Illegitimacy of ‘national government’

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Rashtrapati Bhavan has leaked, or caused to be leaked, the information that President K.R. Narayanan sent a written communication to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee two weeks ago, asking him to convene a Rajya Sabha session to discuss the Kargil situation. Given its expressed reluctance to call the session, the government had no interest in making the Presidential missive public. Hence the source of the leak must lie elsewhere, and the needle of suspicion points to Rashtrapati Bhavan itself.

Circumstantial evidence supports this view. Mr. Vajpayee has kept Mr. Narayanan fully informed about the Kargil events, and the latter has also had direct briefings from the three service chiefs; an unusual practice, even though the President is supreme commander of the armed forces. Nevertheless, the government has scrupulously avoided taking or giving offence, though Mr. Vajpayee has communicated his misgivings about convening the Rajya Sabha and sending out mixed signals when New Delhi is winning the military and diplomatic offensive, and a few weeks of resolute determination could end the conflict with a resounding Indian victory.

Any reasonable President should have no difficulty in understanding and accepting the government’s point of view. Indeed, it is not even within Mr. Narayanan’s jurisdiction to advise, much less attempt to force, the government to convene the Rajya Sabha if it is not so inclined. However, recent visitors to Rashtrapati Bhavan, such as the CPI delegation, have publicly claimed that the President favours a session, and these claims have not been denied. Even more suggestive is Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s hour-long meeting with the President last fortnight to press the same demand. Subsequently, when Mr. Vajpayee met Mr. Narayanan the next day to convey his view that the session was unnecessary, he faced an implacable President.

This dangerous Presidential tilt towards political groups that are desperate about their chances in the forthcoming general elections is one of the most unhappy episodes in our contemporary history. The opposition has no real differences with the government on Kargil. Despite vulgar hair-splitting about the long-term implications of India’s stupendous diplomatic triumph in isolating Pakistan on the issue, the fact is that the opposition has no alternative course of action to suggest. It is only frustrated that it cannot share Mr. Vajpayee’s triumph in an assured Indian victory. Hence the talk of ‘national government,’ ‘national committee,’ et al. Sonia Gandhi, Inder Gujral, H.S. Surjeet & Co. will have to accept that this is the price they have to pay for bringing down the government and then forcing the nation to accept a delayed election.

Coming back to the President, it is truly unfortunate that he does not seem to have introspected upon the pass to which his unprecedented activism has brought the nation. His directive that Mr. Vajpayee seek a vote of confidence rather than let the opposition move a no-confidence motion led to the premature fall of the government, and checkmated the desperately awaited economic take off. Then, he gave an inexcusably long rope to Sonia Gandhi to muster a majority in support of her claim to Prime Ministership, and allowed himself to appear party to the dubious efforts to somehow install a non-BJP government. And now, he appears on the side on those wishing to embarrass the government at a time of virtual war. This conduct is wholly unjustifiable in constitutional terms.

Politicians and pundits, who claim that the Pakistani aggression was the result of a perceived weakness of government, would do well to assess the extent to which the President’s role contributed to Islamabad’s belief that it could succeed in its adventurism. It is simply deplorable that when the government is coping with such a grim situation, winning back lost positions peak by peak and ensuring that Islamabad’s international pals and patrons do not gang up against India in this crisis, Presidential bias should again seek to upset the apple-cart.

It was an obviously upset Mr. Vajpayee who came out of Rashtrapati Bhavan and announced a willingness to consider calling a Rajya Sabha session. Back in South Block, however, his fighter instincts must have recovered sufficiently to resist the unjust demand. The argument that the session is essential to take the opposition into confidence on the conflict is specious. Two all-party meetings have been held, and a Chief Ministers’ conference is slated for next week. Besides, Sonia Gandhi had a separate audience with the Prime Minister, even though her party was well represented at the first conclave. What is more pertinent, none of the important leaders of the major national and regional parties are members of the Rajya Sabha. Hence, with the Lok Sabha dissolved, the all-party meeting is the most appropriate forum for an exchange of information and views on Kargil.

It would be appropriate to mention here that when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee into confidence about the decision to declare war on Pakistan in 1971, the dialogue took place in confidence. Mr. Vajpayee did not shout from the rooftops that he wanted to know what the government was doing about the refugees pouring into West Bengal, nor did he ever hint that he was privy to its plans. If my memory serves me right, it was only in 1974 (three years after the war) that the Washington correspondent of India Today revealed that the government had taken two prominent citizens into confidence before declaring war. One was Mr. Vajpayee. The second was the eminent journalist, the late Mr. Girilal Jain, who played a major role in persuading Mrs. Gandhi to go to war.

Prima facie, it would appear that there is some merit in the government’s fear that the Rajya Sabha session is a ploy to pass a resolution demanding a ‘national government’ or some such weird arrangement under which the parties that brought down the government can claim ‘credit’ for India’s certain victory. It must be galling for the anti-BJP parties to see Mr. Vajpayee getting away with so much in the space of just fifteen months – Pokharan, Agni, and now Kargil. But into each life some rain must fall, and Fate has intervened decisively to ensure that no matter how brief his tenure, Mr. Vajpayee shall be more than a footnote in history.

Mr. Vajpayee is within his rights to tell the President to conduct himself within the limits set by the constitution, and desist from constitutional engineering at a time when the nation is coping with an undeclared war and the economy is grappling with prolonged political uncertainty. It is not the President’s job to serve as opposition to the government in the absence of a parliamentary opposition.

What is more, any proposal for a “national government” must be treated with the contempt it deserves. It should be made clear to one and all that the country has a legitimate government, which is constitutionally bound to remain in office until a successor government is duly elected. The ‘national government’ is the bastard child of unviable politicians and frustrated intellectuals who want power without responsibility. It is an imbecile, unworkable concept, and one has to be singularly dishonest and vain to even propound the notion. It is hardly surprising that its principal proponent is Mr. I.K. Gujral, a man who became Prime Minister by freak, to fill in a political vacuum. He should be laughed out of court.

The Pioneer, 6 July 1999

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