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When Vajpayee's advice did the trick

By Virendra Kapoor
June 01, 2004 18:43 IST
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Only the naïve or the sycophantic will believe that Sonia Gandhi declined the prime minister's post voluntarily.

She did not.

After mulling over the pros and cons for five long days, the Italy-born president of the Indian National Congress painfully concluded that not all Indians may be ready to accept her as prime minister.

Quite aside from the plethora of evidence that exists to buttress the claim that she was a reluctant quitter, there is a clincher that establishes that her 'inner voice' was a mask to hide her compulsions in declining the highest executive office in the land.

Two days before she actually announced her decision to opt out amidst mass breast-beating by her partymen, Sonia Gandhi had telephoned caretaker prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

She asked Vajpayee whether she should become the prime minister. Vajpayee said no.

Not prepared for a negative reply, Gandhi protested. Vajpayee countered that since she had sought his advice he was only telling her what he believed was in her own and the country's interest.

Sonia Gandhi retorted that 'you people had opposed Motilal Nehru (sic) and Indira Gandhi. You did not want any of them to become prime minister'

Vajpayee was blunt: 'You asked for my advice. It is my view that the country is sharply divided over a foreign-born becoming prime minister. It is a sentimental issue impinging on Indians' sense of national honour and pride. In your own interest and the country's, you should not become PM.'

Gandhi abruptly ended the conversation.

She was probably expecting Vajpayee to be at least non-committal so that she could realise her ambition. But the BJP leader minced no words in expressing his view.

Of course, those most relieved by her decision not to become prime minister were senior Congressmen who feared a strong backlash had she given into the temptation.

Return of the coterie

DMK chief M Karunanidhi eventually got what he wanted by blaming what he called the coterie around Sonia Gandhi for the initial denial of promised ministerial portfolios to his MPs. But the same 'coterie' was successful in denying Pranab Mukherjee the crucial home portfolio in Manmohan Singh's Cabinet.

Mukherjee was originally pencilled in for home. But the coterie worked on Sonia Gandhi, fuelling her suspicion of the senior party leader from West Bengal and edging him out to the relatively less important defence ministry.

Apparently, the coterie argued that Mukherjee had contested the election to the Lok Sabha for the first time in his long political career only to stay in the prime ministerial race just in case the opportunity arose. Also, that he had been helped in his bid to enter the Lok Sabha from Jangipur by West Bengal's ruling Left Front, which would have rather had him as PM than Gandhi, though for the record they had no objection to her assuming the office.

As against Mukherjee, the coterie plumped for Shivraj Patil as home minister for two very obvious reasons. One, unlike Mukherjee, he is a political lightweight who will do the coterie's bidding. Mukherjee is his own man and can hardly be relied upon to lend an ear. Two, Patil had lost his re-election bid from Latur in Maharashtra and would be doubly grateful to the coterie for having found him what by common consent is the number 2 slot in government.

Incidentally, Mukherjee did not exactly endear himself to Sonia Gandhi when, on being asked whether she should accept the prime minister's job, he reportedly advised her against it. This made it easier for the coterie to relegate him to defence.

Wages of inaction

Former prime minister Vajpayee, mulling over the reasons for the NDA's surprise defeat, is believed to have zeroed in on one major cause: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Vajpayee's trusted lieutenants now concede that had he forced Modi out of the chief minister's office in
Gandhinagar, as he had planned to do when he left the national capital for the Goa plenary session of the BJP two years ago, the results of the parliamentary election would have been quite different.

But on the two-hour flight to Panaji via Mumbai, senior RSS-BJP leaders, having got wind of Vajpayee's decision, detailed Arun Shourie to dissuade the prime minister. Shourie used his persuasive skills to good effect and by the time Vajpayee landed in Panaji his mind was made up not to remove Modi.

Since Vajpayee on his own visit to riot-torn Gujarat had bluntly told Modi to 'follow rajdharma', his failure to remove him in Goa made the prime minister appear weak and vacillating.

Making the most of a bad deal

One of the two members of Manmohan Singh's council of ministers from the national capital is rather unhappy with his lot, having built up great hopes of bagging a crucial ministry with independent charge. (He had earlier pleaded with Sonia Gandhi not to make him a mere minister of state.)

So when late in the night the official allocation of portfolios was announced, the new minister of state was shocked. Earlier he had told his confidants and peers that he would get commerce and industry or quit the government. Now he is having to hide his embarrassment, unconvincingly making out how his non-ministry is crucial to the well-being of a modern and vibrant India.

Meanwhile, some so-called stalwarts in the Congress did not want Mani Shankar Aiyar to be made a Cabinet minister. Their advice to Sonia Gandhi was that he ought to be inducted only as a minister of state.

But Manmohan Singh insisted that Aiyar must be a Cabinet minister because he found his intellectual prowess and integrity valuable.

Clearly, Singh will rely on the pugnacious, straight-shooting Aiyar to snuff out the mischief that the old and ageing Congress stalwarts in the Cabinet might be plotting against him.

Demanding voters, these

Politics is not a gentleman's game. It never was.

So, a candidate in the national capital in the recent parliamentary election pulled out all stops to win his seat. No expense was spared. He distributed goodies to all and sundry, made all the promises the people wanted to hear, and, on the advice of his election agents, also distributed loads of liquor in the shanty colonies in his constituency on the eve of polling.

But he was dumbfounded when one of his pointmen returned to complain that the people in the jhuggies were angry that he had sent desi sharaab -- country liquor -- while he himself guzzles the choicest Scotch whisky every evening.

The candidate in question failed in his bid to enter the Lok Sabha.

Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh

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Virendra Kapoor