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Prelude to the Indo-LTTE War (1987-90)

Broiling of Rajiv Gandhi, Part II

by Sachi Sri Kantha

A coterie of Tamil analysts... still peddle the fantasy that Rajiv Gandhi and his bureaucratic handlers in New Delhi had a clear grasp of the Eelam Tamil issue, and, if not for Pirabhakaran’s intransigence, he would have perfected the ‘best deal’ for Eelam Tamils from the wily Jayewardene. This altruistic sheen painted for Rajiv by his fawning fans hardly matches the real events which occurred in the months preceding the Rajiv- Jayewardene Accord.

...During the first half of 1987, being politically broiled and almost on the verge of being toppled from his throne, Rajiv was literally/figuratively crouching to save his political skin. Here is a partial list of ‘political arrows’ which bruised his cultivated sheen of ‘Mr. Clean’; (1) a political avalanche against the Congress Party in the North Indian states, (2) revelations of corruption and Bofors arms deal scandal, (3) cross border tension with Pakistan and China, and last but not the least (4) a ‘dog fight’ with Zail Singh, the then President of India.

Thus, Rajiv decided to play the role of savior of the Eelam Tamils proposed by his Congress Party retainers and bureaucrat handlers to impress the Tamil Nadu voters. The one not-so-insignificant fact in this political power display was the reality that the health of then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) was failing and the Congress Party bigwigs in Tamil Nadu...dreamt of reviving this Party’s fortunes as a ruling power in Tamil Nadu.

Prelude to the Indo-LTTE War, Part 1

The perilous misadventure of Rajiv Gandhi (1944-1991) into Eelam territory in 1987 has been foretold by Walter Wallbank (then professor of history, University of Southern California) in 1963. To quote,

“That India’s foreign policy has elements of opportunism, inconsistency and expediency – as does that of any great world power – is seen in the fact that she has not hesitated to use force when her unity or security has been threatened, as in the case of Hyderabad and Nepal.” [‘A Short History of India and Pakistan’, New American Library, 1963, 3rd printing, p.310]

The word ‘security’ in the above sentence needs to be qualified. ‘Foreign policy’ as such was/is determined not by a consensus of India’s populace per se, but by the top honcho who was/is in nominal power. This has been the pattern from the era of Emperor Asoka ( 304 BC - 232 BC) through last great Mogul emperor Aurangzeb (1659-1707) to India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) and his two descendants, Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) and Rajiv Gandhi.

TIME magazine cover December 22 1986 Rajiv Gandhi

But, it is to the credit of Rajiv Gandhi’s youthful charm – at the time of his death - that he elicits sympathy among ladder-ascending bureaucrats, opportunists and hypocrites in India and Sri Lanka. In India, these include his then critics - later turned apologists - like Subramanian Swamy, and the influence peddlers who work for the House of Hindu (Chennai) publishers. Not that these hypocrites were enamoured by Rajiv’s captivating influence on them while he was alive, but now sing his praises for the practical reason of being on the good side of his widow Sonia Gandhi, who now controls the Congress Party by proxy. In Sri Lanka, a motley crowd of Sinhalese politicians and half-baked analysts (who saw Rajiv as a bully and sworn enemy, until the day of his death) still pay spurious hosanna to Rajiv Gandhi.

It is also amusing to read lately the awful embellishments now offered in the electronic media by some anonymous Wikipedia scribes, who contribute items on the LTTE, and self-serving politicos like V. Anandasangaree ,who prop up the virtures Rajiv’s political career for personal plum-picking.

Nevertheless, as anthropologist Edward T. Hall noted aptly, “Time talks. It speaks more plainly than words. The message it conveys comes through loud and clear. Because it is manipulated less consciously, it is subject to less distortion than the spoken language. It can shout the truth where words lie.” [the opening paragraph of his book, The Silent Language, 1959].

Time, of course, “can shout the truth.” But the tone deaf (especially in India and Sri Lanka) who were fooled twenty years ago, cannot hear and/or comprehend Time’s truth. Thus, Time’s truth deserves re-telling without any distortions and embellishments.

One of the easiest methods to access Time’s truth is to reproduce the articles that appeared in mainstream news magazines between late 1986 and July 1987. This ‘real time playback’ feature provides clues to the motives and deeds of Rajiv Gandhi and his bureaucratic and political handlers on the Eelam issue, which culminated in the Indo-LTTE war, commencing in October 1987. Politically speaking, two major drawbacks of Rajiv, which have been cited by Indian analysts in 1987, were ‘immaturity and shortsightedness.’ In addition to these, some specific negative personality traits of Rajiv (‘pride, vanity, arrogance, even vindictiveness’, in the words of American analyst Paul Kreisberg) also handicapped him.

A coterie of Tamil analysts (the likes of N. Ram and his sidekicks, including D.B.S. Jeyaraj) still peddle the fantasy that Rajiv Gandhi and his bureaucratic handlers in New Delhi had a clear grasp of the Eelam Tamil issue, and, if not for Pirabhakaran’s intransigence, he would have perfected the ‘best deal’ for Eelam Tamils from the wily Jayewardene. This altruistic sheen painted for Rajiv by his fawning fans hardly matches the real events which occurred in the months preceding the Rajiv- Jayewardene Accord.

By the end of 1986 (in merely two years), Rajiv had lost his ‘Mr. Clean’ image as the prime minister among the Indian voters, who overwhelmingly provided him a mandate after the assassination of his predecessor and mother, Indira Gandhi. During the first half of 1987, being politically broiled and almost on the verge of being toppled from his throne, Rajiv was literally/figuratively crouching to save his political skin. Here is a partial list of ‘political arrows’ which bruised his cultivated sheen of ‘Mr. Clean’; (1) a political avalanche against the Congress Party in the North Indian states, (2) revelations of corruption and Bofors arms deal scandal, (3) cross border tension with Pakistan and China, and last but not the least (4) a ‘dog fight’ with Zail Singh, the then President of India.

Thus, Rajiv decided to play the role of savior of the Eelam Tamils proposed by his Congress Party retainers and bureaucrat handlers to impress the Tamil Nadu voters. The one not-so-insignificant fact in this political power display was the reality that the health of then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) was failing and the Congress Party bigwigs in Tamil Nadu (the likes of P. Chidambaram, Rangarajan Kumaramangalam and Mani Shankar Aiyar, as well as old timers R. Venkataraman, who would be elected as the President of India on July 13, 1987) dreamt of reviving this Party’s fortunes as a ruling power in Tamil Nadu.

In hindsight, one can infer that the ‘one–time’ air-drop of humanitarian food supply into the Jaffna region executed by ‘Operation Poomalai’ on June 3, 1987, was nothing but a muscle-flexing political stunt to impress his Indian audience and a breast-strutting strategy against the Colombo politicos. Barely two weeks before this aerial display, India Today analysts had written the following condemnation of Rajiv Gandhi’s leadership:

“Since the beginning of the year, it [the ruling party] has plunged itself into one crisis after another. The forced resignation of a popular foreign secretary, the unnecessary tension on the Pakistan border and the sordid treatment of the President, were all issues that called into serious question the credibility and image of a government that had promised much and seemed to be delivering the opposite.” [‘Defence Deals – Bofors and After’, India Today, May 15, 1987]

By assimilating and analyzing the major action-packed events that occurred in India and its neighborhood which also had Rajiv’s prime ministerial imprimatur in the first half of 1987, I would assert that the prime (and in all probabilities the only) motive of Rajiv for the July 29, 1987 Accord that he signed with Jayewardene was not to support the welfare of Eelam Tamils in Sri Lanka, but to restore his own survival and credibility as the Congress Party chief.

Among the books which provide details on the Rajiv – Jayewardene Accord of 1987, the one authored by J.N. Dixit [Assignment Colombo, 1998] is an important one for the candor with which the then Indian High Commissioner in Colombo presented his take on the motives of the major and not-so major characters who participated in the events of 1987. However, for understandable reasons, Dixit was extremely coy in presenting Rajiv’s real motives. As a loyal mandarin who served his harassed Chief, Dixit limited the political setbacks, broiling and the near-toppling faced by Rajiv in mid 1987 (before he signed the Accord) to one single paragraph, as follows:

“Rajiv Gandhi’s focus of attention on Sri Lanka was refracted from the end of 1986 and the first months of 1987 onwards, due to rising levels of tensions with Pakistan following the Indian military exercise ‘Operation Brasstacks’, the efforts under way at reducing tension with China in the wake of increased activities of Chinese and Indian patrols in the Eastern Sector of the Sino-Indian boundary and the eruption of the Bofors scandal related to alleged kickbacks on the purchase of heavy artillery guns from Sweden.” [‘Assignment Colombo’, 1988, p. 77]

Dixit can be excused for providing such a skimpy description since his work station then was Colombo, and not New Delhi. As such, what really happened from the end of 1986 to July 1987 in India deserves to be highlighted in more detail than the measly 85-word annotation provided by diplomat Dixit. The following period commentaries (that appeared between Dec. 22, 1986 and July 30, 1987), culled from multiple mainstream magazines, provide circumstantial support for my above assertion.

(1) ‘The Education of Gandhi’ (cover story), by Edward W. Desmond and Ross H. Munro, Time, Dec.22, 1986, pp.4-9.

(2) ‘Sticky Wicket’ (Editorial), Asiaweek, Feb.8, 1987, pp.6-7.

(3) ‘Confrontation at the Top’, by Anonymous correspondent, Asiaweek, Mar. 29, 1987, pp. 12-13.

(4) ‘Rough Flying for Rajiv Gandhi’ by Anonymous correspondent, Asiaweek, May 3, 1987, pp. 26-28.

(5) ‘Unresolved Controversy: PM-President Meeting (cover story), by Prabhu Chawla, India Today, April 15, 1987, pp.26-30.

(6) ‘Congress (I): Crumbling Citadel’ (cover story), by Inderjit Badhwar and Prabhu Chawla, India Today, April 15, 1987, pp.68-72.

(7) ‘Scandals swirl around Rajiv’, by Anonymous correspondent, Asiaweek, April 26, 1987, p. 15.

(8) ‘Defence Deals: Bofors and After’ (cover story), by Dilip Bobb, India Today, May 15, 1987, pp.30-45.

(9) ‘Congress (I): Paranoia in the Party’ (cover story), by Inderjit Badhwar, India Today, May 15, 1987, pp.46-51.

(10) ‘Another Setback for Gandhi’, by Anonymous correspondent, Asiaweek, July 5, 1987, pp.23-25.

(11) ‘Outwitting the Right’, by Salamat Ali, Far Eastern Economic Review, July 9, 1987, p. 25.

(12) ‘Rajiv Gandhi: Crisis of Leadership’ (cover story), by Dilip Bobb, Prabhu Chawla and Sreekant Khandekar, India Today, July 15, 1987, pp.32-38.

(13) ‘A New President’, by Anonymous correspondent, Asiaweek, July 26, 1987, p. 13.

(14) ‘Into a mid-term crisis’, by Salamat Ali, Far Eastern Economic Review, July 30, 1987, pp. 8-9.

These fourteen newsreports/commentaries, presented in chronological sequence, serve as necessary readings for a proper historical evaluation of (1) how, prior to July 29, 1987, Rajiv bungled badly in the domestic scene, due to his immaturity and inept handling of numerous, delicate issues; and (2) why Rajiv opted for a secretly-hatched political deal with wily Jayewardene, under the pretext of settling the Eelam Tamil issue. The ‘deal’ was kept so secret that the details were not shown to Pirabhakaran until he reached New Delhi, according to Dixit’s memoirs. In Dixit’s words, Puri (the First Secretary-Political – at the Indian High Commission in Colombo) “was explicitly told not to show the Agreement to Prabhakaran and give him only an outline of it.” (page 142), when he was sent to Jaffna on July 19, 1987 to meet with the LTTE leader.

India Today Cover April 15 1987 Rajiv Gandhi

These 14 commentaries also refute the naïve belief of Rajiv hagiographers and sympathizers among Indians and Tamils that this grandson of Nehru, who was so prone to fumble and falter, (1) made a correct decision to disarm LTTE, in his neck-saving deal with Jayewardene, and that (2) it was Pirabhakaran’s fault to oppose Rajiv’s 1987 diktat. Dixit, to be fair, acknowledged (a decade later!) in his memoirs more than once that Pirabhakaran’s decision-making instincts had proved to be sound in the long run, in how Prabhakaran handled common sense-challenged India’s panjandrums.

It may not be wrong to infer that Rajiv’s naivete in reversing the protocols adopted by his mother, Indira Gandhi in handling Jayewardene also crippled him badly. As Mervyn de Silva noted once in a puckish play of words, Rajiv ‘betrayed his mother’ on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue.

Also to be digested from these commentaries was the role played by Vishwanath Pratap (V.P.) Singh, Rajiv’s successor as the prime minister of India, in standing up to Rajiv within the Congress Party, only to be expelled from the party on July 19, 1987 – merely 10 days before the signing of the much hyped Rajiv – Jayewardene Accord. It was V.P. Singh who decided to call back the battered and bruised Indian army that fought with the LTTE during 1987-89.

The dots and words/phrases either in italics or in parentheses, wherever they appear, are as in the originals.

The Education of Gandhi

by Edward Desmond

[Courtesy: Time magazine (cover story), December 22, 1986, pp.4-9]

The crowd is a picture of India’s dazzling array of peoples, religions, languages and most of all, problems: a sobbing farmer from Karnataka state has come to recover land from which he was evicted; a delegation of Muslim butchers expresses alarm over sheep-slaughtering methods that violate Islamic law; a blind man from Tamil Nadu state needs help finding a job; some 200 squatters from a shantytown in New Delhi plead that their land claims be legalized. All are assembled on the lawn surrounding the elegant white house at 7 Race Course Road to petition Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, 42. The occasion is a durbar, a meeting of ruler and subjects as ancient as India’s Mogul emperors – and, since the 1984 assassination of Gandhi’s mother Indira, all but discontinued.

Dressed in a brown suit with high closed collar, the Prime Minister moves slowly among the 350 to 400 patiently waiting petitioners, modestly turning aside their attempts to touch his feet in a sign of respect, listening to their troubles, offering what assistance he can. A severely crippled man wants a job, preferably selling glasses of water at the local train station. Gandhi says he will see what he can do, and the man hobbles away on his hands, his calloused knees dragging behind. A delegation representing an alliance of India’s lowest castes presents a petition asking for a five fold increase in their quota of government jobs. Their leader reminds the Prime Minister that his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, supported their cause. Gandhi replies, ‘That was more than 20 years ago. Now things have changed. Do we stay in the past or shall we live in the present and move ahead?’

The Prime Minister sounds a bit irritated, as he often has cause to be these days. When he took office more than two years ago, he might have spoken the same words triumphantly, confident of his ability to bring quick change to India. Widely described as a young man in a hurry, Gandhi promised a government that ‘not only worked,’ as his mother’s slogan had it, ‘but worked faster’. In his first year the airline pilot reluctantly turned politician was unquestionably making progress. He put to rest – or so he thought – perennial conflicts in Punjab and Assam. He liberalized economic policies by cutting taxes, reducing tariffs, cracking down on corruption, shaking up an ossified bureaucracy and promising to reorganize the bloated and corrupt Congress (I) Party. Those moves inspired Indian investors enough to push share prices up by 60% on the Bombay stock market.

But India’s intractable political realities have been gaining on Gandhi, and now he faces reversals that have been steadily undermining the good intentions of his early days in office. Chief among those woes is the worsening situation in Punjab. Sikh terrorist attacks against Hindus there have picked up steadily, culminating in a massacre two weeks ago in which gunmen murdered 22 bus passengers. The killings sparked Hindus in New Delhi to go on a rampage against the capital’s Sikh’s inhabitants for the second time this year. Last week Sikh terrorists gunned down a local Hindu politician and a teacher, bringing to well over 500 the number of civilians killed in Punjab this year. That problem is only the worst of several sputtering racial, linguistic and religious conflicts. In the past week major disturbances in the states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal resulted in 22 deaths and more than 36,000 arrests.

Gandhi’s economic policies, meanwhile, have fared well in some instances but have run into serious difficulties in others. Relaxation of import restrictions has resulted in an influx of superior foreign-made machinery and equipment that threatens to plunge once protected Indian capital-goods companies into bankruptcy. Efforts to disentangle business from over-regulation have met stubborn resistance from bureaucrats. Members of Gandhi’s Congress (I) Party and even some advisers close to the Prime Minister have rebelled at his sharp criticism of the party and its way of doing business.

Critics of Gandhi believe he has good ideas but lacks the political skills to carry them out. The Prime Minister, they say, has mistakenly ignored the necessity of recruiting his own party, the government and even the people as allies in reform. Instead, they content, he has charged ahead, clothed only in the strength of his ideas and memories of the popularity he enjoyed in the early months of his rule. Says Pran Chopra of the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi’s leading think tank: ‘India has never had a Prime Minister with better intentions than Rajiv Gandhi. But then comes the negative side. He has failed to deliver on his good intentions.’ Agrees one of Gandhi’s close friends: ‘He still has to learn how to make things happen.’

Recent months, however, have produced some evidence that Gandhi has taken to heart the criticism as well as the results of his failed initiatives. One example: the durbar, or morning meeting, as Gandhi’s aides prefer to call it, was reinstituted by the Prime Minister a few weeks ago over the objections of his security staff. Determined to break out of the isolated cocoon created by his security men, he decided to provide an open house weekday mornings where anyone who can pass the metal detectors and a frisking is welcome. That was only one indication that Gandhi has grasped a fundamental fact: to make progress he must take into account the old rules of Indian politics. That means holding durbars and building support inside his party, even with the old-style Congress (I) politicians he regularly castigated in public only a year ago. He has also come to understand that India cannot be changed overnight, and that entrenched interests – powerful businessmen and obstreperous bureaucrats – cannot be simply swept away, no matter how troublesome they may be.

Gandhi seemed to have those notions in mind as he flew in an Indian Air Force Boeing 737 loaded with staff, politicians and bodyguards to the prosperious heartland city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra state. The occasion was a rally marking the reunion of his Congress (I) Party with the breakaway Congress (S) faction led by Sharad Pawar, 46, an ambitious politician with a strong following. Over the past two years Congress (I) has lost elections in Assam and Punjab. That disturbed party members because Congress leadership in the states is a key factor in limiting the influence of regional, sometimes separatist-minded parties at odds with New Delhi. Gandhi, many of his colleagues feel, must campaign much more vigorously in four crucial state elections that will be held early next year.

Last week Gandhi was clearly giving party and national unity his full attention. At a rally of 200,000 Pawar supporters, the Prime Minister, wearing a large saffron-colored turban favored locally, welcomed back his ‘brothers and sisters’ in Congress (S) and called on everyone to work against communal, or religious, strife. Said he: ‘We have to contain this divisiveness…For India to be united, we must preserve its secular character.’

To emphasize the point, Gandhi had brought along Dr. Farooq Abdullah, the chief minister of the predominantly Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir, to speak to Maharashtra’s 6 million Muslims. Gandhi recently agreed to back Abdullah, head of the National Conference Party, as the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir as long as he shared power with Congress (I). Last week it appeared that Abdullah had also promised to become Gandhi’s national ally in dealings with India’s 90 million Muslims, who constitute about 12% of the total population of 750 million. Playing that role smoothly, Abdullah focused on national unity, declaring that the ‘blood of Muslims is indistinguishable from the blood of Hindus.’

Gandhi might have said the same thing for Sikh and Hindu blood. The strife in Punjab that is forcing some Hindus to leave the state has become the most pressing test of Gandhi’s leadership. An accord he fashioned in July 1985 with the Sikh Akali Dal Party, a moderate group, is all but dead. One reason is that the Prime Minister failed to put sufficient pressure on his Congress (I) operatives and on the Akali Dal leadership to carry out the transfer of 70,000 acres of Punjabi land to Haryana state in exchange for ceding control of Chandigarh, the two states’ joint capital, to Punjab. The failure flowed in part from one of Gandhi’s biggest problems to date: an inability to keep aides and other officials in line.

In Punjab the machinations of Arun Nehru, the Prime Minister’s cousin and until recently the powerful Minister for Internal Security, helped subvert the accord. Unlike Gandhi, who wanted to reach a genuine agreement with the Akali Dal, Nehru was intent on provoking a crisis that would force New Delhi to impose direct rule on Punjab. Says Chopra: ‘Gandhi has not proved clever enough to deal with some of his more devious aides.’

Gandhi dropped Nehru from his Cabinet in October, but by then Sikh terrorists, fortified by the accord’s failure, had been gaining followers – and killing Hindus – in parts of Punjab. Two weeks ago, New Delhi’s policy suffered another serious setback when G.S. Tohra, regarded as an appeaser of Sikh extremist elements won control of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, which administers all Sikh temples in Punjab. Tohra’s first act was to disband the security units that had been established to keep out Sikhdom’s holiest shrine and the site of a bloody battle in 1984 between radicals and Indian soldiers.

Tohra’s actions, along with the bus killings the same week, forced Gandhi to act. He pressured Punjab Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala to order the arrests of Tohra, Prakash Singh Badal, a former chief minister, and scores of Sikh radicals. As Gandhi declared during his visit to Aurangabad: ‘There will be no weakness. No force that threatens our unity will be allowed to raise its head.’

In an interview with TIME last week as he flew back to New Delhi, the Prime Minister discussed the crisis in Punjab. Claiming that he is ‘still for a political settlement’, and ‘implementing the accord,’ he said he would continue to push Barnala to crack down further. ‘Because of the character of the people in a state like Punjab,’ he said, ‘they will not put up with a wishy-washy government. They want to see authority. They want to see the man who is boss act like a boss. If they don’t see that, then I don’t think they will accept him as a leader.’

The key problem in Punjab, said the Prime Minister, is two fold: disappointed expectations of Sikh farmers and young people, and interference from Pakistan. After steady growth during the 1970s, farm production has leveled off in Punjab. Farmers are unhappy. Their sons, many of whom received good educations, feel they are above working on the land, yet cannot find suitable jobs. That kind of unrest, said Gandhi, provides recruits for terrorist groups. Said he: ‘The real solution is a social solution. The temporary solution is a police solution. Both are necessary.’

Around India last week there were ample reminders of the racial, linguistic, economic and religious tensions that are increasingly tending toward violence. In Karnataka state, for example, Muslims took offense at a story published in the Hindu-owned and –operated Deccan Herald. The result was three days of rioting and arson in several cities that ended with the deaths of at least 17 people. Outside Aurangabad, two days after Gandhi’s visit there, as many as 50,000 farmers blocked roads to protest inadequate price supports for their cotton crops. Police moved in and at least 17,000 farmers were arrested, and three people died.

In Tamil Nadu, the issue is language. The overwhelming majority of the state’s 52 million people speak Tamil, not Hindi, India’s official national language. In the past, Tamil leaders were assured that they could continue using English for official government business. Earlier this year, however, New Delhi issued a circular encouraging the use of Hindi for official work. That move sparked sporadic demonstrations, and last week protest leaders in the state capital of Madras publicly set fire to copies of the section of the Indian constitution that declares, ‘The official language of union shall be Hindi.’ Police arrested 19,300 protesters, including ten members of the state assembly, after rioters burned eleven buses in a rampage through Madras and other cities. One person died.

In West Bengal, Gandhi has a new irritant: the Gurkha National Liberation Front, a group centered in the tea-growing region around Darjeeling and claiming to represent 6 million people of Nepalese origin, better known as Gurkhas, who live in the region. Their demand: give their Nepali language status as an official tongue and create a Gurkha homeland. Last week shops in Darjeeling were closed in response to a strike called to protest the death of a GNLF supporter in a clash with partisans of West Bengal’s ruling Communist Party. Security forces fired on battling supporters of the two groups last week, and 22 houses were put to the torch, but there were no reported injuries.

From its birth as an independent nation in 1947, India has always faced deep divisions among its peoples. Yet the recent explosion of divisiveness is partly a result of Gandhi’s departure from his mother’s more hard-nosed attitude toward groups with nonconformist agendas. His deal with the Akali Dal Party in Punjab, as well as similar arrangements with local parties in Mizoram and Assam, encouraged the Gurkhas and perhaps other regional, ethnic and tribal groups that want more local power.

Underlying communal strife everywhere in the country is the inability of most Indians to earn a decent living. Less than 10% have a yearly income of $1,500 or more. The remaining millions aspire to buy the television sets, refrigerators and other luxuries that are displayed in shop windows, but can barely feed themselves. Some 40% of the population is undernourished.

Recognizing that destitution contributes to various forms of political unrest – including Sikh extremism, Muslim militancy and Hindu chauvinism – Gandhi has made it a top priority to free the economy from institutional barriers to growth. For nearly a year the government introduced one reform after another aimed at making huge state-run enterprises more competitive and providing private industry with incentives to expand, especially into high technology. ‘The battle against backwardness,’ declared the Prime Minister late last year, ‘can only be won through massive industrialization.’

Gandhi, however, did not anticipate the problems that the reforms created. His efforts to ease licensing requirements for the expansion of private companies, for example, cut into the prerogatives of India’s millions of civil servants, who often fatten their earnings with bribes paid by applicants for licenses. The bureaucrats struck back by simply delaying the implementation of new regulations, or introducing new requirements. Now businessmen complain that red tape is almost as bad as ever. Gandhi concedes that bureaucratic guerrilla warfare has undermined his effort to decontrol the private sector. ‘There is tremendous resistance, no doubt about it,’ he told TIME last week. ‘At the lower level, we are finding it very difficult to cut through.’

Another reform that went awry was lowering the import duty on capital goods from 65% to 45%, as well as reducing levies on other imports. Many of India’s industries have been protected from foreign competition for so long that they cannot begin to join the race with firms in highly productive Asian countries like Japan and South Korea; a steel worker in South Korea, for example, produces 25 times as much steel a year as his Indian counterpart. Thus, as more and more foreign goods started entering the country, businessmen, already annoyed by Gandhi’s crackdown on tax cheats, immediately felt the pinch. Within months the Prime Minister was forced to raise the duty on capital goods to 55%.

On economic policy, Gandhi’s critics point to his failure to follow through, to undertake the groundwork necessary to make his policies work. Says Professor Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri of the New Delhi School of Economics: ‘Rajiv’s gut instincts and decisions are correct. Where he fails is in managing the politics of reform. If you really want change, you have to figure out who can help you and who can hinder you. But that wasn’t done.’

The talk heard last year of an economic boom is now gone. The economy is expected to grow at a rate of 4½% this year – still healthy, but down from 5% last year. While many countries would be happy with such a growth rate, India desperately needs more to improve the lot of its people. In the latest five-year economic plan, the government aimed to cut the percentage of the population below the poverty line nearly in half. That will require a faster economic tempo.

But businessmen are losing confidence. Share prices have slumped since last June: two weeks ago, the decline became so steep that three stock exchanges suspended trading. The International Monetary Fund reported last month that clandestine capital flight from India is accelerating and that more than $1 billion in Indian private funds resides in secret Swiss bank accounts. Nimesh Kampani, a leading financier in Bombay, syas the activity ‘reflects a growing uncertainty and loss of confidence about the direction of the government’s economic policies.’ Gandhi has not helped. Says Chaudhuri: ‘Sometimes he talks reform, and other times he reassures people that he is on the old path.’

One old parth Gandhi hoped he would not have to take was accommodation with the seedier elements of the Congress (I) Party. When he came to power, the idealistic young Prime Minister openly disdained Congress Party veterans who oversaw its vast apparatus of power, patronage – and corruption. Elections for party officials have not been held since 1972, and there seems to be little interest inside the party in ideological or policy issues. ‘They are in different worlds, and they speak different languages,’ marveled an aide several months ago, after watching Gandhi converse, or try to converse, with some old-line party leaders. A year ago, at the party’s 100th anniversary celebration, Gandhi went so far as to claim that party members ‘follow no principle of public morality’ and are out of touch with the masses.

Determined to take Congress (I) out of the back rooms and into the vanguard of reform, Gandhi promised a cleanup. But again he met with intense resistance and failed to muster his forces. As in Punjab, Arun Nehru foiled the Prime Minister’s initiatives. Gandhi also dismissed Arjun Singh, vice president of Congress (I), who had alienated many party officials and failed to lay the groundwork for change. In another swat at his erstwhile aides, Gandhi forced the resignation of Congress (I) Party President Kamlapati Tripathi, who emerged as a leading voice among party dissidents and defectors. In a letter leaked to the press, he told Gandhi of his unhappiness with the direction of the party.

Gandhi has now dropped his plans to make over Congress (I), and the date for an election of senior officials has still not been set. Ramakrishna Hegde, chief minister of Karnataka and leader of the opposition Janatha Party, views Congress’s troubles in a partisan light, but some members of the ruling party would agree with his observations. ‘Over the years, the Congress has been degenerating continuously,’ he says. ‘In Mrs. Gandhi’s time, it reached rock bottom in terms of sycophancy, antidemocratic attitudes and corruption. If Rajiv Gandhi had done something drastic immediately after becoming Prime Minister, Congress would have been regenerated with elections, a new code of conduct and so on. But he let the opportunity slip out of his hands. I think the Congress is now beyond redemption. The rot has set in too deep.’

While Gandhi’s assessment is no doubt less bleak, he has apparently resigned himself to a policy of coexistence with the old party potentates. Last week, after the rally in Aurangabad, Gandhi and his entourage flew to Bombay for another speech and, more important, to pay a social call. His motorcade sped from one end of Bombay to the other and then back again so that he could spend a few minutes with Vasantrao Patil, 69, a former Congress Party chieftain who was hospitalized with a heart ailment. A year ago, it would have been inconceivable for Gandhi to make such a visit; indeed, earlier this year Gandhi had effectively demoted Patil. But there he was at the older man’s bedside, as if to signal to Patil’s generation that he wanted to make peace.

Some of Gandhi’s most confident moves have been in the field of foreign policy, perhaps because he can exercise his authority more directly in matters of state-to-state relations. That is also the area in which the Prime Minister has hewed fairly closely to the Non-Aligned policies of his mother. He lobbied fellow heads of government against apartheid and nuclear weapons and continued careful relations with India’s neighbors and the US. To address the threat of nuclear war, New Delhi played host in January 1985 to representatives from Argentina, Greece, Mexico, Sweden and Tanzania for what India called the ‘First Six-Nation Summit on Peace and Disarmament’. On apartheid, Gandhi forcefully made the case for sanctions against South Africa in the United Nations, the Commonwealth and the Non-Aligned Movement. ‘I think we can take a great deal of satisfaction with what we achieved in the boycott of South Africa,’ he said recently. ‘ I don’t think India alone achieved it, but we have definitely been one of the key factors.’

Gandhi has chosen to maintain India’s long and close relationship with the Soviet Union. Only last month Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev made a highly publicized trip to New Delhi. During the visit Gorbachev gave India $1.2 billion in loans with generous terms. That was in addition to agreements reached earlier on the sale of military equipment, including, the go-ahead to purchase 40 MiG-29 fighter-bombers. The planes are adanced models that have yet to be delivered to Moscow’s East European allies. In exchange for Gorbachev’s good neighborliness, Gandhi has continued to withhold criticism of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, though, like his mother, he steadfastly refuses to endorse Moscow’s proposal for an Asian security conference. The idea resurfaced in a Gorbachev speech last July in Vladivostok, but few countries have expressed interest.

Relations with the US warmed steadily at first and reached a peak at the time of Gandhi’s visit to Washington in June 1985. Subsequently, however, the momentum was lost owing to US military aid to Pakistan. Now relations appear to be improving again as a result of an agreement on safeguards for the security of high-technology equipment sold to India by the US. New Delhi is also pleased with US intelligence cooperation in hunting down Sikh terrorists.

But the US arms transfers to Pakistan remain a major sore point, especially the delivery of advanced aircraft like F-16 fighter-bombers and, possibly in the future, AWACS surveillance planes. Indian officials have expressed alarm that the F-16s, which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, could easily be used against India. What is more, Indians argue that by arming Pakistan, Washington is forcing New Delhi to divert precious resources to its own military.

On Pakistan, Gandhi’s progress mirrors his domestic performance: relations looked good a year ago, but now they are deteriorating. In December 1985 Gandhi had a surprisingly warm meeting with Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s President, and the two agreed to work toward better relations. Since then, however, Gandhi has implied that Pakistan was involved in an attempt on his life last October. He has also accused Islamabad of building a nuclear bomb and providing vital support to Sikh terrorists in Punjab. In his interview with TIME last week, Gandhi said, ‘If Pakistan played absolutely no role, I think [terrorism in Punjab] would be down to less than 10% of the current number of incidents.’ Those allegations notwithstanding, Gandhi discounted the likelihood of war between the two countries, characterizing it as ‘very far away’.

Despite his troubles, Gandhi retains the same unsmiling equanimity he brought to the job. He insists that he never took to heart the ‘totally berserk’ acclaim he received in his early days and now ignores the recent criticism. ‘He’s very calm,’ says a friend. ‘You never see him flapping.’ Yet the Prime Minister works long hours at home and in his formal offices in the south block of the red sandstone Secretariat and the Parliamentary Building. He frequently complains that the burden of his job has dramatically reduced the amount of time that he can spend with his Italian-born wife Sonia and their two children, Paul, 16, and Priyanka,14. Says he: ‘I miss time with my family, being able to get out and do things. It is very difficult now. It is almost impossible because there is so much tamasha [fuss].’

Gandhi certainly derives some comfort from firsthand knowledge of the travails his mother faced during the turbulent times from 1975 to 1977, when she ruled the country by emergency decree. He remains a popular figure among the majority of Indians and still has time to recoup from early mistakes. He may not find it easy to move ahead in a landscape cluttered with stubborn bureaucrats, scheming politicians, cosseted businessmen and zealots of all stripes, but Gandhi has shown the flair and flexibility of a good leader. Now he must demonstrate the charisma and sensitivity of a good leader. ‘One positive thing about Rajiv is the feeling in the country that he can be trusted,’ says Romesh Thapar, a columnist and one of Gandhi’s severest critics. ‘There is still that feeling. He can still build a new political consensus and transform the country. The people are ready to support him.’ Gandhi, clearly, is eager to get on with the job. [Reported by Ross H. Munro/New Delhi]


Sticky Wicket


[courtesy: Asiaweek, Hongkong, Feb.8, 1987, pp.6-7]

As if India and Pakistan did not have enough to worry about, they just nearly stumbled into a war. For almost a week starting on Jan. 20, massed forces along the frontier went into red alert as their governments exchanged volleys of accusations and warnings. First, Mr Rajiv Gandhi registers his ‘tremendous concern’ about large and unexplained Pakistani troop movements edging closer to the border of southern Punjab. Though Islamabad strenuously denies hostile intent, India seals the border and moves its own heavy troop deployments into more forward positions. ‘We will not be taken by surprise,’ warns a Defence Ministry spokesman. As the Soviet and American ambassadors are called in for briefings, the cabinet in New Delhi convenes an emergency session and Pakistan’s prime minister, Mr Junejo, cautions against missteps that could loose ‘unimaginable destruction’. Finally, the two sides agree to talk, tensions cool, and Mr Gandhi invites President Zia to India to watch cricket.

Of course. And if it had come to shooting, maybe the belligerents would have broken for lunch. As things stood, though, the sportsmen neglected to inform the fans just who had called this match and what the score was. Naturally, no one needs reminding that the two nations were born like twins locked in a death grip and have had no love lost for each other ever since. But this new face-off came almost completely out of the blue, neither side’s explanations making much sense. Pakistan at first dismissed charges of troop build-ups as ‘baseless’, then said the movements were merely a continuation of training exercises. India called the massings a ‘provocation’, but all the theories about supposed Pakistani advantages in launching a ‘quick strike’ failed to square with Mr Zia’s consistently smooth line of recent years. Possibly some hidden, guileful strategy lay behind it all, linked somehow to the Afghan ceasefire, the inter-ethnic violence in Sind, Punjab’s unending crisis, the Iran-Iraq war, etc. etc. (pick a card, any card). Contrived or accidental, however, this quick blow-up into confrontation reflected no credit on the almost casual uses to which extremely volatile relations are put.

Without acquitting Pakistan of any blame, moreover, it seems fair to say that New Delhi was not coming altogether clean in its professions of total innocence. Last July the Indian military begin mapping out plans for large-scale border manoeuvres as a tonic for rusty responsiveness and drooping morale in the ranks. The last war with Pakistan was fifteen years ago, after all, and in its evolution from defending heroes to riot cops, the army looked to be falling from public grace. India normally stages war games in the northwest every three years, but Operation Brass Tacks called for fielding up to 20 divisions, the biggest peacetime force ever deployed. What’s more, the government evidently saw fit to throw a scare into the neighbours. Because India continues to see a sinister cross-border hand behind Sikh terrorism in Punjab, it held off advising Islamabad that the mustering was only a drill until the alarmed Pakistanis asked.

Perhaps Gen. Zia knew full well what was up and was playing his own game in rattling Indians in return. But India’s mobilization of an invasion-size force at the frontier without due notification violated protocols as well as the spirit of the 1972 Simla agreement. Since Mr Gandhi’s government accepts as an established fact that Pakistan has the Bomb, it would not have seemed implausible to the Pakistanis that India was planning a pre-emptive strike. Add to this the Indian prime minister’s habit of crying wolf at the door every time the Gandhian halo slips a notch, and one has to wonder whether peaceful coexistence has any kind of sporting chance.

For all the rhetoric about good neighbourliness and brotherhood that hangs like a haze of incense over the subcontinent, that is, the idealism is no more than a dreampolitik. The fact is that Indo-Pakistani hostility gets constant use as the only durable glue of tested strength holding the two countries together internally. Strains within India have been exceptionally strong recently, and Mr Gandhi has not failed to reach for the old cement. For a while, it appeared that the new prime minister was looking genuinely for accommodation, but his record has been mercurial; conciliatory one minute, hearing war drums the next. Considering how even before his mother’s death he stumped for election against Pakistan, this seems to be an inherited pattern.

Certainly it is hard to take the on-again, off-again invasion alarms too seriously. Maybe Gen. Zia is aiding Sikh insurgents and maybe he isn’t, but one would like to credit Pakistan with a little more sense than stoking a fire on its property line – especially in view of the prospect that should an independent ‘Khalistan’ ever emerge, the Sikhs might well turn their sight towards ‘liberating’ Lahore.

Punjab is a home-grown crisis in any event, and as he enters his third year in office, trust in Mr Gandhi’s fire-fighting talents is beginning to dim. Certainly the bloom is off the Indian public’s romance with him, particularly so now that he is in the routine of acquiring and discarding cabinet ministers as it they were so many toys. This trend reached its shabby zenith at his ‘tremendous concern’ press conference, when in an apparent fit of pique with his foreign secretary, Mr Venkateswaran, he announced to reporters that they would soon be dealing with a new foreign secretary. Unforewarned, Mr Venkateswaran – an able, upright and respected official who had been in the foreign service since 1952, when Mr Gandhi was still in short pants – resigned the same day. Later, Mr Gandhi kicked his extremely competent finance minister Mr V.P. Singh, sideways into defence. When a man who gained office solely by dint of the fact that he was his mother’s son can dispose of men who won theirs by hard work and merit, Indian ‘democracy’ starts to look a bit thin. And whatever else it is, military brinkmanship isn’t cricket. It’s more like Russian roulette.


Confrontation at the Top

by Anonymous Correspondent

[courtesy: Asiaweek, Hongkong, March 29, 1987, pp. 12-13]

Amal Datta has a reputation in the Lok Sabha, India’s Lower House of Parliament, for igniting controversies. The Marxist politician from West Bengal rarely plays to the press. Yet whenever he rises to speak, sparks fly. It was no different on Mar. 2. Speaking on a motion to thank President Zail Singh for his earlier address to the assembly, Datta said for the record what has long been an open secret among political pundits in New Delhi: the president and the prime minister do not get along. What is more, Datta blamed the rift on Rajiv Gandhi, alleging that the premier had neglected his constitutional duty to keep the president informed on matters of state.

Gandhi promptly rose to deny the charge. At no time were issues of national interest kept from the president, he claimed. He indirectly admitted, however, that his communications with Zail Singh were infrequent. ‘We would like to keep the president above our policies, and we will not involve the president in daily politics,’ said the premier. The matter might have ended there. But on Mar. 13, it exploded across the front page of the mass-circulation Indian Express newspaper. Suddenly, the 70 year-old president and the 42 year-old PM were on a collision course. The paper printed the text of a letter purportedly written by Zail Singh to Gandhi. Beginning ‘My dear Rajiv’, it went on to question the premier’s assurances to Parliament that he had kept the president informed. Said the text: ‘The factual position is somewhat at variance with what has been stated by you.’ In effect, the letter was calling the prime minister a liar, an unprecedented occurrence in Indian politics.

It went on: ‘I am constrained to say that certain well-established conventions have not been followed. Before your visits abroad, and after your return, I have not been briefed…In fact I have not been briefed on foreign policy issues relating to such of our immediate neighbours in South Asia with which there are outstanding problems.’ Neither Gandhi nor Zail Singh denied the letter’s authenticity. Two major opposition groupings, the Janata Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, promptly called for the prime minister’s resignation.

The same day the missive was published, officers of the Central Bureau of Investigation raided the Delhi residence of Express owner Ramnath Goenka, and the office and home of his legal adviser, S. Gurumoorthy, in Madras. The official reason for the raids was that the paper had breached the Official Secrets Act by publishing extracts from government files in an investigative article on Reliance Industries Ltd, India’s largest textile mill. But many saw them as retaliation for publication of Zail Singh’s letter.

Gandhi’s long-simmering feud with the president seems to have begun almost immediately after the PM took office in October 1984, following the assassination of his mother, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards. Before that the two were on good terms. In fact, Gandhi owed Zail Singh a political debt: the president had appointed him premier the same day his mother was killed, while the Congress Parliamentary Board was still debating its choice of leader.

Gandhi soon cooled towards Zail Singh, however. He examined Intelligence Bureau files on the president, which reportedly detailed Singh’s political involvement in strife-torn Punjab, where Sikh militants have been fighting for autonomy. Singh was chief minister of the northern state from 1972 to 1977, and home minister from 1980 to 1982. Gandhi apparently held him at least partly responsible for the deterioration of law & order there.

A political neophyte, Gandhi was unable to hide his disdain for the president. He turned his back on Zail Singh at public functions, curtailed the traditional briefings, refused to allow the president to accept invitations to visit abroad, and sent the vice-president to represent the country at important occasions. At first Zail Singh suffered in silence, recognising that Gandhi’s popularity made any resistance politically dangerous. But with the recent slide in support for the PM, the president apparently felt it was time to assert himself.

The feud burst into the open in January, when Zail Singh refused to sign a Post Office (Amendment) Bill cleared by both houses of Parliament late last year. The bill authorizes the government to intercept any postal article if it is in the national interest. Zail Singh has informed the administration that he is totally dissatisfied with its assurances that provisions in the bill relating to interception of mail will not be misused. The premier has separately sent Home Minister Buta Singh and Minsiter of Surface Transport Rajesh Pilot to reason with the president, to no avail.

Signs are that Zail Singh now refuses to give his assent to the bill in its present form, and will exercise his constitutional right to return it to Parliament, an unprecedented action. According to Asiaweek’s sources, the government plans to avert a direct confrontation by withholding action on the bill, even though the president cannot refuse to sign it if Parliament passes it a second time.

Under the Indian Constitution the president is little more than a figurehead. He acts on the advice of the Council of Ministers, and has no direct powers of government, unless a state is under president’s rule. He can dismiss the prime minister, but only if he is convinced that the PM has lost the majority in the Lower House. However Zail Singh’s five-year term ends in July, and it seems unlikely Gandhi will nominate him for a second term. Speculations now is that Zail Singh may seek to run on an opposition mandate; the president is elected by an electoral college made up of both houses of Parliament and the legislatures of the states. If he is to win, he must gamble on a split in the ruling Congress (I) party.

Gandhi has enough political troubles without adding a showdown with the president to the list. His frequent cabinet reshuffles, his abrupt dismissal two months ago of his veteran foreign secretary, A.P. Venkateswaran, and the seemingly intractable crisis in Punjab have all taken their toll on the premier’s popularity. Zail Singh may feel he has nothing to lose by challenging the PM when the presidential election is held in June.


PM-President Meeting: Unresolved Controversy

by Prabhu Chawla

[courtesy: India Today, April 15, 1987, pp. 26-30]

‘I will meet the President when it is necessary to do so.’ – Rajiv Gandhi on March 27

The necessity arose less than 20 hours later. Even while the prime minister was making that face-saving statement at a press conference in Bangalore, his aides were sounding out the President for a meeting with the prime minister to call a temporary ceasefire in the escalating cold war between the chief executive and the head of state. The request was immediately granted. And, when Rajiv finally met President Giani Zail Singh at 12.15pm, the next day in the President’s ground floor study room at Rashtrapati Bhawan, the meeting turned out to be a marathon one – the longest ever between a prime minister and the President since Independence.

The 130-minute meeting marked the first time the country’s two top functionaries had ever met for such a long period without aides and covered such a wide range of subjects, from their personal relationship to external threats. The seriousness and the urgency attached to the long overdue meeting was evident in the fact that both of them had to miss lunch. And, when the two emerged smiling with hands clasped, it appeared that a major constitutional crisis had been averted. Said one of the President’s aides: ‘The President, it seems, has accepted the prime minister’s assertion that he respects the President.’ Signals also went out from the prime minister’s office that the rift between the prime minister and the President had been amicably settled.

But that was evidently at odds with the truth. The all-important meeting may have succeeded in forging a temporary truce but the crisis is far from over. INDIA TODAY has learnt that during the meeting, the two leaders did manage to smooth over their personal differences but disagreed sharply over the role of the President. Both went into the meeting fully briefed and with the express intention of outscoring one another. Both quoted the Constitution extensively to support their respective views which centred around the key question: whether the President has the right to be informed on all issues of national importance? Rajiv insisted that it was for the Government to decide what information was to be made available to the President. Zail Singh asserted that the Government could not deny him information on any subject if he asked for it.

According to unofficial soruces, Rajiv assured the President that he respected him but stuck to the position that he was not bound by the Constitution to send information on all matters to him. He repeated his fears that information was being leaked from Rashtrapati Bhawan and also argued against supplying the Thakkar Commission report to the President saying that if leaked out, it would affect the course of court proceedings in the Indira Gandhi murder case. Rajiv is also believed to have complained that the President was meeting too many opposition leaders and Congress dissidents.

The President, on his part, asserted that the Government could not deny him any specific information if he sought it. He also bluntly told the prime minister that it was from the prime minister’s office that the espionage ring was exposed in 1985 and that the head of the personal staff was rewarded with the post of a high commissioner later on. The President recalled instances where the prime minister did not turn up for discussions despite promises. The meeting failed to arrive at a consensus on how the problems between them could be resolved.

That Zail Singh was irked and determined to give as good as he got was evident in their meeting earlier the same day – at the investiture ceremony for Padma Shri awardees. At the informal get-together after the ceremony, the prime minister and the President came face-to-face in a gathering of Union ministers and journalists. There was laughter and bonhomie and the President quoted much Urdu poetry. But it was clear that he was using the occasion to make as many digs as he could about the controversy, to the obvious discomfort of the prime minister. When a journalist asked Zail Singh: ‘In view of this pleasant exchange, will you still need to write letters to the prime minister?’, he countered: ‘We will continue to write letters till we are alive. And you know when our letters will be published? Eighty years hence.’ Here, the prime minister offered meekly: ‘After 50 years.’ The President pleaded: ‘Kindly spare us. Several letters are written. Somebody got hold of one and published it.’ The irrepressible President went on: ‘It does not matter how many years. What is certain is neither he will remain prime minister nor I [President]. But the office of prime minister and President will still be there.’

He then commented on some ministers being returned to Parliament from states other than their home states: pointing to Narasimha Rao, he said he belongs to Andhra Pradesh but got elected from Maharashtra. As Rajiv looked more and more uncomfortable, Singh burst into an Urdu couplet: ‘If the saaqi (female wine-pourer in a tavern) keeps showering all her blessings only on those she favours, the tavern will soon be empty.’

An hour later the two leaders had their decisive meeting. While it seems to have succeeded in lowering the temperature of the crisis temporarily, elsewhere there were indications that the rift was assuming serious proportions. The meeting was preceded by a major parliamentary confrontation between the Opposition and presiding officers of the two houses and hectic mediatory efforts by senior ministers and leading Congressmen following the publication of a letter written by Zail Singh to Rajiv in the media.

Though the Rajiv-Zail confrontation had been brewing for some months (INDIA TODAY, January 31), it boiled over when the President decided to challenge the prime minister’s assertion in Parliament that the President was kept informed on all issues, by writing a detailed letter to Rajiv refuting his statement. The prime minister sat on the letter for over a week. When he finally replied, his letter was more an assertion of his earlier stand in Parliament rather than a point-by-point answer to the questions raised by the President. The prime minister also avoided answering the basic question raised by the President: that he had the right to be informed on each subject.

On the face of it, the question was not insoluble. But the personal mistrust and hostility evident between the two soured the prospects of the issue being settled so easily. More crucial, it has led to a situation where the prime minister’s supporters and the President’s aides have resorted to publicizing their leaders’ views in the media. The strategy of the prime minister’s advisers was to tackle the presidential challenge in two ways – an anti-Zail publicity blitz in the media and the use of selective mediators to prevent the President from embarrassing the Government before last week’s assembly elections.

The messy and sometimes clumsy media war began soon after the President refused to sign the Indian Post Office (Amendment) Bill. As a counter, secret government files were made available to journalists stating that Zail Singh had no moral right to refuse consent to the bill as he himself as home minister had piloted a similar bill. The President waited for his moment, which arrived when the prime minister, in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, repeated his earlier statement that the Government was not ignoring the President. Once the prime minister committed himself on the floor of the House, the President shot off his letter, which was also duly leaked to the press.

The prime minister’s advisers immediately pounced on the leak to support their stand that it was not safe to send confidential information to the President. An attempt was made to browbeat the President by planting inspired rumours that the Government had, in fact, been lenient to the President whose rule had been commented upon by the Thakkar Commission. It was also alleged that the President, by attacking the prime minister, was trying to get himself struck off the hit list of Sikh terrorists.

The propaganda against the President continued. Opposition parties, however, failed to force a discussion on the rift in Parliament. Attempts to do so were successfully stonewalled by the presiding officers and Congress (I) MPs. For over a week, the opposition parties angrily protested and staged walk-outs to try and convince Speaker Balram Jakhar and Chairman R. Venkataraman to allow discussion, but to no avail. Even a privilege motion against the prime minister was turned down. Jakhar and Venkataraman gave identical rulings. Venkataraman insisted that the discussion on the letter was not advisable because, ‘confidentiality of the communication between the President and the prime minister is maintained in the larger interest of democracy and the nation’. And in the Lok Sabha, Jakhar declared: ‘I am absolutely clear in my mind that any debate on the floor of the House which brings the name of the President into any controversy or which tends to discuss the relationship between the President and his council of ministers must be avoided at all costs in the wider interests of the nation’.

The government, determination to stall any discussion on the subject in Parliament is obviously to Rajiv’s advantage. Rashtrapati Bhawan records clearly show that the prime minister has met the President only twice before to brief him on various issues. In fact, the prime minister has never briefed the President personally before or after any of his over two dozen trips abroad. Nor did he inform the President about his talks with super-powers’ leaders Reagan and Gorbachev. Though the Government may have some justification in not consulting the President on Punjab affairs, he has also not been briefed on the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka.

Opposition leaders quote constitutional provisions stating that the President was within his rights to demand information from the Government. Article 74: ‘There shall be a council of ministers with the prime minister at the head to aid and advise the President in the exercise of his functions.’ Article 78(A): ‘It shall be the duty of the prime minister to communicate to the President all decisions of the Council of Ministers relating to the administration.’ Article 78(B): ‘It shall be the duty of the prime minister to furnish such information relating to the administration of the Union and proposals for legislation as the President may call for.’

Though Zail Singh held back from doing so, he would have been within his constitutional rights in sending a message to Parliament on the issue, thus forcing the Government’s hand. Article 86 states that the President has the right to send messages to the two houses because without the President the Parliament is not complete. The Opposition was clearly hoping he would send the message, in which case, the issue would perforce have to be discussed.

But the battle between the two was clearly not one of constitutional niceties but one of political conveniences – as was evident soon after the assembly election results had come in. The prime minister, who could have seen the President soon after electioneering was over, sent emissaries instead. Minister of State for Surface Transport Rajesh Pilot was pulled out of electioneering to meet the President. During his half-hour meeting he assured Zail Singh that the prime minister would soon call on him. He also pledged that in future, the Government would keep the President’s office fully informed.

Four days later, the prime minister sent another emissary, his most respected Cabinet Minister, Vishwanath Pratap Singh. Though the President had earlier summoned Singh himself, the defence minister came to Rashtrapati Bhawan only when the prime minister asked him to intervene on his behalf. Singh pleaded with the President not to precipitate the crisis as the prime minister himself was willing to defuse it. Between these meetings, Kamalapati Tripathi, the ousted working president of the Congress (I), also met the President and wrote to both the leaders requesting them to bury the hatchet, saying: ‘It is in the interest of both the party and the Government that the dispute is amicably solved.’

The President, meanwhile, was dealing his own political cards. He sent individual invitation cards to all the 750-odd MPs for a farewell dinner before he bows out of office in end-July. The idea was to solicit discreetly the opinion of both the ruling and opposition MPs on the issue. He also hinted that he was not satisfied with the prime minister’s reply and was considering either writing to him again or sending a message directly to Parliament.

But the electoral reverses for the Congress in West Bengal and Kerala, followed by the resignation of Union law minister Asoke Sen, changed the situation dramatically. Rajiv decided to meet the President but the ensuing conversation gave little hope that the controversy is over.

Though he had accepted Rajiv’s assurance that he would henceforth receive full respect from the Government, sources close to the President say he is clearly doubtful of its implementation. His doubts are based on the thin attendance of Congress MPs at his dinner last week. Only 34 of the 70 MPs turned up. Prominent absentees included Union ministers Janardan Poojary, Shankaranand, Ghulam Nabi Azad and AICC General Secretary Bhagawat Jha Azad. While over 90 percent of opposition MPs responded to his subsequent invitations, less than 25 percent of the Congress (I) MPs showed up. Said a pro-Zail Singh MP from Uttar Pradesh: ‘Respect to the President can’t be shown in a private room. It has to be visible. If the prime minister was sincere he could have issued a whip to MPs to attend. Signals should have gone to civil servants and ministers to honour the Presidency. It’s just a time-buying technique.’

With both sides unwilling to give in, last week’s truce is clearly all too temporary. If this meeting is not followed up by further goodwill gestures on either side, it could lead to serious tensions resurfacing. The Government has the option of withdrawing the controversial Post Censorship Bill to avoid confrontation with the President. Rajiv can also show he is serious about resolving the crisis by visiting Rashtrapati Bhawan more frequently. In the mood Zail Singh is, if he continues to feel humiliated he might hit back by sending the bills and all the correspondence exchanged between him and the Government on various subjects directly to Parliament for discussion.

The confrontation has already raised serious and fundamental questions about the working of the Constitution. An active judiciary, a vigilant media and the President are expected to act as checks on the executive. With both the President and the judiciary rendered ineffective and the media under pressure from the Government, the checks are gradually being eroded. With the Opposition in disarray, the potential for mischief is even greater. The ruling party has also shown that it is not prepared to tolerate internal criticism. Those who have dared to do so have been dismissed or sidelined. Further, the Congress Parliamentary Board and the Working Committee hardly ever meet to review the performance of the Government.

Last week’s electoral results have injected a new element into the current crisis. With the ruling party weakened and Rajiv’s personal image having taken a battering, a confrontation with the President is the last thing the country needs. More so when it clearly seems to be a battle in which there will be no winners, only losers.


Congress (I) – Crumbling Citadel

by Inderjit Badhwar and Prabhu Chawla

[courtesy: India Today, April 15, 1987, pp. 68-72]

The jokes, the jibes, the jabs and the quips which Rajiv Gandhi is known to aim with startling dexterity at opposing parliamentarians seemed to fail him last fortnight when the prime minister faced the Lok Sabha for the first time after his party’s debacle in the assembly polls in West Bengal and Kerala. When Rajiv, looking obviously dejected, walked into the chamber, an opposition member arose and asked the prime minister whether he could use this opportunity to condole him. Rajiv remained silent but the members burst into raucous laughter and even the Treasury benches could scarce forbear to join in.

That Rajiv’s fighting spirit had evaporated, if even temporarily, was evident from his speech delivered earlier to the Congress (I) Parliamentary Party. Even during this meeting, billed as a post-mortem of the party’s electoral misfortunes, Rajiv was not the man he was a year ago when he had addressed his party at its centenary celebrations and promised to usher in a new era of reform and rejuvenation, even if it meant throwing out its most formidable power brokers. His mood was sullen, and eager for compromise. And in order to rally his party around him he resorted to a time-worn tactic his mother had used whenever she felt her base threatened. The words could have been Mrs Gandhi’s but her son now found refuge in them. In a statement bordering on paranoia, Rajiv blamed his party’s reverses on a ‘foreign conspiracy’ aimed at destabilising India. The enemies of Congress (I), which stood for the stability of the nation, he said, were the ‘friends of the multinationals…whose allegiance is to their masters abroad.’

The rhetoric apart, it was obvious that Rajiv had come face to face with a fundamental truth at home: Congress (I), a national party, ruling in 18 states when he became prime minister now rules in only a dozen. And the south was lost entirely. For the first time since India became independent there is not a single Congress chief minister in any of the four southern states. And large chunks of the east are already out of Congress control. This shrinking base of influence threatens to reduce the once unchallenged grandeur and reach of the Indian National Congress to a satrapy over the Hindi heartland.

But there was little to take heart in even the by-election victories in the Uttar Pradesh cowbelt. The two Congress (I) victories in Hardwar and Rath were by narrow margins. Congress (I)’s victory margin in Hardwar was reduced from 1.4 lakh votes to 23,000. What was most disturbing to Congress (I) was the emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in all the Uttar Pradesh constituencies. This militant Harijan organization has been eating into the traditional Scheduled Caste vote banks of the Congress (I) and was partially responsible also, for the defeat of the ruling party stalwart, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Ammar Rizvi by opposition candidate Akbar ‘Dumpy’ Ahmed in Kashipur where the vote of the Harijans went to a BSP candidate instead of Congress (I). The Kashipur defeat was symbolically among the worst that Congress (I) suffered. This was the prestige seat vacated by N.D. Tiwari, minister for external affairs, when he was inducted into the Union Cabinet – a seat which he had won by more than 40,000 votes and was virtually considered a Congress (I) pocket borough. Ahmed won despite strong campaigning by Congress (I) ministers including Tiwari himself.

Opposition leaders, smelling blood, were quick to pounce on the wounded ruling party and its leader. Janatha Party leader George Fernandes, stating that Rajiv Gandhi had converted the elections into an appeal for a personal mandate, demanded that the prime minister should quit because the electorate had rejected him. L.K. Advani, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, said that the prime minister ‘by his lack of perspective and because of his inexperience had personally contributed to the Congress (I) defeats.’ The Lok Dal General Secretary, Satya Prakash Malaviya, said that the poll results showed a massive disillusionment with Rajiv’s policies. H.N. Bahuguna, leader of another Lok Dal faction, said that the poll results were critical because they came ‘when our polity is facing a willful subversion of its democratic institutions by no less a person than the prime minister.’

P. Upendra, Telugu Desam MP, pointed out that Congress (I)’s stature had been reduced to that of a regional party, while Karnataka Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde saw in the election results a new pattern of popular support for opposition leaders and parties. While some of this opposition rhetoric may be as wildly overblown as was Rajiv’s in his speech to his party’s parliamentarians – because both Rajiv and Congress (I) still remain formidable national forces to reckon with – there was little doubt that Rajiv’s credibility, clout and charisma had been dealt a megavolt jolt. The electoral numbers tell their own stark story: in the three states where Congress (I) had commanded a total of 121 assembly seats it now holds only 98.

Just as he had done in the parliamentary elections in December 1984, Rajiv during the recent assembly battles, had gambled by putting his personal image and popularity on the firing line. More than Congress (I), Rajiv’s personal ability as a vote-catcher was on trial. In 1984, enshrouded as he was in the image of a new and dynamic leader and in the atmosphere of the sympathy that erupted after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, Rajiv had carried the day for his party. The people had responded to him because of his freshness of approach and because he represented stability at a time when most feared disintegration and chaos.

But even that honeymoon was shortlived. In the 1985 assembly elections the share of Congress (I) votes – notwithstanding the hectic campaigning by Rajiv – came down substantially. In fact, Karnataka, which had gone overwhelmingly in Congress (I)’s favour during the parliamentary elections, was captured by the Opposition in the ensuing state elections. Punjab, Assam, Mizoram slipped rapidly out of Congress (I)’s grip. And now Kerala has slipped into the determined grip of the Marxist-led Left Democratic Front while West Bengal has witnessed the virtual destruction of the Congress (I) not only as a political force but also as a political organization.

In Jammu and Kashmir the picture for Congress (I) is not as bright as the party’s leaders, including Rajiv Gandhi, are making it out to be. Here Congress (I), the main opposition party, teamed up with the mass-based ruling National Congress (NC) to take on what should have been a rag-tag bunch of opposition candidates loosely united under the fundamentalist banner of the Muslim United Front (MUF). But the MUF posed a strong challenge and even though only a handful of its candidates were elected, it made major inroads – including in Srinagar district – into the traditional strongholds of the established parties while maintaining its grip in key districts. The electoral gain was for all intents and purposes NC’s victory engineered by Farooq Abdullah who treats Congress (I) as a junior partner. In fact, every Congress (I) candidate was nominated under the veto power of Farooq and a grassroots Congress (I) organization, except for a few areas in Jammu, is virtually non-existent.

If the Congress(I) piggy-backed on the coat-tails of Farooq in Kashmir because it lacked a viable organization of its own to fight an equal battle as part of the coalition, it had, as is now evident, even less of an organization in West Bengal where the party had been reduced to a shambles because of internecine squabbling. Because of the absence of any state-level leaders capable of standing up to the colossal stature of Jyoti Basu, Rajiv decided that he would play the role of the giant killer himself. The fight there ultimately became one between Rajiv and the state’s leadership. It was the same story in Kerala. In both states the campaigns were personalized. They were Rajiv’s campaigns.

And Rajiv campaigned hard. He traveled for about 20 days in both the states, and in about 100 hours of barnstorming addressed as many as 200 meetings. But the campaigns were desultory and disorganized as was the campaign rhetoric. He attracted huge crowds at places but he failed to define and discuss concrete issues. One day in West Bengal he would quibble with Basu about the expenditure of a Rs. 1,000-crore grant to the state, and on another day he would talk about the building of a ‘nutan’ (new) Bengal, which to many voters appeared to be a subliminal message that the Centre would redefine the state’s boundaries by excluding areas which would go to ‘Gorkhaland’. In Kerala, during his campaign, he quipped about renaming the Communist Party of India as the ‘Communal Party of India’, a statement that, to the voters, reeked of hypocrisy because his own ruling party in the state was pandering to communal elements like the Muslim League and the Nair and Ezhwa communities.

What was most astonishing was the optimistic naivete with which Rajiv and his advisors approached the West Bengal and Kerala elections. Even four days before the polling started Rajiv confided to a top aide that, according to accurate reports he was getting, Congress (I) would dislodge Jyoti Basu in West Bengal and sweep the polls in Kerala. The misinformation he received is a serious indication that Rajiv’s political apparatus has suffered grave damage.

And the crisis is partly of Rajiv’s own making. For the last two years Rajiv made no serious attempt to strengthen his party organization, even with the polls looming ahead. In Kerala and West Bengal he was unable to check Congress (I) infighting, which snowballed disastrously until the elections were at hand. He seemed strangely oblivious to repeated reports about corruption and the sliding popularity of the then Kerala chief minister Karunakaran’s government. In West Bengal he not only alienated party stalwarts, Law Minister Asoke Sen and Programme Implementation Minister A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chaudhury by denying them commanding roles in organizational matters but also imposed over their heads the leadership of Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, a factional party boss. And, in an astonishing display of political puerility Das Munshi, a lightweight by any standard, was projected as an alternative to Basu in West Bengal. The old guard reacted by campaigning less than enthusiastically during the election.

The election campaign, if it could be called that, was run by a central committee from Delhi. And Rajiv’s Indian Air Force plane became the control room. This curious set-up was hardly conducive to a free flow of good, hard grassroots information from the various states. Civil servants and selected journalists, who were hand-picked to accompany the star campaigner as he criss-crossed the country from Calcutta to Trivandrum, painted rosy pictures with the help of sample surveys and spot reportage. In fact, the prime minister’s traveling troupe ridiculed as nonsense a report from a senior Congress (I) leader from Kerala, several days before the election, that the Congress (I) – led UDF would not win more than 60 seats.

Rajiv and his party have paid dearly for these lapses and the prime minister has made it clear that it is now time for introspection. As expected, he has appointed a committee to study ways of limiting further damage. Even though Congress (I)’s Hindi belt is still secure with the return of two MLAs and a Lok Sabha MP from Uttar Pradesh, there has been a sharp decline in the number of popular votes cast for Congress (I). The other factor in Rajiv’s favour so far is the dismal performance of the other national parties like the BJP and Lok Dal, which have failed to materialize as real threats in north India. In Haryana, the potentially dangerous Lok Dal has lost some of its bite because of the vertical split  in its ranks. How elections in that state, due within six weeks, will turn out is still anybody’s guess because it will be a battle between two thoroughly demoralized parties.

But the most devastating blow to Rajiv from the political drama that unfolded in the states last fortnight is that large numbers of his partymen, including senior ministers, have begun to doubt whether he can ensure their return to the legislatures. The assembly elections have become a grim testament to Rajiv’s diminished ability to convert the crowds he can attract at rallies into votes for the Congress (I). Rajiv’s major task now is to restore his own credibility not only as prime minister but as a party boss as well. Opposition hawks are already talking about forging a national front against Congress (I) as they did on a limited scale – and with thumping success – in Kashipur. The scales will tilt in the direction of whoever can seize the momentum. For Rajiv this entails more than just the soft option of introspection. It requires, midway in his career as a national leader, a harsh, and brutally frank reappraisal of his political journey.


Scandals Swirl Around Rajiv

by Anonymous Correspondent

[courtesy: Asiaweek, Hongkong, April 26, 1987, pp. 15]

Vishwanath Pratap Singh was sitting comfortably at home on Sunday, April 12, when a Ministry of Defence car drove up. He went over to the military driver. ‘You may go away,’ he said. ‘I am no longer defence minister.’ They exchanged salutes and Singh walked back into his house. An hour and a half earlier, the ex-minister had gone to the home of Rajiv Gandhi to discuss his lengthy resignation letter. He had delivered it himself the night before while the PM was out to dinner. During their hour-long Sunday tete-a-tete, Singh handed Gandhi another resignation letter, this time only two lines, to be sent to President Zail Singh. The same day, the presidential palace announced that Krishna Chandra Pant, formerly steel & mines minister, would take over the defence portfolio.

The quick shuffle climaxed nearly six weeks of tumult for Gandhi and his Congress (I) party. The immediate cause of V.P. Singh’s departure, though, was a Defence Ministry investigation he had ordered into apparent corruption in a submarine deal. When he announced the probe in an April 9 press release, he had consulted neither his junior minister nor the cabinet on the matter. His own Congress (I) colleagues criticized him vigorously in Parliament.

The controversial deal, signed in 1981, involved the sale to India of four submarines from West Germany’s HDW company for Rs 4.3 billion ($303.2 million). Two have been delivered already and the other two will be assembled in Bombay. The usually conservative Statesman newspaper revealed that an HDW delegation visited India in February this year to negotiate a higher price for the subs. The Germans, the daily said, agreed to reduce their proposed new price by 20%, part of which would come by eliminating a 7% ‘commission’ to an Indian agent. This would amount to some $21 million. Later, however, HDW told the Indian embassy in Bonn that the payment had to be made and there could be no price reduction.

The alleged defence pay-off was the latest in a series of interrelated scandals. They came into the open with the March 13 arrest in Madras of S. Gurumurthy, author of a series of exposes on textile giant Reliance Industries Ltd in the anti-government Indian Express newspaper. Gurumurthy was charged with passing sensitive government information to a US detective agency, Fairfax. That day, too, the same newspaper published a letter purportedly from Zail Singh to Rajiv Gandhi, complaining of the way the PM treated him. Police then raided the Delhi home of Indian Express owner Ramnath Goenka.

In court, Gurumurthy admitted communicating with Fairfax but said that the Ministry of Finance had hired the firm. Counsel Ram Jethmalani told the court that the police had been interrogating Finance Ministry officials to find out whether their enquiries were limited to Reliance or also covered the dealings abroad of Ajitabh Bachchan, brother of cinema superstar, MP and close Gandhi friend Amitabh Bachchan. On March 31, Minister of State for Finance Brahm Dutt told Parliament that the detective agency had the status of informer, not investigator, and had provided no evidence worth payment. A day later, Fairfax president Michael J. Hershman insisted that the firm had turned over crucial facts to the Indian government.

V.P. Singh, finance minister at the time Fairfax was retained, came under attack in Parliament from his own party. On April 2, Hershman alleged that Singh was moved from finance to defence in January because a key witness was due to talk. On April 3, Gandhi announced an official inquiry into the Fairfax deal. On April 5, Singh admitted responsibility for hiring Fairfax. Indian agencies, he said, did not have the wherewithal to investigate Reliance. Four days later he announced his submarine probe.

The opposition and the independent press tore into Gandhi for forcing out Singh, a trusted aide. Said the Indian Express: ‘The [submarine] inquiry could not embarrass the prime minister in the slightest unless he or someone close to him had received kickbacks from the deal.’ K.P. Unnikrishnan of the opposition Congress (S) party agreed. ‘It is clear that once again Mr. Clean has been caught red-handed and unawares,’ he charged. ‘It is now upto Mr V.P. Singh to take Parliament into his confidence and expose the parasites who are eating into the vitals of the country.’

For his part, Singh pledged continued allegiance to his party and leader. Even so, the hostile reaction of his party colleagues has shocked him. ‘Never before have I been made to undergo this kind of questioning of my loyalties,’ he told Asiaweek’s Ravi Velloor. At the root of his falling-out with Gandhi, says a source close to the ex-minister, is rivalry with Amitabh Bachchan. Some claim that Bachchan had a part in Singh’s transfer from the Finance Ministry. Further, Congress party sources say Bachchan has been building up a power base in areas of Uttar Pradesh state where Singh, scion of a princely family of Manda, has his following.

The government reportedly initiated proceedings against Reliance on April 10. But observers say both Congress (I) and its leader have lost some credibility. Many are questioning Gandhi’s style of government. Last week there were reports of a new scandal: Swedish state radio claimed that there had been high-level payoffs in a deal with arms maker Bofors.


Rough Flying for Rajiv Gandhi

by Anonymous Correspondent

[courtesy: Asiaweek, Hongkong, May 3, 1987, pp. 26-28]

Outside New Delhi’s Parliament it was a sweltering 41oC, four degrees above normal, and inside things were hotter than usual, too. The topic of searing debate last week: an alleged multi-million-dollar kickback by Swedish arms maker Bofors to Indian political and defence figures through a secret operation codenamed Lotus. ‘Who is Lotus?’ asked Madhu Dandavate, veteran oppositionist from the Janata Party. ‘The [election] symbol of the [opposition] Bharatiya Janata Party,’ chorused members of the ruling Congress (I) party gleefully. Taken aback, the opposition fell silent for a moment. Then, BJP stalwart Janga Reddy shot back: ‘In Sanskrit, lotus [the flower] translates as Rajiv’.

For Premier Rajiv Gandhi, Bofors’ alleged pay-off was the third in a series of highly embarrassing scandals that had already resulted in the abrupt resignation as defence minister of trusted aide Vishwanath Pratap Singh. It also marked the lowest point in the ex-pilot PM’s popularity since his overwhelming 1984 polls victory following his mother’s assassination. On April 17, Indian newspapers had front-paged a radio report by the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) alleging that Bofors had clinched a $1.3 billion contract to sell 155-mm howitzer guns to India by bribing Indian middlemen, some of them from Gandhi’s own party. The Swedish radio quoted senior Bofors sources as saying the total kickbacks were reportedly around 100 million Swedish kronor ($15.8 million). Of this amount, 32 million kronor ($5 million) apparently had already been paid to the Indians through secret Swiss bank accounts.

Both New Delhi and Bofors vigorously denied the existence of middlemen in the contract, agreed in January last year during the visit to India of Swedish Premier Olof Palme, later murdered in Stockholm. The Indian government dismissed the SBC report as ‘false, baseless and mischievous.’ Declared Gandhi in Parliament: ‘We have been assured by the Swedish government that there have been no payoffs. We can’t paint everyone with a brush without even knowing what colour we are painting.’ Newly appointed Defence Minister Krishna Chandra Pant maintained there was no basis to set up an inquiry. But if any evidence were produced, he assured Parliament, ‘the matter will be thoroughly investigated and the guilty, whomsoever they may be, will be punished.’ For its part, Bofors insisted the bribery allegations were totally unfounded. Said Per Mossberg, the company’s spokesman: ‘I am not willing to discuss the contractual payments through the mass media but we cay say that we have not bribed Indian authorities or anybody else.’

But the Swedish radio, a public-owned company, insisted it had evidence to back its report. Rolf Porseryd, its Hongkong-based Asia correspondent, told Asiaweek’s Ravi Velloor in New Delhi that most of the material for the expose was obtained by the radio’s research bureau in Stockholm. Apparently, reporters learned about the supposed pay-offs in the howitzers deal while they were investigating Bofors’ alleged illegal sale of arms, via Singapore, to regions of tension. Porseryd admitted that the ‘faceless nature of Swiss banking’ made it difficult for SBC to prove that the Swiss accounts into which pay-offs had been made belonged to particular Indians. But he noted that Martin Ardbo, Bofors’ executive director who headed the negotiations with India, had since resigned and ‘might reveal what he knows.’

While the Bofors battle was heating up in the Lok Sabha (Lower House), other scandals were not being permitted to cool down in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House). On April 12, V.P. Singh had resigned as defence minister after a furore over a ministry inquiry he had ordered into apparent kickbacks of some $21 million to an Indian agent in a submarine deal with West Germany’s HDW company. The probe was announced April 9, less than a week after Gandhi had appointed a judicial commission to look into the hiring of a US detective agency by the finance ministry, which Singh then headed.

The agency, Fairfax, was to investigate the dealings abroad of textile giant Reliance Industries Ltd, but some claimed its brief also covered the monetary affairs in Switzerland of Ajitabh Bachchan, brother of superstar-politician and close Gandhi friend Amitabh Bachchan. Singh had been vigorously criticized by Congress (I) colleagues for jeopardizing the country’s security by hiring a foreign firm. They also attacked him for ordering the submarine probe without consulting his junior minister or the cabinet.

In a surprise statement to the Rajya Sabha last week, the ex-minister rebutted charges that he had not informed Gandhi before issuing his press release announcing the submarine deal inquiry. He also denied that the timing of the probe was in any way linked to the constitution of the committee to look into the Fairfax affair. According to Singh, he made his press statement fully four hours after confirming that the PM’s office had received a file containing details of the subs investigation.

On March 11, he said, he had asked Defence Secretary S.K. Bhatnagar to frame a letter to concerned Finance Ministry departments requesting their cooperation. However, Bhatnagar took fifteen days to return the file to him for approval. A further delay ensued because the minister wanted to incorporate other suggestions. It was only on April 9 that the folder was signed by him and forwarded to the prime minister, he said. For his part, Gandhi claimed that since the file had not been marked for immediate attention, it was handled routinely and presented to him the next morning. By that time, newspapers had splashed the story on their front pages. On the issue of making the inquiry public, however, Singh admitted he had ‘an honest difference of opinion with the PM’, who would have preferred it kept under wraps.

Clearly, the ex-minister was not prepared to take criticism beyond a point. At a semi-religious forum in the capital recently, he declared: ‘As a minister I did what I considered my duty…There are some people in this country who think they are above the jail line. Economic offences cannot be tolerated.’ And Gandhi, he said, had given him free rein to pursue his economic policies. Senior Congress (I) sources feel that Singh may have been disappointed with the PM after believing he sincerely wanted a thorough clean-up of economic offences. But, remarked a senior cabinet minister, ‘Rajiv has been more considerate to him [V.P. Singh] than he would have been to anyone else. Nobody else would have tolerated this kind of defiance.’ Added one observer: ‘V.P. Singh seems to have forgotten that it was Rajiv Gandhi who gave him permission to give himself such a clean profile. If Rajiv hadn’t permitted [tax] raids and liberalisation, where would he be?’

One major worry for Gandhi loyalists is Singh’s increased stature, especially in his home state of Uttar Pradesh. At a public meeting, two Congress (I) men were heckled and pelted with stones for criticising him. Recently two ministers turned up at the airport to greet him, even though U.P. Chief Minister Veer Bahadur Singh had scheduled a cabinet meeting for the hour the ex-minister was to land in Lucknow. For the man in the street, according to surveys by two Sunday newspapers, V.P. Singh’s image is now more spotless than that of Gandhi’s as ‘Mr. Clean’.

Not surprisingly, the ex-minister was pointedly ignored for a session of the Congress Working Committee at the PM’s residence recently. A resolution passed at the meeting blamed the tumult of the past weeks on a ‘grand design of destabilisation’ by an unnamed foreign power – apparently the US. Few seemed to buy the Congress (I) line, however. Wrote The Economic Times newspaper: Is the public expected to be so unintelligent as to swallow the rhetoric of the resolution? Can Sweden be expected to be the kind of country which will seek to destabilise India?’ A senior Congress (I) source who helped draft the resolution admitted privately that the foreign hand ‘was a mere ploy’, but he did not rule out a larger superpower interest in weakening India’s growing muscle in the region.

Some sources believe V.P. Singh’s falling-out with his leader stems from his differences with Amitabh Bachchan. They claim Bachchan was partly responsible for Singh’s transfer from the Finance Ministry to the defence portfolio in January. At the time, the finance minister had reportedly been saying in private that he had ‘all the evidence I require’ to make a case against the actor-politician for illegal wealth abroad. Bachchan denies any involvement in Singh’s transfer and any association with textile tycoon Dhirubhai Ambani, for whom he supposedly fixed an appointment with friend Rajiv. ‘There is no content in the story,’ said Bachchan. ‘These are malicious machinations by some people.’

Congress (I) sources say the superstar has been building up a power base in Allahabad city where V.P. Singh has his following. Further, Bachchan has also been helping Dinesh Singh, an old chum of his father, make a political comeback. Dinesh Singh was external affairs minister under Rajiv’s mother, late premier Indira Gandhi. In January, Bachchan reportedly persuaded Rajiv to address centenary celebrations of a defunct newspaper run by the Dinesh Singh family. Like V.P. Singh, who comes from neighbouring Manda, Dinesh Singh of Kalakankar is the scion of a princely state and belongs to the powerful Thakur caste. He was at the forefront of the recent criticism of V.P. Singh. One person who remained silent through the whole controversy was Communications Minister Arjun Singh, a former governor of Punjab. A close associate of V.P. Singh, he was among Congress (I) leaders who were sidelined by Gandhi in a cabinet shuffle last October.

The events of the past few weeks seem to have rattled the prime minister. Sources close to him say he ‘is bearing up well and is confident of mastering the situation’ but Asiaweek learned that he is seriously worried about the party’s prospects for assembly elections in Haryana State scheduled for June. Despite hectic campaigning by Gandhi, the Congress (I) got a severe drubbing in assembly polls held in West Bengal and Kerala states in March. Last week’s resignation from Parliament of Hardwari Lal, an influential Congress man from Haryana, has further whittled away at the party’s chances for re-election in the state. ‘We are telling out likely candidates not to expect much campaign support from Rajiv,’ said a highly-placed source. ‘Our strategy is not to expose him too much in Haryana lest we have the same results as in [West] Bengal.’

Although most leaders who ride a popularity wave into power face a seemingly inevitable mid-term trough, many analysts believe Gandhi has mainly himself to blame. Certainly he opened the year badly. In January, Foreign Secretary A.P. Venkareswaran resigned after the PM tactlessly announced his removal at a press conference without informing the man himself. If that incident revealed the immaturity of the premier, he was shown in more unflattering colours some weeks later when the Indian Express newspaper published a letter from President Zail Singh to Gandhi complaining that the premier did not keep him informed about his decisions. In March, Law Minister Ashoke Sen quit because he was not consulted over party strategy for the polls in West Bengal.

At the root of Gandhi’s setbacks, some say, is a poor set of advisers. Many of them are seen as yes-men or yuppies with backgrounds similar to that of the PM, thus depriving him of varied advice and perspective. Wrote political thinker Rajni Kothari: ‘We have yet to realize the full implications of handing over power to rulers who have come from outside the normal run of parliamentary and state politics.’ Remarked oppositionist Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna: ‘Earlier he was a pilot guided by the control room. Now he is led by his advisers. He has nothing of his own.’ The conservative Statesman newspaper put it more bluntly. Wrote the daily: ‘It is really the private circle that must be cleansed. The alternative holds the danger for the PM of being judged by the company he keeps – and seems determined to protect.’

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