To all appearances, the mercurial AIADMK general secretary has kept the BJP on a short leash, making it difficult for the government to function with dignity, and casting constant doubts about its longevity. At a deeper level, however, Dr J. Jayalalitha’s tantrums have served to distract attention from the Prime Minister’s daring initiatives, as the opposition parties are on tenterhooks, not knowing whether or not they will finally be able to cobble up an alternative arrangement.
The best example of this exclusivist national focus on ‘Amma’ is the ease with which Mr Vajpayee has been able to make imaginative overtures to the United States on the issue of its attacks on terrorist bases in Afghanistan. By offering tacit support to the US bombing, and skilfully linking this with the larger menace of cross-border terrorism of which India is a prominent victim, the BJP government has deftly reversed the anti-American tilt that has informed Indian foreign policy since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Simultaneously, it has put the Clinton administration in a bind over its continued support to Pakistan, the political patron of Taliban, the fundamentalist organisation controlling most of Afghanistan, which America now seeks to subjugate. As Pakistan has a well-documented history of sponsoring terrorism in India, especially Kashmir, the Pentagon will have its task cut out between not spurning New Delhi’s friendship and not condoning, or overlooking, Islamabad’s track record. We may thus be witnessing the beginning of an epochal realignment of forces on the international plane, which could see an evolving alliance between the world’s largest and most powerful democracies.
The Prime Minister deserves kudos for correcting this critical fault-line in our foreign policy. The groundwork was laid earlier, when India acquiesced in US anxiety not to cripple Pakistan’s fragile economy through sanctions, following the nuclear explosions by both countries. The result was a virtual non-imposition of economic sanctions on India, a factor that has helped protect the economy from considerable pressure at a time when Asian markets are under stress and the rouble has crumbled. It is another matter that commentators have chosen to focus upon the denial of visas to Indian scientists and curbs on technology transfers.
It would also not be premature to say that the US is reconciled to India’s nuclear status. There is greater receptivity to New Delhi’s sensitivities in the matter of testing missiles, the CTBT and the FMCT. We are likely to witness greater sympathy in the matter of ISI-sponsored terrorism, and perhaps tactical support should we pursue ‘hot pursuit’ while tackling militancy.
What is noteworthy about Mr Vajpayee’s brief tenure, from the moment Jayalalitha struck the first discordant note by refusing the send the letter of support to the President to the more recent brouhaha over the transfer of some officials, is his dogged adherence to the course to which he had committed his government. Thus, even as Jayalalitha made herself the butt of media scorn, the government stormed into the nuclear club and skilfully aborted the expected sanctions. India’s legitimate security concerns are also beginning to find receptive ears abroad.
On the home front, the budget has been passed, and despite the current spin in the markets, the industry-business lobby is contented because swadeshi has not merely ensured a ‘level playing field,’ but actually delivered an elevated field. Analysts who wonder how the government survived several dicey moments these past few months would do well to probe the part played by big business – the government survived because no money was forthcoming to ease it out!
Most commentators feel that the resolution of the Cauvery waters dispute in the face of Jayalalitha’s apoplexy and a rigid Supreme Court deadline was Vajpayee’s big moment. While not denying the achievement, I would say that with the cooperation of four Chief Ministers of different political persuasions, it was easy for the Prime Minister to take a stand. I rate his refusal to succumb to blackmail in the matter of sacking the Karunanidhi government his greatest act of statesmanship, especially as the latter’s allies wavered in order to make overtures to Jayalalitha.
All this does not mean that Mr Vajpayee should be complacent about Jayalalitha’s corrosive outbursts. While her failure to withdraw support because of the reluctance of her party MPs and front partners bestows the government with a perverse stability, the damage in terms of honour and prestige is immense. It also encourages opposition parties to attempt to oust the government, as can be seen from Sonia Gandhi ’s recent meetings with CPM leader H.S. Surjeet to drum up support for this endeavour.
While the Prime Minister’s desire to end the relationship with the AIADMK is understandable, those who pressed him to stay his hand at the recent Jaipur conclave have done the nation a service. They have spared us the spectacle of an unseemly squabble, with the ruling party poaching on other parties to survive. But their labours will bear fruit only if they use the breathing space provided by the current ceasefire with Jayalalitha to make her appreciate the extent of damage she is inflicting upon the polity, as well as her personal political credibility. At a time of rapid and far-reaching changes in society, economy, political equations, and international relations, her unpredictable behaviour denies the government the public perception of stability that it needs to steer the country across the cross currents.
Jayalalitha must be made to appreciate that she has vitiated the mandate given by Tamil voters when they gave her pact with the BJP a resounding victory earlier this year. The people did not view it as a ploy to end her political isolation and help her in the myriad cases against her. Historically, the thumping endorsement of the Jaya-Vajpayee alliance must be seen as a renunciation of the divisive Dravidian legacy that took secessionist overtones in the early decades of freedom before settling into a tactical, though remote, relationship with the ruling party at the Centre.
As the Brahmin leader of a backward-caste party, Jayalalitha symbolised this moment of healing the colonially-inspired split in the nation’s consciousness of unity, and defeating the fallacious north versus south and Hindi versus non-Hindi mindset. The return to a vision of wholeness under the auspices of the BJP is what invested the Jaya-Vajpayee covenant with a significance unrivalled by any other electoral pact, a realisation that caused tremendous heartburning in the Congress.
Jayalalitha, unfortunately, has forgotten the meaning the mandate, as a result of which she is trapped in a web of smallness, from which she can find no exit. Her front partners, being more sensitive to the popular psyche, are apprehensive of demeaning or bringing down the Vajpayee government. Even Karunanidhi, has taken his cue from the verdict and shown respect to New Delhi. More worthily, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has deferred to popular sentiments by incorporating the poet-saint Subramania Bharati in the Dravidian pantheon of heroes, thus building a bridge with the national mainstream.
The AIADMK leader must learn to rise above her impulses and perform her historic function with grace. The present state of volatile immobility, of constantly upsetting the apple cart only to restore it on discovering that she has nowhere to go, must end forthwith. Only then can the government receive the credit it deserves for some truly spectacular achievements. Its allies will naturally share in its lustre. As of now, Jayalalitha’s only contribution to the symphony is a perverse harmony.
29 August 1998, The Pioneer