Of leeches and leaders
What do we have in Delhi: A government or a potboiler? Every element of the trashiest kind of fiction was part of the reality of the past week. Bribery. Sex. Sleaze. Deception. Forgery. Mystery. Schism. Intrigue. Revenge. Ghastly dialogue. Scandal.
Make that plural. And make that competitive. My scandal is smaller than yours. The only thing that did not happen in Delhi was murder but I suppose something has to be kept in hand for the next instalment. There is a thumbnail method of checking out the worth of any government. Check the reputation of the Big Five in the government: Home, Finance, Defence, External Affairs and Human Resources. Home minister Lal Krishna Advani started off with comparisons to Sardar Patel. The only Sardar you can compare him with now is Sardar Buta Singh. From Kashmir to the North-East the Home Ministry has lost one battle after another to forces either external or internal. Confusion, often bred by incomprehension, converts policy into a jump-start process that defeats those who are enjoined to implement it. The iron man of 1998 has become the man with an iron mask in 2001. Behind that mask is the face of indecision.
Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha was the reformer with an Annual Dream Budget. He is now the Minister for UTI. What more is there to say? External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh hurried around the world building a bridge here, soothing dormant hostility there, opening a window and then a door in Washington with an urgency that signalled business. He peaked politically when he was given additional charge of Defence after the forced resignation of George Fernandes. He is now, after handing over the Defence Ministry to two men who have never been sworn in, explaining his strategic world-view to the RSS in the hope of gaining their support in the turf battle for the future.
Jaswant Singh has become a ranking member of the Club of Apostates. Those, that is, who are convinced that the government has to reinvent itself, and under another Prime Minister, if it is going to survive. Human Resources Minister Murli Manohar Joshi started his career in government as home minister, albeit for only 13 days, and actually acquired a fair reputation in so brief a while. As Education Minister, he has become a single colour surrounded by astrological signs. Turn to the image of George Fernandes, defender of the faith and all its myriad sects, desperately seeking the office he lost in the turbulence of shame. George Fernandes became a national hero in 1977 when he played a decisive role in ending the Emergency and defeating Indira Gandhi. Within two-and-a-half years, he played an equally decisive role in bringing Indira Gandhi back to power.
Fernandes is a high-powered time bomb that takes around two-and-a-half years to explode upon himself, with serious consequences for both friends and enemies. Say what you will about George; he is never quiet, and never ineffective. If he cannot damage his enemies, you can be certain that he will do what he can, probably with the best of intentions, to destroy his friends. He served the Gandhi-Nehru family, his official lifelong antagonists, very well indeed in 1979. Some 22 years later, he is doing his level best to ensure that Sonia Gandhi becomes Prime Minister of India. The last time around, Indira Gandhi was, after victory, indifferent to the vital help she had received from George Fernandes. She offered him nothing in return, not even a thank you note. When Sonia Gandhi becomes Prime Minister with the help of George Fernandes the least she can do is give him some medal for services rendered. (I assume that George Fernandes would not be interested in becoming governor of Manipur in reward.)
If there is a visible (I grant that there may be invisible sources too) starting point to the troubles of the Vajpayee government, then it is certainly the exposť conducted by a dotcom company anxious to do something that would bring it to national attention during a time when the dotcom revolution, like all revolutions, had begun to devour its children. Revolutions have this problem.
They are so ravenous that having swallowed the enemy they turn upon their own before some Napoleon or Stalin or Bill Gates manages to enforce a modicum of order (the dotcom revolution has not arrived at that post-bloodshed stage yet). The leader of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal, like so many of us with a decent idea, decided to repeat himself. He had already made himself reasonably well-known by an exposure of corruption in cricket, but that effort was less than glorious because it turned out that the principal star of the Tehelka drama, Manoj Prabhakar, was not really on the side of the angels at all. Tejpal began to apply the same techniques of hidden camera and false identity in the pursuit of a bigger and more dangerous quarry: Arms dealers and gun runners. He ended up with a catch that included a decent trout and one truly large fish. Bangaru Laxman was good for a meal. But netting George Fernandes turned out to be sufficient for a whole party. Pun intended. That jolt, dramatised for the country through endless replays of film from hidden cameras, made the government reel. The government lost its grip, went off the rails. Every step became a stumble towards somewhere off course. A pattern set in, influenced by slipping confidence.
There is a case to be made that the hardliners began to target the Prime Minister even before Tehelka. J K Jain is not a member of the Congress; he is, or was then, a member of the BJP national executive. He opened an offensive on his television channel against a pillar of the Prime Minister's Office, Brajesh Mishra.
There is an old saying: When you want to get the king, target his parrot. Brajesh Mishra was the decoy. The purpose was to destabilise Atal Behari Vajpayee himself. Tehelka was a bonus in the process, but after that the pressure on the government became intense.
It has reached a point today where important ministers like Arun Shourie are openly accusing their own government of being weak and uncertain. The government is actually split in all but name. Advani is refashioning himself as the tough, no-nonsense heir who will set all things right the moment the old and flabby monarch is "persuaded" to seek retirement. The mystery, incidentally, of why Vajpayee's resignation was not accepted when offered is easily solved. The Prime Minister needs to be bled a little more, weakened further so that the public perception about him turns from asset to liability. Leeches have been planted on his body to bleed him, and will do so unless he takes corrective action.
Into this mess, enter George Fernandes.
George Fernandes is obsessed with becoming minister again. Perhaps the sight of a government in decline makes him hungrier for the job. Time is not on the side of the heroes of the Sixties and Seventies. He may have actually believed the Prime Minister's assurance when he resigned five months ago that he would return to office the moment the timebound Tehelka enquiry was over. Two things happened. The enquiry period was extended. And George discovered an old-fashioned knife in his back, planted by his good colleague Nitish Kumar. Nitish Kumar is the most articulate advocate of the argument that the sainted George would never dream of becoming minister unless completely cleared by the enquiry commission. This, of course, could take us into the next decade. And so Fernandes took a decision.
If he could not defeat Tehelka, he could defame it. He used a fact provided to the government by Tehelka itself, that it had used prostitutes in its sting against Army officers, to try and destroy Tarun Tejpal and his team. He had some help from media, but that is incidental. Fernandes mobilised his own as well as BJP MPs to raise some dust in an already very dusty Parliament. There was a walkout and much sloganeering. No one sat down to examine either the logic or the logistics of this episode. The obvious, first. What sense does it make for a ruling party to protest in Parliament with a walkout? If they feel so strongly and unanimously about it, all they have to do is telephone their own leaders Messrs Vajpayee and Advani and tell them to take action.
Second, the less obvious. If Tarun Tejpal is arrested for unethical journalism, how can the perpetrators of this fraud, this clear and filmed bribery remain out of jail? You must be out of your senses to believe that borderline ethics by a team of investigative journalists is more heinous than Jaya Jaitly telling someone who has come to bribe her that all he has to do is to send a suitcase to a suitable address and she will ensure that her "Sahib", George Fernandes, will do all he can to be helpful. If that is not the language of a bribe, then someone will have to explain what is. That evidence was sufficient to persuade the Prime Minister that George Fernandes could not remain Defence Minister of India. Find out a little more. Who were the Tehelka journalists organising prostitutes with? Why, the treasurer of George Fernandes' and Jaya Jaitly's political party, that's who.
Does the hunger for power starve out all intelligence?
Probably. If ever there was a self-goal in politics then this must be it. The footnote to this week is depressing. Is it completely accidental that our Members of Parliament voted themselves their highest pay rise in history in the very week that they did the minimum amount of work? The country would not grudge them their 30,000 rupees or their cellphones, if they gave the impression that they were earning their salaries.
Is Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee above this fray? Or is he beyond it?
Is he weak because he cannot govern, or is he weak because he does not care?
He used to be in charge of events; now events are in charge of his reputation. There is not much time left for answers.