Popular, canny Vajpayee a fine role model for political novice

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 May, 2004, 12:00am

The role models for political novice and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi if she takes over as prime minister this week will be two close relatives and former prime ministers - mother-in-law Indira and husband Rajiv.

But observers believe Mrs Gandhi would do well to also emulate her main political adversary, outgoing Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, at least on one count - his success in running a coalition government of nearly two dozen parties.

Mr Vajpayee's greatest contribution as leader, according to another former prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, was to bring political stability to the country by 'uniting those who would not be united otherwise'.

Before he took over as prime minister six years ago, India was in an era of 'revolving door' governments where rivalries between leaders shook ruling coalitions.

Mr Vajpayee's first year in power, notable for his decision to conduct nuclear tests that gained strong public approval, was marked by intense squabbling within government, and Mrs Gandhi faces a similar challenge.

But Mr Vajpayee learned quickly. He brought authority and stability to the prime minister's office, pushed ahead with economic reforms despite opposition, pursued closer ties with the United States and China and sought reconciliation in Kashmir and peace with Pakistan.

'It is rare to have a man approaching 80, after six decades in public life, with so many friends and so few enemies,' Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta wrote.

Though Mr Vajpayee brought order to the capital's chaotic corridors of power, he failed in his other mission to unite a religiously divided nation.

His reign witnessed the tragedy in Gujarat state, when a provincial government run by Mr Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) condoned the mass killing of minority Muslims.

Against his better judgment, Mr Vajpayee failed to act against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi due to pressure from within his party, alienating millions of ordinary Indians wary of radical politics.

The party also appears to have played a direct role in Mr Vajpayee's final failure, his inability to retain power.

He had wanted to carry all the coalition partners with him in the just-concluded national elections. But other leaders insisted on switching or dropping some regional allies, costing the BJP-led alliance at least 50 seats - enough to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The BJP will now be the main opposition party, and the knives are out for Mr Vajpayee, who is blamed by radicals for diluting the party's hardline Hindu nationalist agenda.

The BJP will now likely be tempted to swing back to a confrontationist agenda, abandoning Mr Vajpayee's conciliatory politics.

But the BJP can not afford to fully ditch Mr Vajpayee, who was always more popular than his party.

A likely compromise will be to retain him as the nominal leader of the multi-party opposition coalition, while his hardline associate Lal Krishna Advani spearheads the party's onslaught in Parliament on Mrs Gandhi and her government.