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

Broiling of Rajiv Gandhi, Part II

by Sachi Sri Kantha

Beginning of the article here.


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.

India Today cover May 15, 1987 Bofors

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.

India Today cover July 15, 1987 Rajiv Gandhi

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.’


Defence Deals – Bofors and After

by Dilip Bobb

[courtesy: India Today, May 15, 1987, pp. 30-45]

Capsule Summary (in bold font): The Bofors blast is destined to echo resoundingly down the darker avenues of contemporary Indian history. Almost as damaging as the allegations themselves, was the inept manner in which the Government bungled its handling of the affair in Parliament. Coming, as it did, on the heels of the Fairfax affair, the submarine scandal and the subsequent resignation of defence minister V.P. Singh, the Bofors issue is a potential time-bomb. Apart from putting in grave jeopardy the credibility of the Government, it has created a palpable feeling of paranoia within the ruling party regarding the intentions of President Zail Singh. That, in turn, threatens to strain the tautly-stretched political fabric of the country. Bofors and after, could prove to be the already crisis-ridden Rajiv Gandhi Government’s severest test yet.

The main text

The catchy advertisement for the Bofors 155mm howitzer calls it ‘the eternal weapon’. For South Block, nothing could have been more ironic. Exactly a year after India signed the Rs 1,705-crore deal for the Swedish Bofors 155mm FH-77B howitzer, it has literally become a loaded gun, pointed at the heart of the Rajiv Gandhi Government.

Last fortnight’s sensational disclosures regarding alleged kickbacks to key people involved in the Bofors deal could not have come at a worse moment for the ruling party. Since the beginning of the year, it 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.

Then came, in swift succession, the Fairfax issue, followed by V.P. Singh’s probe into the submarine deal which ultimately led to the resignation of the star performer in the Rajiv Gandhi Government. And now, just when the fall-out from the V.P. Singh affair was showing signs of abating, a besieged government has been hit with the Bofors scandal.

The Bofors disclosures were made by the National Swedish Radio, which charged that payments worth 33 million Swedish kroner (approximately Rs 6.6 crore) had been made to an Indian source. According to the radio station’s current affairs programme Dagens Eko (Daily Echo) – 29.5 million kroner was paid in three payments made in November 1986 and a fourth payment of 2.5 million kroner was made in December 1986, into four Swiss bank accounts. The code name for the transfers was ‘Lotus’.

But more damaging than the allegations themselves, was the timing and the inept manner in which the Government handled the entire affair – a repeat of its clumsy and contradictory management of the probe V.P. Singh ordered into the submarine deal which led, ultimately, to his resignation. After a hastily-summoned, unscheduled meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs, the Government issued a statement terming the Bofors allegation as ‘one more link in the chain of denigration and destabilization of our political system’. The Congress Working Committee dredged up a lengthy and even more convoluted thesis on the ‘sinister move by the forces of imperialism…through a calculated campaign of calumny’, and blamed the ubiquitous ‘foreign hand’ for what it termed a conspiracy against the present government and its leader.

The externalizing of the issue found few buyers, mainly because the Government found itself suddenly short of one vital ingredient – credibility. The snowballing effect of the last few weeks has taken a far heavier toll than the leadership’s face-saving statements attempt to indicate. Rajiv’s most potent public weapon – his reputation of Mr. Clean – was in serious jeopardy, if not lost forever. And, the partymen’s attempts to rally around their leader only served to emphasise their new-found insecurity – and their paranoia.

What was perhaps most damaging was the ruling party’s performance in Parliament. There were prolonged populist statements by the leadership. Rajiv himself went out of his way to insist that ‘nobody would be spared’, that the Government would leave no stone unturned in its efforts to unearth any wrongdoing in the Bofors affair. Minister of State for Defence Arun Singh, in a performance worthy of a Mark Antony, declared: ‘Hang us if we are found guilty, but allow us to work.’ It was emphasized that Rajiv had extracted a pledge from the late Swedish premier, Olof Palme, that no middlemen would be involved, and that he had tried to place a midnight call to his Swedish counterpart to clear up the charges.

But that call was described by Swedish Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson as a ‘courtesy call’. Carlsson also clarified that Palme had simply conveyed to Rajiv assurances received from Bofors about no middlemen being involved, and that there were no documents on this. The formal request last fortnight, for a confirmation of the absence of middlemen, went through Bhupatray Oza, the Indian ambassador in Stockholm. Oza told INDIA TODAY at his residence in one of Stockholm’s exclusive quarters, Villagatan: ‘We have had a report from Bofors which I have forwarded to Delhi. That is strictly unofficial. We now await the official response from the Swedish Government which has been requested by the Indian Government. I do not think any names or details are going to be revealed in Delhi, based on the initial Bofors report.’

But shortly after this, Rajiv Gandhi told an army commanders’ conference that everything was in the clear. According to the official press note, he said: ‘Sweden has confirmed that there were no middlemen and no money was paid in Swiss banks.’ When the matter figured in Parliament, Rajiv tied himself further in knots by reiterating that Sweden had recently confirmed the absence of middlemen, but then saying contradictorily: ‘So far, we have got no specific information from the Swedish Government…We must give them a chance to give us an answer and a response.’

Even as Rajiv said this to Parliament, the Swedish Government confirmed that no inquiry had been ordered till then. The inquiry was finally announced a day later, on April 29. Before that, Bofors had declared: ‘No such bribes or commissions have been paid.’ Said Director of Information Per Mossberg: ‘Bofors is fully prepared to offer all clarifications if requested by the Swedish Government, which could then be relayed to the Indian authorities.’

Added Lars-Olof Lindgren, political adviser in the Swedish Trade Department: ‘It is difficult for us to know all the nuances of the deal and what transpired in the negotiations between Bofors and Indian officials. These are done strictly between Bofors and the Indian Government. We do not come into the picture. But now that the Indian Government has requested clarifications, we have asked Bofors for details.’ The ‘clarifications’ asked for were presumably the ones requested by Ambassador Oza.

In the heated Parliament debates that followed the revelations, the Government stuck to its guns in insisting that no middlemen had been used. But by not ordering a probe immediately – as V.P. Singh had done in the case of the submarine deal – the Government clearly lost the initiative. Nor did it make the obvious and specific request that the Swedish Government inquire from the Central Bank in Stockholm, whether the alleged payments were made to Swiss accounts. Under Swedish law, the Central Bank would have the authority and obligation to confirm or deny the radio station’s allegations. Although the Government was keen to give the impression that it was as eager as anyone else to get to the truth of the matter, the effort didn’t seem fully convincing. Perhaps the Government did not want to be surprised by embarrassing disclosures from agencies outside its control.

One ostensible reason why the Government has mismanaged the affair, was the initial misunderstanding over the actual words used in the Swedish radio’s allegation. The first reports on the radio broadcast were interpreted as the payments having been made to ‘Indian politicians’. The radio emphatically denied having made this allegation. In interviews to INIDIA TODAY last week, the journalists involved in the investigation insisted that they had documentary evidence to stand by their story that the money was paid to Indian ‘contacts’, including bank account numbers, dates and the amounts transferred from the Bofors’ bank to the Suisse Bank Corporation. They claimed that they were ‘100 percent positive that this money was paid as part of the Bofors deal with India.’ They also insisted that the only reason they were not releasing additional information was because it would endanger their main source for the story. Last week, the station stated that they would be prepared to give the information to a third party acceptable to them as well as the Indian Government, so as to ensure that their sources were protected.

So far, the Indian Government has been given two names by the Swedish journalists who are involved in the story. One is Win Chadha, a Delhi-based arms dealer who represents a number of companies abroad, including Bofors. Chadha has denied that he received any payments, and claims he stopped representing Bofors in 1985 after the agreement between Rajiv and the then Swedish premier Olof Palme, that no middlemen would be involved. A photograph published in several Swedish dailies, which elicited amused comment in Stockholm, was that of a jubilant Chadha celebrating with champagne, with Bofors officials, after the contract was clinched. Chadha’s ‘swanky life-style’, and his ‘four Mercedes cars’, have provoked intense speculation in Sweden about his role in the deal. The other name given is that of Commander M.R.A. Rao, who used to represent Bofors in the late ‘70s, but retired from the arms business after Chadha’s appointment.

But in New Delhi, it was obvious that the revelations had caused considerable disquiet in the corridors of power and an unusual undercover operation was covertly launched. A series of unpublicised visits were carried out by intelligence sleuths on the premises of 41 key defence agents – including the vacant bungalow owned by the London-based Hinduja family. A highly-respected Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, in a separate investigation, into the deal, has named the Hindujas as being involved in the payments. But, according to Gopichand Hinduja: ‘Most of these allegations are a figment of somebody’s imagination. At no stage were we involved in any of the Indian defence deals.’

The curious aspect of last fortnight’s ‘visits’, however, was that though intelligences sources admitted that raids had been carried out, the intelligence agencies refused to confirm the fact officially. And newspapers which reported on the ‘raids’, had to carry denials from arms agents. Equally curious was the case concerning a prominent defence agent, M.K. Jojodia of Roger Enterprises, who had been raided last November by Enforcement Directorate sleuths – during V.P. Singh’s tenure as finance minister – and had admitted maintaining an account of Rs. 3.5 crore abroad. Jajodia, the biggest FERA offender nabbed by the Enforcement Directorate in recent times, was surprisingly released on parole last fortnight, on the express orders of Minister of State for Finance Brahm Dutt, despite disapproval from the COFEPOSA wing of the Finance Ministry. Officials of the ministry claim that Dutt had ordered the parole to enable Jajodia to make arrangements for repatriating the money to India.

Last fortnight, the CBI also searched the premises of two other Jajodias, K.K. Jajodia and A.K. Jajodia. Both were said to be abroad, but on the basis of papers recovered during the search, the CBI arrested A.K. Jajodia’s Personal Secretary K. Venugopalan under the Official Secrets Act. Earlier, the premises of another defence agent, Vinod Khanna – who represents Saab Scania, the Swedish company that has supplied the two vehicles for the Bofors howitzer – were also visited by sleuths.

Most of the questioning of defence agents and representatives is being done by the counter-intelligence wing of the IB, the special investigation cell of the CBI and RAW. Officials of all agencies, however, deny they are involved. Sources say that the aim of the searches and questioning is damage control. In other words, to seize any documents and papers that could prove embarrassing or incriminating for the ruling party.

Meanwhile, as a measure of the current paranoia caused by the Bofors scandal, the telephones of senior Defence Ministry and armed forces officials, defence agents and even journalists investigating the story are believed to have been tapped. Senior army officials approached by INDIA TODAY refused to talk on the phone and would only meet journalists from the magazine elsewhere, for fear that even their offices might be bugged. Delhi’s English daily, The Statesman, charged that its team of Insight reporters was shadowed by a carload of IB men.

The panic within the Congress (I) is reflected in the fact that senior party functionaries are actually openly expressing the fear that President Zail Singh is collecting evidence on the Bofors deal, in preparation to dismiss the present government. However far-fetched the possibility, it is an indication that the Government is seriously concerned about the deal and its possible fall-out.

In fact, it has been learnt that during one of the searches on defence agents, CBI sleuths seized documents on the Bofors deal highly damaging to the present government. Acting on the information, a team of senior CBI officials further investigated the matter and questioned a large number of people. Their inquiries confirmed what the documents had earlier indicated. The file containing the material was submitted to CBI chief Mohan Katre last week. Rashtrapati Bhawan sources say they are aware of the existence of the file and its contents, and are contemplating asking the Government for more information on the subject.

Meanwhile, the Government is trying hard to contain the possible fall-out of the Bofors affair. If it is proved that the Bofors deal did indeed involve kickbacks, it will tear apart the shroud of secrecy that drapes the holy cow of defence matters. It is, for instance, a well-known fact in political circles that the Congress strategy since Sanjay Gandhi’s time has been to eliminate the need for going hat-in-hand to Indian businessmen for donations to the party purse. Businessmen have, in fact, been heard complaining for the last few years that the Congress (I) had stopped coming to them for money at election time. Much of the money now supposedly comes from foreign companies bidding for large contracts in India.

The security implications of a kickback-influenced deal are that the defence forces’ morale would be undermined by fears about the quality of their equipment and weapons. This was spelt out in a hard-hitting article last week by Brigadier N.B. Grant, a former Indian Army Officer, who wrote: ‘With the exception of very few countries, kickbacks and commissions on defence contracts are accepted as being part of the business and are not considered illegal. The main worrying point, however, concerns the role they play play in influencing decisions or purchase of substandard equipment or acquisitions of doubtful military value.’

The other obvious, and positive, fall-out will be the fact that agents and middlemen will be more cautious and circumspect in their dealings, as will the bureaucrats handling such contracts. There will also be a much closer scrutiny of defence deals in Parliament and by the media, and any government having had its fingers burnt, will be forced to steer clear of the defence pie.

That is perhaps what makes the Bofors deal such a hot potato. The Indian contract for the purchase of the Bofors artillery system FH-77B and its licence production, worth 8.4 billion kroner (Rs. 1,075 crore), was not only the largest contract ever signed by Bofors, but also the single largest export order over awarded to Swedish industry, apart from being the largest signed by the Rajiv Gandhi Government. The Indian howitzer purchase is one of the most fiercely-contested and high-stake deals in recent times. Initial negotiations started in 1977 when the Indian Ministry of Defence, reacting to reports that Pakistan was to acquire American-made 155 mm howitzers, sought information from Bofors and six other manufacturers on 155 mm artillery systems. Indian Defence Ministry sources have confirmed that even the Americans were approached and negotiations started, but were eventually scrapped ‘due to political reasons’.

By early 1981, the field had been narrowed down to four competitors – the Bofors FH-77B, the British-German-Italian FH-70, the Austrian GHN-45 and the French GIAT 155 TR. Bofors was asked to bring the howitzer to India for field trials in the first half of ’81. By ’85, the field had been further narrowed to only two systems – the Swedish and the French. In March ’86, the contract was awarded to Bofors, two months after the then Swedish premier Olof Palme had visited New Delhi a month before his assassination and made a personal plug for the company. The Bofors contract also benefited a number of other Swedish companies, including Saab-Scania for the tow vehicles, Peab for the sights, Barracuda for the camouflage nets, and Bofors subsidiary Lindesbergs Industri AB and the state-owned FFV for the ammunition. Other arms manufacturers to benefit were Britain’s Marconi for fire-control computers, Scotland’s Ferranti for navigational systems, Australia’s Fairey for muzzle velocity indicators and Switzerland’s Wild for survey equipment.

Moreover, a recent article in the authoritative Jane’s Defence Weekly states that Bofors has acknowledged that the value of the Indian deal is far above the US $1.8 billion (Rs. 2,316 crore) initially quoted by the company. The actual figure given out by Bofors is in excess of $3.5 billion (Rs 4,504 crore), which makes it the largest single order in Indian history. Originally, Bofors and the Indian Government had indicated that the agreement was for the supply of 400 howitzers. But a Bofors spokesman told Jane’s that the company will supply India with 1,500 field guns. Bofors intends to set up two manufacturing plants in India where a major part of the order will be produced. Till last month, Bofors had supplied the Indian Army with around 80 FH-77Bs.

Now, having suddenly recoiled into a major controversy, the Bofors deal is even more significant in terms of the other major defence contracts the Indian Government is currently negotiating with western manufacturers. Overnight, it has focused a harsh and glaring spotlight on the entire murky world of defence contracts and ensured that any future deals will be subjected to similar, if not more intense scrutiny.

An off-shoot of the Bofors order had resulted in renewed negotiations between the Indian Government and the Swedish submarine manufacturer, Kockums. India is believed to be contemplating changing over to the Kockums submarine type and ending its current contract with HDW.

India is also considering buying self-propelled 155 mm howitzers to supplement the Bofors field guns and bolster its long-range capability. India has been talking to Vickers, the British armaments firm, which already has its GBT 155 mm turret in operation here, mounted on a Vijayanta tank chassis.

Last September, an Indian delegation also held discussions with the French Defence Ministry and Dassault Bregeut, over possible joint aircraft development for Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) project, for the Indian Air Force. Discussions centred on the development of the French Rafale B high-performance fighter.

The biggest deal currently being negotiated is the army’s requirement for an all-weather, low-level, air defence gun which has been hanging fire since 1980. Initially, the leading contender was the Swiss Oerlikon ADS, thought to be the best. Trials began in ’80, but a Greek offer delayed a decision, and then Oerlikon reduced its price two years ago. Now, seven years after the Indian Army requested for an air defence system, it has still to get it, despite three army chiefs having stressed the urgency of its acquisition.

The Government, fortunately, cannot be criticized for the Bofors purchase itself. The weapon system is considered one of the best available, though the French TR version is a later model and compares favourably with the FH-77B. But its explosive potential in the current political context is considerable. The Government has tried to appear open-minded on the issue and claimed that it has nothing to hide. But its current lack of credibility has neutralized that effort. Nor is it likely that the full facts of the Bofors pay-offs will ever come to light. Even if the Swedish radio station reveals the Swiss account numbers it claims to have, the process of investigation could be tied up in legal knots for years, owing to strict Swiss banking laws.

‘Banks are very tight about secrecy, and leaking of information is a criminal offence,’ confirms Jean Cuendet, Swiss ambassador to India. But he adds: ‘Exceptions can be made, if the Government of India follows the procedure prescribed.’ According to him, the Indian Government must first launch criminal prosecutions against the individual and then file an application in a Swiss court. If the charges are recognized as a criminal offence under Swiss law, the court can then decree that the particular bank involved can reveal the account-holder and his assets.

But even that is not as easy as it appears. While the Swiss courts consider drug-trafficking, kidnapping, ransom money and embezzlement enough ground to order banks to break their code of secrecy, it does not, for instance, recognize the violation of FERA as an offence. And what queers the pitch in the Indian defence deals is that prosecution would have to be launched on the basis of bribery charges – something the Swiss courts have no precedence of in decreeing a break in secrecy.

In any event, Indian investigators would have to first find out who received the bribes and who paid them – something that is not going to be easy without concrete evidence. If the Swedish probe unearths any proof of illegal payments, the sums involved will be crucial. A smallish figure (and Rs 6.6 crores is less than half of 1 percent of the total sum involved) could mean nothing more than payment to an agent and could be explained away. Something bigger, say 5 percent or more, would almost certainly mean kickbacks to people in the Indian Government, or their agents. Of course, the amounts would be irrelevant, if the Swedish probe unearths the names behind the Swiss bank accounts.

In that sense, the Bofors claim of its field gun being a highly effective long-range weapon is an ironic truth. The initial trigger was pulled in Stockholm. And with the Government having clamped a tight lid on the issue as far as any revelations from Indian sources are concerned, the next explosion in the series can only emanate from Sweden.

And the potential implications of any further disclosures that directly indict the Rajiv Gandhi Government is enormous. Apart from the loss of its public image, it will weaken the Government even more and put it squarely on the defensive. It will also give an additional level to the President who seems determined to hit back at Rajiv for what he sees as deliberate humiliation of himself and his office. It will galvanise an opposition already scenting blood, and cause the Government to lose whatever initiative it has left.

In fact, the events of the last few weeks have already entangled the Government in a restrictive web, blunted its developmental thrust and slowed down the workings of the bureaucracy. It will leave the Government with less time for external issues, causing perhaps irreparable harm to its diplomatic efforts. The ruling party has already lost the high ground. And the ground it now occupies is a minefield of dangerous uncertainty.


Congress (I) - Paranoia in the Party

by Inderjit Badhwar

[courtesy: India Today, May 15, 1987, pp. 46-51]

To many veteran Congressmen, the mood within the ruling party, last fortnight, was reminiscent of the surcharged political atmosphere that followed the Allahabad High Court judgement against Indira Gandhi in 1974. A prime minister weakened by a debilitating barrage of public attacks on his government and leadership. The party trying to counter-punch its way out, with roundhouse lefts at the demons of ‘right reaction’ and destabilizing agents of ‘neo-imperialism’. Party-men stunned, insecure, uneasy, and paranoiac, and yet responding, as they did during the pre-Emergency period, to calls for rallies at the grassroots, in order to demonstrate total solidarity and support for their beleaguered chief.

This time, the overriding compulsion behind this gung-ho rally around the Congress (I) flag campaign – in which party workers, MLAs and MPs from all over the country attended lunches, tea parties, and dinners to listen to pep talks from Rajiv and high command politicos – was the palpable fear among senior Congressmen and advisers in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, that President Zail Singh was getting ready to topple the Government on the grounds that it had failed to discharge its constitutional responsibilities. As a veteran Congress (I) leader admitted: ‘The real fear is the President. These solidarity resolutions are not because we sense any internal revolt, but because a message has to be sent to Zail Singh that if the party is solid, he cannot destabilize it.’

There was no evidence that Zail Singh’s relations with the prime minister, notwithstanding desperate attempts by Rajiv to patch things up, have improved. Near panic broke out among Congress (I) members in Parliament’s central hall on April 20, when they heard that former Congress (I) working president Kamalapati Tripathi had written a letter to the President, urging him to ignore ‘mischievous suggestions’ such as dismissing the prime minister or dissolving Parliament. Earlier, the Government had expressed the same fear, but in a more guarded vein. When CPI(M) MP Somnath Chatterji raised questions about the defence scandals in Parliament, H.K.L. Bhagat, parliamentary affairs minister, rose to defend the Government by stating that there appeared to be a conspiracy on for a constitutional coup. Even the treasury benches were stunned at this because, by precedent, ministers only intervene in debates and do not defend the Government without prior notification from the speaker.

The scenarios, about how the President would act, being conjured up within high command circles were endless. Under one, the President would simply recommend the dismissal of the Government, on grounds of constitutional improprieties. Under another, he would request the prime minister to step down voluntarily, in order to subject himself to an independent inquiry regarding the defence deals, and ask the party to elect an interim leader. And in the midst of these chaotic game plans, real or imaginary, the word was also out that the President had been seeking the advice of several constitutional experts on this subject.

But Tripathi’s letter was a double-edged sword. While giving public legitimacy to the powers of the President, and his intentions to dismiss the Government, it also demonstrated that the old Congress war-horse, removed in ignominy from his working president post by Rajiv and at loggerheads with the prime minister, had suddenly bounced back as a member of the ‘old guard’, battling for the health and security of the party.

It also signaled major changes in the political equations around Rajiv. Several Congress (I) stalwarts, while nervous about the threat to the party and its image, were privately gloating over Rajiv’s discomfiture. ‘He is finally coming around to all the people who couldn’t get to within five miles of him,’ said one Uttar Pradesh MLA, who suddenly got an appointment with the prime minister for which he had waited for two years. Added an MP: ‘Rajiv is like a weakened emperor, and nothing can be better for the old-line power-brokers who were waiting for their chance to control him.’ One MP even pulled out a cover story that had appeared last year in the Time magazine, entitled: ‘The Political Educaiton of Rajiv Gandhi.’ Waving it, he said: ‘The first two years as prime minister were like the fresher’s year in college, when you just hand around enjoying yourself with your pals. Now he has to go through his political graduation and take on some serious political advisers.’

There is little doubt that during this crisis, party stalwarts have deluged Rajiv with criticism about the ‘pals’ he had been relying on for advice, and who they believe are political novices. Among those frequently mentioned in this regard are Captain Satish Sharma, Amitabh Bachchan, Mani Shanker Aiyar, and a host of his private circle of friends. Sources say the atmosphere of uncertainty within the party stems in part from the ‘activities of some of the prime minister’s aides, and from his total inaccessibility.’ Any leader, said one MP who is an ardent Rajiv supporter, differentiates between friends and political advisers. ‘But here the line of demarcation was blurred. Around any leader, there are friends, sycophants and dissidents. But in the atmosphere that prevailed in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, sycophants were treated as friends, friends as dissidents, and dissidents as enemies,’ he said.

In the process of opening up and becoming more accessible, Rajiv is now surrounded by a new set of political power-brokers. The caucus to whom he has begun to look for help in mending party fences, consists of Shiv Shankar, M.L. Fotedar, Buta Singh, H.K.L. Bhagat, Sheila Dixit, and Nawal Kishore Sharma. And the one person from within his own secretariat on whom the prime minister has relied most heavily on advice throughout this crisis – and who has grown in importance because of his ability to enunciate clear ideological lines and strategies in crisis management – is Gopi Arora, special secretary to the prime minister. Even though he is a bureaucrat, Arora is credited with an uncanny ability to relate to ‘old guard’ Congress (I) politicians, especially those with leftist views. Some of Arora’s thinking was reflected in the prime minister’s speech to the Congress Parliamentary Party following the state election debacles, as well as in the populist, left-leaning Congress Working Committee (CWC) resolution following the Bofors’ revelations.

The new political caucus now around the prime minister, moreover, has been responsible for most of the parliamentary strategy, the party campaign against V.P. Singh, as well as the nationwide party campaign to rally behind Rajiv. But there is still considerable resentment among the younger MPs in the party. They feel that even with the political sidelining of ‘friends’ and the emergence of the new caucus, Rajiv is replacing one set of advisers with another which is basically associated with old-style manipulations and wheeling and dealing. In the bargain, he is ignoring younger people, who also have political experience.

Palace politics apart, within the party at least, Rajiv, notwithstanding his government’s considerably eroded credibility and public image, seemed safe for the moment. Any smoke signals of revolt were quickly snuffed out by party leaders at the Central, state, and district levels. They started with the marathon April 18 CWC meeting, which was attended by more than 110 Congress (I) leaders, following the defence deals revelations. And then they began fanning out across the country, in loyaler-than-thou demonstrations, and spreading the shop-worn word among the rank and file, that the party was the target of a diabolical conspiracy. The serpent of the piece was cited, inevitably, as western-imperialist forces and their Indian agents, who are out to destabilize a legitimately elected government that has pursued an independent foreign policy.

Whether or not the framers of the CWC resolution, let alone Rajiv, believed in the rhetoric or the anachronistic shibboleths – after all, the party and its programmes had come a long way since the days of influential leftists like Krishna Kant, Mohan Dharia, D.P. Dhar and Mohan Kumaramangalam and their ‘socialist thinking’ – did not matter. What counted was, the importance of having a public relations handle with which to spoon-feed a bewildered public, which having given its overwhelming mandate to the ruling party only two short years ago was now, as several opinion polls showed, mistrustful and ready to believe the worst. And by taking an ostensibly leftward lurch, it was also a time-tested device of gaining the support of the CPT and CPI(M), for the party and the prime minister.

The events that led to the crisis – the leak of the President’s March 9 letter to the press, the CBI raid on the Indian Express guest-house, the Fairfax probe, the arming of Pakistan by the US, the increase in terrorist activities in Punjab, the announcement of the defence probe and, overnight, the Swedish radio report on the Bofors deal – were all clubbed together as evidence, to provide perfect grist for the conspiracy mill. It is this scenario, spelled out in painstaking detail, that is now being taken to every block and district by Congress workers and elected officials. Participating in the propaganda effort will be the Youth Congress (I) and the Seva Dal, both of which have already organized several rallies. And during these meetings, leaders have been instructed to ‘talk freely about Viswanath Pratap Singh’. The line to be taken on V.P. Singh is that he was an ambitious politician who betrayed the faith placed in him by the prime minister, and who played into the hands of destabilising elements, by forcing the arms deal debate.

As Congress (I) General Secretary Nawal Kishore Sharma put it: ‘When the, polity weakens, the Congress is the only unifying force. If Rajiv is attacked, then the Congress is attacked, and the stability of the country is attacked.’ He said that the high command has now called on all the Pradesh and district committees to organize several hundred conventions that will be attended by state and Central leaders, including the prime minister. Added Anand Sharma, Youth Congress (I) president: ‘Rajiv is the standard-bearer of the party and we won’t allow him to be pulled down.’ And Kamal Nath, the brash, brusque MP from Madhya Pradesh said: ‘Whenever a challenge is thrown at the Congress, we are a united edifice. Congress leaders must realize that the relations between the prime minister and the party at the block and district levels cannot be shaken by the manipulation of those at any tier in between.’

This drumbeat of solidarity found an echo in most states, except for Uttar Pradesh, where there seemed to be scattered signs of dissidence. In West Bengal, Congress leaders, even after their debacle, were expressing solidarity with Rajiv Gandhi. Youth Congress (I) executive Syed Shahid Imam, while admitting that ‘the state level party is a sick organization because of the present leadership’, stated emphatically that ‘there is no question of looking for an alternative from even within the party, as long as Rajiv is there.’ In Kerala, partymen seemed unfazed about Fairfax, Bofors, or V.P. Singh. Former chief minister Karunakaran said: ‘What V.P. Singh did was damaging to the party. There is only one leader, and that is Rajiv.’

In Orissa, Fairfax and Rajiv are not so much the issue as the public’s near-total alienation from the state Congress party, headed by J.B. Patnaik. The state leadership has lost so much of its credibility because of local scandals and corruption, that its leaders are finding it hard to even gather people for public rallies, leave alone convince them of well-laid ‘designs’ by the Opposition and foreign powers, to destabilise the Rajiv Government. In Bihar, where there is a running feud between Chief Minister Bindeshwari Dubey and dissident Congress leader Jagannath Mishra, both factions have begun ‘mass awakening’ programmes. But Mishra’s supporters – now being actively courted by the high command – have begun to take the lead.

Most Maharashtra Congressmen were blaming the party’s present problems on errant newspaper reporting. And here too, the conspiracy theory propagated by the CWC meeting, seems to have taken root. As B.A. Desai, the Congress (I) MLA from Bombay put it: ‘So far as the party is concerned, it is united solidly behind the prime minister. The whole hullabaloo in Delhi is a result of the recognition by certain world powers of the major role India is playing in international affairs.’

In Madhya Pradesh, Chief Minister Motilal Vora emphasised: ‘All corruption charges have been emphatically denied. I don’t feel that our credibility has gone down. Party workers are united to face the challenge.’ Said Anasuya Uike, MLA, bluntly: ‘It is clear that opposition parties and certain foreign powers are not too pleased with the clean image of Rajivji’. The mood in Tamil Nadu, appeared to be one of disillusionment with the Mr Clean image of Rajiv. While several party luminaries admitted privately that they party had lost considerable ground in the wake of corruption charges, there was no evidence of any revolt against the leadership.

But all these emphatic pronouncements typify what is known as the ‘Congress culture’. It is not as if the rank and file Congressman is not worried. He is. And he more than readily admits, privately, that the leadership has been tainted, and that there is corruption at the top. But he is not about to revolt. There are several reasons for this. First, most Congressmen are cautious; they are not adventurous politicians. They stick to what is known as long as they can. And the more they come under attack, the more they crawl for safety, under the security blanket of their leader. It was revealing that most people interviewed, said openly that a loss in Haryana would not affect the solidarity of the party. In fact, that would be even more cause to hang on to the security blanket. As G. Karthikeyan, Kerala state general secretary put it: ‘Even if we lose Haryana, it does not make a difference. In 1967, Mrs Gandhi lost almost 13 states, but what a comeback she made!’

Secondly, there is in fact, no alternative force within the party to which dissidents can flock. Even V.P. Singh has not emerged as one yet. And Congressmen are not willing to venture forth in a vacuum. In this atmosphere of accusations and counter-accusations within the party, there is confusion about who represents whom, and a real fear is that the CBI is being used as an organisation to spy on Congressmen suspected of dissident activity. As one Uttar Pradesh MP noted: ‘V.P. Singh may be responsible for some of this mood. He has lost respect. Instead of keeping silent after he resigned, he began to shout and scream about his loyalty to the prime minister. Most MPs feel that if this man, who had the biggest stake of all, did not stick his neck out, then why should they stick their necks out.’

But the most important stick used by the high command to keep Congressmen in line so far, has been the threat from the Prime Minister’s Secretariat of dissolving Parliament and calling a mid-term election, if any ‘alternative’ or dissident is seen receiving open support from partymen, against the prime minister. A mid-term poll is the most traumatic event in the life of politicians. As one high command member explained: ‘First they have to raise funds in a short period. But at least half of them know they won’t get Congress tickets if this happens. And of those who get tickets, half are not sure they will win.’ So the safest bet is to sit it out for the remaining two-and-a-half years, ‘rather than get involved in the power games being played at the top.’

Congressmen say privately that the party may not weaken in terms of numbers, but it has weakened because of the erosion of moral authority at the Centre. What sustains a government, ultimately, is the goodwill of the people. And it is this goodwill that is rapidly evaporating. If there is a lesson to be learnt from this, it is simply, that a numerical party majority is not sufficient to run an effective and smooth government. What is required is not a paranoid CWC resolution and hasty changes at the top, but rather, an assertion of authority, credibility and recognisable policies. The alternative is drift and dissension.


Another Setback for Gandhi

by Anonymous Correspondent

[courtesy: Asiaweek, Hongkong, July 5, 1987, pp. 23-25]

The summer sun beat down mercilessly on the Indian capital that June afternoon. Most people stayed indoors, sipping chilled water in the comparative coolness of darkened rooms. But the heat outside did not deter the jubilant throngs milling around the sprawling Haryana House in the hub of New Delhi’s ‘cultural’ area. They spilled on to the lawns and out into the roads, snarling traffic. Soon the man they were awaiting arrived in an ambulance and the crowd let out a cheer. Acknowledging their greetings, a wan but smiling Devi Lal walked into the building. Two days earlier, the veteran politician had collapsed from exhaustion after triumphantly leading an opposition alliance to a sweeping victory over the powerful Congress (I) ruling party in assembly polls in Haryana. Now he was leaving his hospital bed in New Delhi to be sworn in as the new chief minister of that prosperous north Indian state.

The feisty oppositionist had sent Congress (I) to its worst ever defeat in a state election. Of 87 assembly seats contested on June 17, the Congress (I) managed to win only five, compared to a majority tally of 61 that it had held before the elections. Devi Lal’s own agrarian-based Lok Dal (B) walked away with 59 seats while its electoral ally, the rightwing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won fifteen. For the first time in Haryana’s history, the two communist parties polled one seat each. To add to Congress (I)’s humiliation, the party’s outgoing chief minister, Bansi Lal, was trounced by a political unknown appointed by Devi Lal. Fifteen ministers of Bansi Lal’s state cabinet also lost their seats.

Although the ruling party’s defeat was not entirely unexpected, the extent of their setback was. ‘I’d expected a loss,’ remarked a stunned P. Chidambaram, union minister for internal security, ‘but I thought the Congress would get at least 20 seats’. Declared The Hindustan Times national daily: ‘Party leaders were greatly shocked over the results because even in their conservative estimates, they had not expected the party to fare so badly at the hustings’. Indeed, leaders had known all along that the party’s standing in Haryana was shaky. In the months preceding the polls several scandals erupted in the state, in step with controversies at the national level involving questionable arms purchases and illegal foreign bank accounts.

Many saw the verdict of Haryana’s 8.7 million voters as a severe personal setback for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Under his leadership, the Congress (I) in the past two years had already suffered devastating defeats in five state elections. It survives in northern Jammu & Kashmir State only as junior party in an alliance with the National Conference (F). The trouncing in Haryana was the party’s sixth – and perhaps most ominous – debacle. When it lost to the Marxists in Kerala State in March, the Congress (I) had relinquished its last hold on south India. In West Bengal, too, it was unable to pry the state from the grip of the Left Front.

The disaster in Haryana reflected the party’s eroding support in its traditional power base in the ‘cow belt’ of northern India. With only 13 million people, Haryana is not as populous as neighbouring Uttar Pradesh State, the Congress (I)’s other Hindi-speaking stronghold. But it is of vital importance, say observers, because of its comparative prosperity and close involvement in a peace pact on Punjab State signed by Gandhi in 1985 with subsequently-slain Sikh leader Harchand Singh Longowal. A key clause in the yet-unimplemented agreement awards Chandigarh, joint capital of Haryana and Punjab states, exclusively to Punjab. Haryana’s chagrin at losing Chandigarh was exacerbated by what many claimed was unfair allocation of water rights to Punjab.

The Haryanavis’ belief that they were being neglected by New Delhi helped propel the fiery Devi Lal into power. Observed BJP leader L.K. Advani: ‘The two dimensions of defeat were a feeling in Haryana that they were being taken for granted by the Centre, and anger against corruption at all levels.’ Even Gandhi’s ‘Mr. Clean’ image was tarnished. One popular opposition campaign slogan leveled at the Congress (I) derided its closeness to ‘videshi paisa, videshi bank, videshi bibi’ (‘foreign funds, foreign bank [accounts], foreign wife’). Gandhi’s wife Sonia is Italian-born.

To shore up its position in the run-up to the election, Congress (I) had removed Bhajan Lal as Haryana’s chief minister and appointed Bansi Lal in his stead. Often dubbed ‘the builder of modern Haryana’ by the local press, Bansi Lal was expected to rejuvenate the Congress (I) image and ‘manage’ a victory. In May, in order to stem criticism that it was not doing enough to curb Sikh separatist violence in neighbouring Punjab State, the Congress (I) government in New Delhi imposed direct central rule there. That was interpreted by many as a manoeuvre with an eye to upcoming Haryana polls.

Some days later when Charan Singh, a former prime minister and veteran peasant leader, died in New Delhi, Congress (I) leaders made it a point to monopolise his state funeral. For years Charan Singh had led the Jat caste-based Lok Dal before it split into the Lok Dal (B) and the Lok Dal (A), led by his son Ajit Singh, a US-trained computer expert. But if there was a sympathy vote to be gleaned from his father’s demise, Ajit Singh was unable to translate it into a single win. Nor could his mother, Gayatri Devi. Charan Singh’s widow lost a by-election to the national Parliament to a Lok Dal (B) candidate.

Nothing, it seemed, could stop Devi Lal’s political juggernaut. A week before polling began, Bhagwat Dayal Sharma, an ex-Congress (I) chief minister form Haryana who belongs to the Brahmin caste, switched his allegiance from the Lok Dal (B) back to his former party. Devi Lal’s supporters worried that Sharma’s defection would siphon off the Brahmin voters to Congress (I). But even that did not help Congress.

Nonetheless, many Congressmen refused to acknowledge that issues such as corruption were the real reason behind the crushing defeat. They preferred to blame intra-party squabbles among Haryana stalwarts such as Bhajan Lal and Bansi Lal. Gandhi himself lashed out at party members who were out of step with local problems. ‘It is seen that Congressmen become active only when elections knock on the doors,’ the Press Trust of India news agency quoted him as saying. Oppositionists and disgruntled Congressmen, however, put the blame at the prime minister’s door. ‘The Haryana result is a water-shed,’ noted oppositionist stalwart Madhu Dandavate. ‘Rajiv’s mandate has dissipated. He should seek a fresh mandate from the people.’ Said The Hindustan Times: ‘The leadership should know that if the people of Haryana are disenchanted with the party, people in other states can also be so.’

Looking ahead, other analysts said the debacle also raised new doubts about the Indian leader’s ability to rally the party to victory in national elections due in 1989. Indeed, some of his colleagues apparently advised the 42 year-old premier to step down from his concurrent position as president of the Congress (I) Working Committee. However, CWC general secretary Nawal Kishore Sharma said there was no question of Gandhi resigning as party president before internal polls were held by January next year. The decision to hold elections after fourteen years was taken at a CWC meeting chaired by Gandhi. ‘In the collective discussions that took place there was no suggestion to Mr Gandhi that he should appoint a full-time party president,’ Communications Minister Arjun Singh told Asiaweek. But it was possible, he said, ‘that this might have been put to him in private discussions.’

One piece of hardnosed advice for the premier apparently came from the head of state, with whom he has a long-simmering feud. When a distraught Gandhi, his hands shaking, reportedly visited President Zail Singh to explain the Haryana defeat, he was told to appoint estranged cabinet colleague Vishwanath Pratap Singh as CWC chief. The former defence minister had abruptly resigned in April after a furore over a ministry inquiry he had ordered into apparent kickbacks to an Indian agent in a submarine deal.

At their meeting, Zail Singh reportedly also assured Gandhi that he would not accept an offer by oppositionists and dissident Congressmen to contest presidential elections on July 13. India’s largely ceremonial head of state is selected by an electoral college composed of members of the national Parliament and the state assemblies. Recently the Congress (I) named Vice President R. Venkataraman as its official candidate. The leftist opposition parties have strongly backed the choice of former Supreme Court judge V.R. Krishna Iyer and have refused to support a second term for Zail Singh. Clearly unhappy at this decision, the BJP last week denounced the leftists as ‘the Trojan horse of the Congress in the opposition ranks’. The party last week declared it would boycott the upcoming polls.

Gandhi could take some satisfaction in knowing that a Congress (I) nominee would almost certainly be the next president. But his problems remain daunting. Even if Haryana’s mood is not indicative of a total rejection of the Congress (I) in its Hindi-speaking bastion, the dramatic defeat was a signal the premier could not ignore. Administration sources attested that the PM has recently worked into the early morning hours with advisers, assessing his options. Warned the respected Statesman daily: ‘There can be no greater travesty of democratic justice than for the PM to be allowed to ignore the message of West Bengal, Kerala and now Haryana. If he gets away on either count there will be little left to set his government apart from Ferdinand Marcos’s erstwhile regime in the Philippines or the ruling caucus of any shoddy banana republic.’


Outwitting the Right: A communist move aids the Congress in presidential poll

by Salamat Ali

[courtesy: Far Eastern Economic Review, Hongkong, July 9, 1987, pp. 25]

In a remarkable testimony to the disarray among the opposition ranks, Indian communists have moved to avert a major split in the ruling Congress party. In the process, they have ensured an easy victory for the Congress nominee at the presidential election on 13 July. The Congress’ candidate to succeed President Zail Singh, whose five-year term ends on 24 July, is Vice President R. Venkataraman. The joint opposition nominee is V.R. Krishna Iyer, a distinguished retired judge. The president is chosen by an electoral college comprising the elected members of parliament and the legislators of the 25 state assemblies.

The ruling party commands about two-thirds of the electoral college, and with the committed support of the non-Congress majority parties in four state assemblies – Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Sikkim and Mizoram – Venkataraman’s victory is all but certain. However, despite the overwhelming strength of the Congress, barely a month ago the ruling party could not take the election for granted. The differences between the incumbent president and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi which came in the open in March, threatened a constitutional crisis. The recent allegations of corruption in arms purchases also put the Gandhi government on the defensive.

Therefore, Gandhi declared that he would consult the opposition in order to select a candidate acceptable to all parties. The consensus approach was a non-starter, because the opposition parties could not agree among themselves even on the criteria for selecting a candidate. Nor did Gandhi’s style of consultation find favour with the opposition. For instance, at the end of this futile consultative process in June, Gandhi summoned N.T. Rama Rao, chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, for talks in New Delhi. The prime minister abruptly ended that meeting in barely three minutes. In the event, the Congress announced its nominee unilaterally.

Meanwhile, the opposition had set up a three-man committee – headed by Rama Rao and comprising Chandrasekhar, president of the Janata Party, and E.M.S. Namboodripad, the leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) – to select a candidate. The two communist parties – CPI-M and the Communist Party of India – had been successfully lobbying for Iyer, who had not found favour with the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

However, the communist lobbying met a setback as many rightwing politicians, and some Congress dissidents, held a series of meetings with Singh at the presidential palace. Many of them came away with the impression that Singh might not be averse to seeking a second term. Although Singh had already congratulated Venkataraman on the latter’s nomination, they believed that with the support of the opposition and dissident Congressmen combined, Singh would be ready to challenge Gandhi’s candidate. At this juncture, the communists struck their decisive blow.

After the joint opposition committee’s meeting on 20 June, Namboodripad wrote to Rama Rao accusing him of going back on a consensus reached earlier on Iyer’s candidacy. The letter was released to the press simultaneously, which ended the rightwing efforts to draft Singh for a second term. Within hours, Singh had met Gandhi to assure the latter that he was not seeking a second term. The joint opposition then settled on Iyer, but without the support of the BJP which announced it would boycott the presidential election.

The communists moved against Singh because of the widespread belief that if the Congress dissidents had succeeded in re-electing him, they would have forced the president to destabilize the Gandhi government by demanding legal proceedings against alleged corruption charges. The communists also believe that rightwing Western powers are out to destabilize India and the Indian leftwing has responded by bolstering Gandhi’s hand.


Rajiv Gandhi – Crisis of Leadership

by Dilip Bobb, Prabhu Chawla and Sreekant Khandekar

[courtesy: India Today, July 15, 1987, pp. 32-38]

Just 30 months ago, he was the darling of the masses, the man with the Midas touch, a unique and electric phenomenon on the Indian political stage. A man even the gods seemed to be fighting to favour. For the media, he could do no wrong. For an adoring public, he was, literally and figuratively, Prince Charming.

But those whom the Gods wish to humble, they give enough rope. In a bewilderingly short span of time, the Rajiv rage has turned into something more resembling outrage. As stunningly rapid as his rise has been his downslide, now increasingly reflected in the growing rumblings within the party and in the sullen public mood. Besieged by a growing battalion of crises, many of which he has indirectly helped create, his image as Mr Clean badly tainted by the defence pay-off scandals and his fierce but fatal adhesion to his friends, his pledges to the people held in unacceptable abeyance, all it needed was that one final hammer blow to crack the Teflon.

Last fortnight’s verdict in Haryana provided just that. The electoral roar in that tiny state was a roar of disapproval that had echoes across the country. That the once-invincible Congress (I), the party that had ridden to a record-breaking victory on Rajiv’s kurta tails just over two years ago, would lose in Haryana was on the political cards. But the humiliating, near-total rout by the new Jat messiah, Devi Lal, and that too in the Hindi heartland, proved conclusively that the electorate was punching out a message that went way beyond local issues. Suddenly, almost exactly at the mid-poinjt of his mandate, the unthinkable was a distinct possibility. The emperor had not just lost his clothes – he was in danger of losing his throne. The message of Haryana, as read by the Congress (I), was that the Rajiv magic had done the disappearing trick, that his charismatic value as a vote catcher was in serious doubt, that the real crisis was a crisis of leadership.

The stunned silence in the corridors of power when the Haryana wave made itself obvious was like a political power cut in the capital. For the next two days, Rajiv’s future lay in suspense as reality dawned and frenetic activity erupted around the two historic buildings that would decide his fate – Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Central Hall of Parliament. Less than 48 hours after the Haryana results were known, outgoing President Giani Zail Singh’s Saturday afternoon siesta was interrupted by calls flooding the 20-line Rashtrapati Bhavan telephone exchange from politicians who wanted to hold urgent discussions with the President. Even Zail Singh was taken aback by the number of people who arrived at his doorstep in a constant stream. By 9 pm he had met over 100 politicians, including, significantly, 40 Congress (I) MPs, half a dozen former chief ministers and over 40 opposition leaders. Inevitably, the meetings spilled over onto the next day, a Sunday.

If Rajiv was aware of the activity – and all it portended – he gave no sign. Two days after the defeat he was still his serene and maddeningly cocky self, and when asked by visiting school children how he felt, he said: ‘These things have to be viewed in the proper perspective.’ Which is precisely what a section of his partymen were doing as far as he was concerned. The crux of their discussions with the President, as with the other visitors, was the dismissal of Rajiv and his replacement by someone within the party. That the coup eventually failed was something of an anti-climax but at no other time has Rajiv come closer to the political precipice.

Between June 15 and June 21, over 100 Congress MPs and senior leaders had met to finalise the strategy. The Central Hall of Parliament, usually empty during the summer recess, was packed to capacity as the coup leaders tried to woo the fence-sitters. A senior MP from Uttar Pradesh started a signature campaign against the prime minister while an office-bearer of the Congress Parliamentary Party drafted a letter to the President that bluntly stated that Rajiv had lost majority support. Dissidents from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Haryana met Arun Nehru and Vishwanath Pratap Singh to garner their opinion.

Three names had been selected by the dissidents as possible alternatives. Heading the list was Vice-President R.Venkataraman, the party nominee for the coming presidential elections. The other two were V.P. Singh and P.V. Narasimha Rao. A group of senior journalists and industrialists from Bombay had even prepared a blueprint for the new government with the names of the new cabinet secretary and even the new chief of the army staff. Meanwhile, a former Union minister, using his legal background, prepared a detailed note on June 20 for the President urging Rajiv’s dismissal on four grounds:

Frequent violations of the Constitution by not informing the President about official matters.

Withholding information from Parliament and the Cabinet on defence deals.

Losing people’s confidence as shown by successive election losses.

Resisting free and fair inquiries against him in corruption charges.

The coup failed because the dissidents did not take into account the mood of two crucial men – Giani Singh and V.P. Singh. The President demanded documentary evidence on corruption charges before considering the matter. He also demanded the list of MPs who would support the interim prime minister. The only name the dissidents could provide was that of Vasantrao Patil, who, they said, had 14 members of Parliament supporting his claim for prime ministership. V.P. Singh had already refused to join the coup by his public endorsement of Venkataraman’s nomination for presidency. The President reportedly told one of the leaders: ‘If they are really keen on throwing out Rajiv, they should fight their battle in the open and not expect me to carry out their fight for them’.

Without presidential support, the campaign quickly dissipated. For Rajiv, however, the reprieve offers little consolation. The implications for his future, the future of the party, and for the country, are serious. More important, the nicks from his close shave have left him weakened and given impetus to the intra-party move to scout for a replacement before the next general election due in January 1990.

In retrospect, Rajiv’s sudden loss of political momentum, of credibility and cleanliness, has been astounding. He is now so bogged down in the morass of mistakes and misperceptions that it will need a Herculean effort on his part to regain his credibility as a leader and a vote-catcher. In the electoral eye, he has already mis-spent his mandate. During his 30-month tenure, the Congress (I) citadel has been breached with unfailing regularity. The party no longer has a political handhold in the south. Half the north-east has slipped out from under the Congress (I) umbrella. The Haryana defeat spells a direct threat to the party’s Hindi belt bastion. With eight successive defeats in state elections, Rajiv, also president of the party, seems to have acquired a one-way ticket to disaster.

No longer is the excuse one of party in-fighting, of ineffectual chief ministers, or of overlapping power centres. The issue, as of last fortnight, is one of leadership, or the lack of it. Says The Economist: ‘Rajiv Gandhi is having a horrible time as India’s prime minister. His humiliation in last week’s Haryana’s elections comes on top of a pile of previous embarrassments: senior colleagues mistreated, scandal accusations mishandled, little Lanka pettishly wrist-slapped, continuing carnage in Punjab.’

Having celebrated – if that is the right word – his 600th day as prime minister last fortnight, Rajiv can look back at his record with little pride or passion. His tenure has been riddled with ad hocism. This has shown in his – often rude – behaviour towards the bureaucracy and the manner in which he has chosen to handle not only changes in his party but also in his cabinet. Few have understood the logic behind the frequent recomposition of his cabinet and many of his colleagues have tended to read in them only Rajiv’s personal whim.

That Rajiv realises his leadership is in danger became evident immediately after the Haryana debacle. His first act was to call on the President, a move interpreted as a political pre-emptive strike. For the first time in two years, he summoned senior party colleagues and asked them openly about the decline of the Congress (I). He has also suddenly become accessible to party MPs and MLAs; he has been meeting them at an average of around 50 a day.

But whether it is a question of too little too late is now increasingly relevant. Today, Rajiv is seen within the party and now increasingly by the public, as being totally cut off from the people and from the hard realities of Indian politics. Admitted a senior Congress (I) leader from Bihar: ‘He could have seen real India only if he was allowed to do so by his rich urban friends and close advisers. They were under the illusion that only slogans about modernisation and the 21st century would establish Rajiv’s link with the masses. Slogans have now become meaningless.’

Under Rajiv, the Government has worked erratically and often on auto-pilot, lacking direction and a firm hand at the controls. The most visible and damaging fault has been Rajiv’s own irresponsible behaviour. Wrote Paul H. Kreisberg, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington: ‘To some extent Rajiv’s behaviour reflects personality traits – pride, vanity, arrogance, even vindictiveness, that his mother and late brother shared in full measure. In Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, however, these were compensated for by a record of remarkable achievements over many years, the building up of political debts from many national and regional politicians, and most particularly, by a finely honed political sensitivity.’

It is now Rajiv who owes the political debts, whose lack of political sensitivity has brought him into sudden disrepute with the masses. Armashish Prashad, a Patna tea-seller referred to ‘this government of jokers and kids’, unconsciously diagnosing the core of the Rajiv problem – acute cronyism, his continued association with the Bachchans, Romi Chopras and Satish Sharmas of his world.

In the bargain, he has alienated the powerful bureaucracy and his partymen and, inevitably, the mud thrown by the charges against them has started to stick to him too. His mishandling of the Bofors and submarine scandals, the Fairfax issue and the V.P. Singh episode has tarred his image and thrown him on the defensive to the extent that his actions now resemble over-protectiveness towards wayward friends. His current lack of credibility stems precisely from that.

Rajiv is caught in a classic dilemma. By abandoning his friends, he will be admitting their guilt, and his, by association. But their continued closeness will not just cramp his leadership, it will encourage partymen who have so far been sidelined, to weaken him further and thus increase their own importance.

Already, the party mood is sullen and unpredictable. Congressmen privately complain that Rajiv has failed to devise a strategy capable of winning them seats. He has, they grumble, not won a single state after the assembly poll in March 1985. In the six key states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat, the party had won 265 of the 276 Lok Sabha seats and led in 1,661 of the 1,739 assembly segments. But 10 weeks later, in the Assembly elections, the party won only 1,132 seats in these states. In Rajasthan and Maharashtra, it barely won a majority.

The Congress (I) has lost each assembly election it has contested since, suffering humiliating defeats in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Haryana. Rajiv signed accords in Assam and Punjab but the gain went to his political opponents. This year, the party has lost badly in West Bengal and lost power in Kerala. Even Jammu & Kashmir was a victory for Farooq and not the Congress (I).

The record in by-elections has been equally disastrous. Since January ’85, it has won only 37 of the 79 Lok Sabha by-elections and 23 of the 49 by-elections to state assemblies. Says Hemavati Nandan Bahuguna, Lok Dal (B) president: ‘The trend after March 1985 proves that Rajiv is incapable of winning an election. The Lok Sabha outcome was a kind of aberration in Indian democracy where people were swayed by sentiments and not programmes or personalities.’ Adds P. Upendra, leader of the Telugu Desam in the Rajya Sabha: ‘We knew that Rajiv’s bluff would be called one day. His elevation as prime minister was due to a conspiracy of circumstances and not due to an electoral verdict based on judicious thinking. Rajiv was never a vote-catcher.’

That, as the record shows, is now a painful reality. In West Bengal, he failed to see the danger in projecting himself as an alternative to the widely respected Jyoti Basu and in Kerala, he could not effectively reply to charges of communalism. Finally, in Haryana, he could not offer anything that could have turned the voters the Congress (I) way. Said an All India Congress (I) Committee (AICC-I) office bearer: ‘Rajiv would always ask for a detailed profile of the constituencies but never bothered to ask for the weaknesses of the opposition. He behaved not like a politician but more like a novice.’ In Haryana, for example, he could have reversed the trend had he effectively put forward development done by his party during the last five years. In Kerala too, he failed to expose the majority communalism card being played by the Marxists.

Ironically, Rajiv, who was the party’s greatest asset, is now turning out to be a major liability. Congressmen are dismayed by what they perceive as his main drawbacks – immaturity and shortsightedness. It was these traits that allowed Zail Singh to turn the tables on the young prime minister. In the battle, it was the wily Giani who effectively put Rajiv on the defensive.

Another of Rajiv’s major mistakes was his lack of strategy in dealing with the political fall-out of V.P. Singh’s exit from the Government. He was influenced by sycophants who forced him onto a confrontationist course against the popular former defence minister. Admits a chief minister, who counseled reconciliation: ‘Though I disagree with what Singh did as defence minister, we should have worked out a scheme to neutralise him. Leadership qualities are tested only in difficult times.’ Adds K.L. Sharma, BJP secretary: ‘Mrs Gandhi was never considered a clean politician but none of her ministers could dare throw a challenge at her. Singh has done it because Rajiv has lost his credibility. Though there is no direct evidence against him, the masses believe that he is shielding the corrupt.’ Warns Sripati Mishra, former Uttar Pradesh chief minister: ‘While the rank and file does not believe the allegations made against the leader, a doubt has been created in the public mind. The party and the leader must work hard to remove this.’

But what will be even more difficult to salvage is the battering his image of being concerned about the poor has received. This has also alienated the labour class, which see him as pro-rich and the protector of profiteers. According to a leader of the Congress (I) Labour Cell, the Prime Minister’s Secretariat accepted comparatively few invitations to address labour rallies whereas it was overly hasty in fixing engagements to address meetings of top multinational executives. During the last 30 months, Rajiv has addressed over a dozen meetings of leading business organizations but only a few of labour cells. Says a leader of the Congress-affiliated Indian National Trade Union Congress: ‘When the leader of a party which tops in labour membership prefers to court the employers, the message to the labour is get lost.’ V.P. Singh has cleverly picked up the theme of the role of big business money in politics and exploited this to his advantage.

Not surprisingly, Rajiv’s pro-rich image has stuck. Despite allocating over Rs 2,000 crore as additional funds for anti-poverty programmes, the Government has still to erase the impression that its economic policies are geared towards the haves rather than the have-nots. One example: in an ill-advised move, the Government allowed the import of food articles worth Rs 500 into the country if sent by a friend or a relative settled abroad. According to Commerce Ministry sources, over 100 food packets arrive daily – all meant for a section of an already-favoured society. Says a Commerce Ministry official: ‘Our import decisions are influenced many a times by the needs of those in power.’

But Rajiv’s leadership crisis also extends to his continued dual role as president of the party. He has so far failed to vitalise the Congress (I), delegate responsibilities and allow the party to function independently. This has been a crucial failure because without active political mobilization at the grassroots level, no government can hope to truly tackle its basic problems.

In fact, Rajiv’s initial thrust as AICC (I) general secretary when he initiated programmes to train youth coordinators and district-level workers has been allowed to lapse. The much-touted party elections have been postponed a number of times. Admitted AICC (I) General Secretary G.K. Moopanar: ‘I agree that the organization has to be much more effective. If the organization is not strong, even the most successful government is likely to run into trouble.’ For instance, although the economy has been doing fairly well, the leadership has failed to capitalize on it; it has become a non-issue.

With little time or inclination to attend to party matters, Rajiv has indirectly allowed various state-level leaders to launch campaigns against chief ministers. Requests by state party chiefs for a meeting with the prime minister have been kept pending for weeks. Requests from four chief ministers for cabinet reshuffles have been awaiting clearance for the last four months. His inaccessibility has, naturally, resulted in an abrupt blockage in the traditional channels of political information from the rest of the country.

The weakening of Rajiv means that though state leaders will continue to pay lip service to him, he too will have to be more sensitive to regional demands. Admits Youth Congress chief Anand Sharma: ‘Some people within the party may try to take advantage of the situatin. But they would be undermining the strength of the party.’

Rajiv, however, has one consolation. The Congress (I) will have difficulty in finding an alternative. Says AICC (I) General Secretary A.K. Anthony: ‘Rajiv is the only leader who is acceptable to the rank and file of the party. The Haryana results are only temporary setbacks which we will overcome.’

But there is little doubt that Congressmen are increasingly concerned by the chain of election losses and scandals that have rocked the government. Though doubts about Rajiv’s ability to garner votes persist, partymen still rate him as the best electoral bet. V.P. Singh, the most likely candidate, has been getting a popular public response but over a dozen Congress (I) leaders interviewed by INDIA TODAY felt that he was incapable of carrying more than a fraction of the party along. Says a former Union minister: ‘There is always a difference between the image a politician has within the party and outside. In V.P. Singh’s case, the difference is exteme.’ They say that the crowds that flock to Singh’s meetings come to listen to a rebel lash out at the establishment. But Singh, restricted by the reality of the current situation, also has to swear loyalty to Rajiv. This dilutes his image – and his potential.

The appearance of V.P. Singh and Arun Nehru together at Arif Mohammed Khan’s residence in the capital last fortnight – supposedly to celebrate V.P. Singh’s belated birthday – in the presence of newsmen was meant to be a show of public solidarity. This can be read to mean that intra-party pressures may rise in the coming days, leading to a realignment of forces.

Even so, the situation is conducive to change. Says a party MP: ‘If changes are to be made in the states, they have to be made now. The new chief ministers need to be given at least two years to prepare the ground before the next election.’ Indeed, if dissent surfaces strongly in the coming months, the likelihood is that it will appear first in the states. Several party leaders actually seem delighted that Rajiv finds himself in the current mess. The continuing crisis of the last several months has brought him down several pegs vis-à-vis his party colleagues who suddenly find him much more accessible. The old-time Congressmen look on it as a blow to the political upstarts who had edged too close to the centre of power. Says a senior Orissa leader: ‘This setback will be good for Rajiv; he has had things going perfectly for too long. He is in this kind of mess for the first time in his political career. Even Sanjay did most of his political learning in the years that the party was out of power.’ Congressmen also believe that Rajiv is not an established leader like his mother was. Says one: ‘He is an emerging leader of the party and the country. The Opposition, which has no leader, is hell-bent on destabilizing him before he settles down.’

The general feeling in the party is that Rajiv can still recover if he plays his cards correctly in the coming months, not the least being a massive exercise to restore his image as Mr. Clean. He already enjoys the advantages of not only being young and energetic but also bearing the vote-catching aura of the Nehru-Gandhi name – a valuable asset which is difficult to substitute. To rebuild his image, he will have to do a V.P. Singh. In other words, continue raids against economic offenders no matter what their position. He also needs to distance himself from his affluent friends and prove his sincerity in implementing anti-poverty programmes. He has to appoint ministers of impeccable integrity and delegate full responsibility to them instead of allowing the Prime Minister’s Secretariat to become the crucible for all decisions, including vital ones on foreign policy. Besides, he will also have to be more open to dissenting opinion. Rajiv’s ministerial colleagues aver that his current method of dealing with dissent is to listen politely and then sideline anyone whose opinions do not tally with his own.

The message may have gone home already. Last fortnight he set up a 13-member committee headed by former Kerala chief minister K. Karunakaran and containing six other ex-chief ministers to review the Government’s socio-economic policies and submit recommendations within a month. He has also appointed a panel to suggest ways to revamp the party and hold organizational elections by January.

At the Government level, Rajiv has initiated a review of all the ministries to identify problem areas, and there were strong rumours that the Prime Minister’s Secretariat will be revamped. There is also the likelihood of a change of leadership in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa and Gujarat and a major reshuffle of the Union Cabinet which has five vacancies of cabinet rank.

But his key test will be the kind of people he appoints in the states and in the Cabinet. So far, Rajiv has come across as an irritating enigma. Flashes of brilliance interspersed with embarrassing ineptitude. It is time for the real Rajiv Gandhi to stand up – or fall.


A New President

by Anonymous Correspondent

[courtesy: Asiaweek, Hongkong, July 26, 1987, p. 13]

Normally, presidential elections in India are lacklustre affairs. For one thing, the role of the head of state is largely ceremonial. For another, he is selected by electoral college composed of members of the national Parliament and state assemblies, so the rousing tamasha of a general election is missing. The ninth presidential poll last week, however, generated considerable excitement, mainly because it followed months of acrimonious public feuding between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and outgoing president Zail Singh, who reportedly jockeyed unsuccessfully for a second term.

From the start, the clear favourite in the presidential race was vice president Ramaswami Venkataraman. He was the nominee of Gandhi’s ruling Congress (I) party, which holds majorities in both Houses and controls thirteen of 25 state assemblies. Venkataraman lived up to expectations, winning 72% of the weighted tally against 27% for his main rival, opposition-backed V.R. Krishna Iyer, a former Supreme Court judge. A third, independent contender, Mithilesh Kumar Sinha, polled less than 1%.

India’s president is elected by 3,919 legislators of state assemblies and 771 members of the national Parliament (nominated members are excluded). The ‘value’ of each vote is calculated according to a complex system of proportional representation. Each MP’s ballot is worth 702 points, but an assemblyman’s vote is weighted according to the population of his state. Thus a legislator from huge Uttar Pradesh notches 208 while one from tiny Sikkim rates only 7. Thanks to the Congress (I) strength in Parliament and populous-state assemblies, Venkataraman scored 740,148 against Krishna Iyer’s 281,550.

Venkataraman, 76, will be India’s eighth president. (The first, Dr Rajendra Prasad, served two terms under the present system.) Most have either been picked from the southern states or belonged to minority communities – Zail Singh is a Sikh. Like the defeated Krishna Iyer, Venkataraman is a Brahmin of the Iyer subcaste and hails from the south. Before becoming vice president in 1984, he served as minister of finance and later of defence in late premier Indira Gandhi’s cabinet.

The president-designate’s election with the Congress (I)’s full mandate did not necessarily ease Gandhi’s political troubles. Last week, Tourism Minister Mufti Mohamed Syed became the fourth minister this year to resign from the cabinet on a matter of principle. A day later, in what many saw as a clear warning that he would not tolerate open defiance, Gandhi sacked three prominent dissidents from the Congress (I). They were ex-ministers Vidya Charan Shukla, Arif Mohamed Khan and cousin Arun Nehru. Former defence minister V.P. Singh, who resigned in April and has now emerged as rebel leader, quit the party in protest.


Dissent and corruption haunt Gandhi’s regime: Into a mid-term crisis

by Salamat Ali

[courtesy: Far Eastern Economic Review, Hongkong, July 30, 1987, pp. 8-9]

Half-way through his five year term, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is fighting off the strongest threat to his leadership. With dissent surfacing in his ruling Congress Party both at the centre and in some of the key states of India’s Hindi-speaking heartland, he is faced with a deepening crisis.

For nearly two years after his triumph at the general election in December 1984, Gandhi ruled through a group of young and politically inexperienced technocrats and ignored with impunity the power brokers and stalwarts in the party. The same old guard have now become the most sought after people by Gandhi. But unlike his mother and predecessor – who could exploit the differences among the entrenched party leaders to her own advantage – Gandhi is discovering that he has ignored them too long and at his own peril.

Gandhi’s rule has been clouded by a host of domestic and international problems, many of which he inherited and some he bungled. Added to these problems was his style of functioning, which has exacerbated the latent dissent in the party. Since the beginning of this year, several of Gandhi’s colleagues in government have resigned on some pretext or other.

In recent weeks, as dissent assumed the proportions of a mini-revolt in the party, the prime minister ousted some former ministers – who were also power brokers in the Hindi heartland – from the ruling party itself. The most notable among those ousted from the Congress was V.P. Singh, the former finance and defence minister, who has enjoyed a reputation – rare in recent Indian politics – of being an honest and effective political leader and cabinet minister.

Politics started turning sour for Gandhi with the defeat of his party in the Kerala and West Bengal state polls in late March. V.P. Singh, free of cabinet responsibilities, began embarrassing the government with his public speeches on corruption in high places. As the uproar over kickback scandals mounted, the prime minister suffered a more serious blow in June when the Congress was routed in the Haryana state elections.

Meanwhile, the Congress was also preoccupied with finding a successor to President Zail Singh at the 14 July presidential election. The continuing differences between the president and the prime minister had been aired in the press and almost precipitated a constitutional crisis earlier this year. Gandhi’s problems were compounded in June as Zail Singh received at least three petitions seeking statutory permission to prosecute the prime minister on charges of corruption, which the press kept pursuing relentlessly.

In the event, Zail Singh did not seek a second term and the Congress nominee, Vice President R. Venkataraman, won the presidential poll handsomely. This was due to the Congress whip ensuring its party legislators voted for the nominee, and the disarray in the opposition ranks. So on 16 July, when the results of the presidential contest were announced, Gandhi savoured his first political victory in a long time. But the jubilation was marred somewhat, because on the previous day, Tourism Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed had resigned protesting the government’s failure to stamp out communal riots which have become increasingly bloody in recent months.

But the victory in the presidential elections emboldened Gandhi to expel on 16 July three former ministers-turned-dissidents from the party: Arun Nehru, V.C. Shukla, and Arif Mohammed Khan. The three expelled Congressmen are from Uttar Pradesh – the largest Indian state with a population of more than 100 million and 86 seats in the parliament’s lower house. The three, together with V.P. Singh –also from Uttar Pradesh – had launched a mass campaign against corruption and communalism and were attracting huge and responsive crowds in their state. They also mustered support from more than 100 dissident state legislators and many MPs. After his resignation, Sayeed refused to join the dissident foursome, but made clear his decision to plough his lone furrow.

Announcing their expulsion Gandhi accused them of anti-party activities but left V.P. Singh untouched initially, though the former finance minister had been far more scathing in his criticism than all the others combined. He had written a widely talked of letter to Gandhi in mid-July, demanding official action on issues such as the flight of capital from India, illegal Indian accounts in Swiss banks, corruption in defence purchases and other economic offences.

Angry over the expulsion of his associates, V.P. Singh wrote to Gandhi offering to leave the Congress and also the parliament. Gandhi declined the offer and replied to the letter that he had ordered an enquiry into the Swiss investments of Ajitabh Bachchan, the businessman brother of film star-turned-politician, Amitabh Bachchan, who had resigned his seat in the parliament a day earlier on Gandhi’s advice.

Congress officials told reporters on 18 July that while the three had indulged in anti-party activities, V.P. Singh had not. But only 24 hours later, on 19 July, Gandhi announced the expulsion of V.P. Singh, too, inviting a quip from the latter: ‘The only anti-party activity I have indulged in in the last 24 hours is to write to him [Gandhi] a letter about Ajitabh Bachchan’s Swiss money.’ It is believed that Gandhi has been too late in axing Amitabh Bachchan and could have achieved much better results had he done so some months ago. The former film star is among the group of young men around Gandhi who have been calling the shots from behind the scenes and are now accused of involvement in various scandals including the purchase of Bofors artillery guns from Sweden, which is the centre-piece of the anti-corruption campaign of the Congress dissidents.

Yet another resignation came in quick succession, as Arun Singh, the minister of defence production opted out. Arun Singh was highly regarded for competence by bureaucrats as well as the military top brass. The Bombay daily, Indian Post, reported that Arun Singh resigned because of the government’s decision to request Stockholm not to make public the names of middlemen in the Bofors deal.

The Swedes are said to have informed New Delhi earlier that because of rising pressure in Sweden itself, it might become necessary to publish the names of all middlemen who received commissions in various arms deals around the world, including India and Singapore. There have been allegations that Singaporean intermediaries violated Swedish laws in re-exporting Swedish arms to other countries. The Indian Express newspaper added that as the minister in charge of defence production, Arun Singh, had accepted the Swedish offer to send a delegation to India to give any details that India might want on the arms purchase. Returning from Moscow earlier this month, Gandhi had reversed the decision and the Swedes were told that India did not want the delegation to come.

Arun Singh asserted that his resignation was for personal reasons unrelated to his ministerial responsibilities and added that he would not join the dissidents, but would support Gandhi from outside the government. Arun Singh’s resignation might have something to do with Gandhi’s move to get rid of some of his erstwhile close associates. Congress sources told the REVIEW that the resignations of at least six other ministers were already with the prime minister to enable him to give a new look to the cabinet.

In the sphere of policies, Gandhi is said to be working on a series of populist economic measures. A 12-point programme given to him by some left wing economists has suggested to break with current policies, which are claimed to be favouring ‘affluent and middle-class consumerism’. The programme includes the nationalisation of the jute and cotton industries and the withdrawal of a tough anti-labour bill pending in parliament. But these attempts to refurbish the government’s image have been characterized by some as too little and too late.

At the state level, there is a strong threat to Congress unity in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, and Maharashtra. Dissident groups in these four states are demanding that the chief ministers, who are Gandhi’s nominees, be replaced with men acceptable to them. The pressure has intensified because of Gandhi’s obvious weakness now.

Former Maharashtra chief minister and currently the Rajasthan governor, Vasantdada Patil, met Gandhi on 14 July and told him that he could muster 150 or 160 dissident Maharashtra Congress legislators demanding the ouster of chief minister S.B. Chavan. Patil wanted his nominee, Sharad Pawar, to replace Chavan. Patil did not accept New Delhi’s idea of bringing Pawar into the central cabinet. Instead, he gave an ultimatum that the change he wanted must occur by 28 July. Gone are the days when Gandhi would have shown Patil the door.

The opposition Janata Party has decided to launch a mass movement to press for Gandhi’s resignation. West Bengal’s communist chief minister, Jyoti Basu, has called for a joint opposition programme to exploit the current crisis in the Congress party. He has also proposed that all non-Congress state governments must unite now to press New Delhi to accept their demands for decentralisation.

The Congress dissidents have decided to work on a two-pronged strategy: build up pressure from within and let V.P. Singh mobilize mass support from outside to force Gandhi out of the government. All the dissidents are professing loyalty to the party and its leadership but are demanding intra-party democracy. They seem to be confident of further boosting their strength after Gandhi makes the inevitable changes in his cabinet, and the Congress-ruled state governments as well as important party positions. Gandhi is also being advised to give up the presidency of the party.

However, despite all his woes, Gandhi and the ruling party are not yet down and out. There is still no credible alternative to the Congress, for there is very little in common between Congress dissidents and the opposition parties. Similarly, within the Congress there does not seem to be any leader in sight to inspire all-round confidence. V.P. Singh has a clean image but is not yet the leader acceptable to all, though most congressmen are desisting from criticizing his implicit attack on Gandhi. One medium-term possibility is a split in the Congress, a much weakened Gandhi and a steady erosion of his authority to rule.

Prelude to the Indo-LTTE War, Part III



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