the international arena, especially on the question of Kashmir, have been unprecedented. The famous 'tilt' towards Pakistan has been neutralised - though our Prime Minister must share credit for this achievement with General Pervez Musharraf, without whose unstinting assistance Pakistan would never have been quite as completely isolated in the international community as it is today.

It would, however, be a mistake to think of these as victories. They are, in essence, opportunities out of which a victory can be fashioned, and it will take immense statesmanship and discernment to realise their potential. In national policy, Vajpayee will have to rise above partisan considerations and the uninformed dogmas of past policy perspectives to forge a new context for the nation's development. A context that avoids, equally, the pitfalls of the false 'socialism' that crippled the economy for more than four decades, and of the absurdly constricted concepts of globalisation and liberalisation that attempt to lift a nation of over one billion people by the bootstraps of the greed of a few hundred thousand. Simplistic mantras that have distorted, and continue to distort, India's political economy will have to be subjected to a harsh reality check, if a strong and sustainable economy is to be forged out of the hiccups of growth and stagnation that have been our lot since Independence.

Vajpayee has succeeded in carving a niche for himself in the international theater as well. It is, however, a long haul to translating these limited successes to a national policy and a role for India in the global order. In the late 1950s, Nehru's vision had created a stature for this country, not only in the international affairs of this region, but of the world. Unfortunately, that vision was translated into inflexible dogma by uninspired successor regimes, and India, today, has little moral influence even within South Asia. Nevertheless, the opportunities for resurgence are everywhere to be seized in the cauldron that is Asia. The countries within South Asian are today looking for new directions as Cold War equations unravel, and as the rhetoric of NAM rings increasingly hollow. The floundering peace process in West Asia is another political space that demands a creative response on India's part. For too long have we been tied to a policy of unqualified and undiscriminating support to the Palestinian cause, and a reality check is well overdue on this count as well. Through a succession of astute interventions and constructive engagements, the Vajpayee government can recreate for India, a deserved space in the comity of nations.

The rationalisation of India's internal security policies has also long been overdue. The vacillation between appeasement and overreaction has to cease, and a clear long-term perspective, coherently defined, systematically translated into legal structures and security systems, and consistently implemented, is an imperative. Too many lives have already been lost to permit the present system of bureaucratic ad hocism and political adventurism to survive any longer.

In all these necessary transformations, it is essential to remember that the Indian people have a deep admiration for strength, for the authoritative and moral exercise of power, for true leadership. To the extent that they see evidence of these in Vajpayee, he will have separated himself in history from the aggregation of ciphers that has preceded him.

(Published in The Pioneer, October 28, 2000)





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