Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Thursday, Jul 04, 2002
Old and new, jaded and suave
Drafted for party work, Mr Arun Jaitley amd Mr Venkiah Naidu... Presenting a moderate face?
THE positive bit of development, after the much-talked-about changes in the Union Cabinet and the BJP, was the Prime Minister Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee's decisive move to abort the ridiculous gaurav yatras planned all over Gujarat by its Chief Minister Mr. Narendra Modi. The original programme was to get none less than the new Deputy Prime Minister Mr L. K. Advani to flag off the yatra. But thanks to the intervention of the National Human Rights Commission, the Congress President, Ms. Sonia Gandhi, and a group of eminent citizens led by former Prime Minister Mr I. K. Gujral, the beleaguered State will be spared a fresh round of bloodletting.
Finally, Mr Vajpayee's firm intervention stopped this illogical exercise at a time when the State is communally fragile. It is significant that the Prime Minister took this sensible decision on the heels of changes in his party and the Cabinet that are meant to send home the message of more assertiveness as far as the Sangh Parivar's brand of Hindutva is concerned.
With the immediate danger of Gujarat erupting in flames past, let us look at the changes in the Cabinet and the BJP; the party top brass' calculations in effecting these changes and most important what this nation and its one billion people expect from the Government in Delhi.
The first, and the most obvious, message the Cabinet reshuffle sends is that the BJP has decided to trash its policy of appeasing all of the two-dozen odd coalition partners and sundry cheerleaders from outside the NDA. For the first time in the last three years has the assertive face of the party emerged. While the appointment of the hawkish Vinay Katiyar as the UP chief of BJP has alarmed many, the bringing in of the suave and articulate Mr Arun Jaitley as the General Secretary and spokesperson, might comfort the moderates and the urban middle-classes and elite.
But the most talked about move is the Jaswant-Yashwant swap. The country's main barometer the equity market has taken this change in its stride; in fact shrugged it off with no big moves either way. There was but a mere flutter on the day of the swearing in; the official announcement of the swap came after market hours on Monday. This was because after all the market knows well that Mr Jaswant Singh is no fierce proponent of the swadeshi mantra, as the HRD Minister, Mr Murli Manohar Joshi, who was said to be one of the runners for finance portfolio in the fortnight before the reshuffle. After all, the suave and soft-spoken Mr Jaswant Singh was the Prime Minister's first choice for the post and would have also been appointed but for fierce opposition from the Swadeshi Jagran Manch which had the required stick to beat him with; he had failed to get elected to the Lok Sabha from Rajasthan in the 2000 elections.
Unfortunately for Mr Yashwant Sinha, who has his own set of fans for the manner in which he handled the Finance portfolio for almost four years, two factors went against his continuance in the North Block. One, his last Budget, which enthused hardly anybody and infuriated millions of Indian taxpayers, especially the salaried classes with incomes that cannot be hidden and yet face a rigid tax structure. In a softening interest regime where safe savings instruments hardly fetch any returns, and with the equity market dealing investors a series of blows, the harassed middle-classes could hardly be expected to grin and bear the final blow from their Finance Minister.
Coinciding with this was the string of electoral defeats the BJP faced in several States, with the party's dismal performance in Uttar Pradesh being the final straw. For the BJP leaders in UP and other States where the Congress wrested power from the saffron party, Mr Sinha became the convenient scapegoat. Once again the swadeshi brigade swung into action, aided by discredited BJP leaders who had lost elections in some of the more important States, and that was the beginning of the end of the Yashwant era in the North Block.
While many learned arguments are put forth on what good the changes will do for better governance, one factor which is often disliked is change. Very few people like change; whether in homes, in corporate governance, in educational institutions or elsewhere. Because when you do something over a period, you get comfortable doing it and to do something different, or to do the same thing differently, requires fresh effort, which means moving out of the comfort zone.
Granted that Mr Jaswant Singh did a good job in the Ministry of External Affairs, particularly in exposing Pakistan's double-speak on terrorism at the international arena. But why should he not do an equally creditable job in the Finance Ministry? Without splitting hairs on his grasp of matters economic, why not apply the same principle of bureaucracy that an IAS officer can manage the Fisheries Department as competently as a State electricity board? And after all, isn't running of a ministry a team effort?
What this country's politicians need is more integrity than expertise. Of course, a combination would be unbeatable but is, alas, rare. The Disinvestment Minister, Mr Arun Shourie, has it; not for nothing was he rated the best performing minister in a poll of the country's 50 editors by the Aaj Tak channel of the India Today Group.
For those who would think that editors would naturally choose a former colleague, let it be known that the July 8 issue of Business Week featured Mr Shourie as one of the "opinion shapers" and "Stars of Asia". Paying encomiums to the zeal of the man, a Ph.D. in economics from Syracuse University, and describing him as "one of India's most respected ministers", the article says, "Ministers trying to protect corporate fiefdoms have been fierce critics, and his (divestment) program has sparked 10 parliamentary debates."
Coming to the other Arun, who has been shifted from the Cabinet to the party incidentally, he was voted by as one of the best five ministers in the Aaj Tak survey Mr Jaitley is the other creditable member of the party. Along with his comparative youth, and with such qualities as a pleasing personality, ability to put forth the saffron viewpoint without being loud or belligerent, and the felicity with both English and Hindi, make him a winner. The personable new general secretary of the BJP will certainly have his appeal, and hopefully for the BJP a constituency among the urban viewers of satellite channels, as he stands out among politicians.
So is he being groomed to take over as the BJP President? "A slot higher than that; he is being groomed to be the prime minister. Day in and day out, as the official spokesman he will be seen on every television channel. Very soon he will become a well known face in the country," gushes a BJP insider.
Well, that may be jumping the gun, especially when the Modis and the Katiyars chip away at the image of the BJP, and Congress rules more States than the BJP. Of course, the BJP high command's strategy seems to be to win the hardcore Hindutva elements through the Katiyars and the Modis, and appeal to the urban elite and the middle-classes through the Jaitleys and the Jaswant Singhs. How far this strategy works will be seen when the voters give the verdict when as many as 10 States go to the polls.
Meanwhile, the jaded Mr Jana Krishnamurthy has had to make way for the younger Mr Venkaiah Naidu, who is considered the new star of the Sangh Parivar. But Mr Venkiah Naidu would do well to polish his Hindi and get the genders right.
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