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February 16, 1999

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E-Mail this column to a friend Saisuresh Sivaswamy

The year of living dangerously

In a lot of ways, the bomb blasts in Coimbatore a year later was what sealed the combined Opposition's effort to stall the Bharatiya Janata Party's march to power. It gave the party's prime ministerial candidate to head an able and stable government the last surge of power needed to complete the lap, even if the man who was actually endangered by the serial blasts was his home minister-to-be.

Perhaps, then, it was not unnatural that a government that took office in the shadow of RDX explosions has, as its biggest achievement till date, mushroom clouds from another explosion. And having upped the political temperature over the border since that momentous occasion, it is now trying to leave its mark on history by renegotiating the matrix of bilateral relations between the two countries.

But just as the impression gained ground in the early days after Pokhran II that this government did not quite prepare the ground for containing the non-nuclear fallout, one shouldn't be too surprised if it does not handle the tricky deliberations with the Pakistanis to widespread satisfaction.

After all, nothing much can be expected from a bunch of politicians who had spent the better part of their lives out of the Treasury benches. In administration, as in other walks of life, experience is a necessity, and possibly the BJP coalition's 12 months in office will have brought home this simple fact to them. The next time round, the voter will not be all that forgiving. It was all right for Sadagoppan Ramesh to get out cheaply, but the public would not look at Sachin Tendulkar's early dismissal with the same equanimity: experience does matter to the people, apart from expectations.

Possibly, the high hopes generated by an aspiring BJP would have been tempered by the lingering image of the party's performance in office these 12 months. Nothing great to write home or abroad about, Mr Vajpayee and Co's greatest feat has been clinging to power. Even here, its tenure in office has more to do with the largest Opposition party's reluctance to inherit a bunch of squabbling, ageing, scheming politicians as allies than with its disregard for the fruits of office. For the first time in its history, including its pre-independence avatar, the Congress party is actively eschewing power, which is also, in a sense, an achievement of the Vajpayee government.

The mess is so serious, that no one barring the braveheart or the foolhardy would want to steer the country out of it, since the dangers of confounding it further are so terrifyingly real. As to which category Vajpayee belongs, leonine or stupid, will become clear perhaps 12 years away, when it is possible to assess his performance dispassionately.

Vajpayee's is the first non-Congress coalition experiment that has spent a year in office *under one prime minister*, which perhaps is something to crow about. The Janata Party was not a coalition government, it was one-party rule. The first government in this category was Charan Singh's, but the ignominy he faced is too well known to bear repetition.

V P Singh was the first master of contradictions who actually managed to remain in office for almost a year using both the left and the right as props. After months of living dangerously, he made way for Chandra Shekhar, who went the way of his friend and colleague, Charan Singh. The next non-Congress formation came a full five years later, under H D Deve Gowda who fell foul of the Congress president and lost his job before a year was over. His successor, I K Gujral, met the same fate, bowing out of office before a year was over.

A year ago, when the BJP assumed office, it had the past to blame for its inheritance. If the economy was in a shambles, the dream budget was to blame. The standard of politics was pathetic, but it had to do with the Laloos and Mulayams of this world. The public disenchantment was at its highest, but then what can one expect, since they had been ruled by goons and thugs, if not scamsters for the better part of 50 years. The BJP could say and mean all this and get away, for it had not so far been stained by the trappings of office, or pinioned by political compulsions.

A year of marriage does little to boost one's claims of innocence. Now on, the BJP cannot point to the past and seek salvation for its future. It is now as much part of the past it is blaming for the mess all around us, and the people are not anymore going to be as understanding, or forgiving, as they were in February last year.

A year is a bloody long time in politics, and for the BJP it is time to realise that while survival may have kept it in a condition to fight another day, it needs some reinforcements desperately. And, there is no time like now, when the nation's future is going to be determined by a few thousand words the finance minister will be reading out in the Lok Sabha on February 27 at 11 am. It is a chance that will come the BJP's way after 12 months, the possibility of which will depend to a large extent on what is contained in these documents.

Plagued by ally trouble, riven by dissension among its allies, the BJP's political fašade is in a mess. If it thinks that it can seek votes the next time on the basis of its political achievements, it may well go back to its pre-1989 days. The state of the economy is as crucial to the BJP's future as it is to the nation's, and the seriousness which it accords its own political future will be gauged from how much import it attaches to the nation's own on February 27. Your call, Mr Prime Minister...

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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