Mr PM, Your Wishes My Wishes For 2003

Updated: Dec 29 2002, 05:30am hrs
A strange peace has descended on the country. It may have something to do with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayees birthday. Or the inauguration of the Delhi Metro. Or the successful completion of the National Games in Hyderabad. Or the launch of Reliances nationwide telecom services. I welcome the peace. I only hope it is not the proverbial calm before the storm.

I was moved by Mr Vajpayees remark that he may have two to four more years of public life. We wish him a long life, and I admire him for the admission that he would have to step down in two to four years. In some ways, it is an intriguing statement.

Two years would mean that he intends to step down when his government will complete five years in office and the next elections are called. On the other hand, four years would mean that he intends to lead the BJP in the next elections, hope to win them and return as prime minister.

As the new year dawns, the crucial question is what does Mr Vajpayee intend to do over the next 22 months Will he allow his ministers to indulge in talk and more talk Or will he crack the whip and get down to the business of governance

On the political front, will he assert his authority as Prime Minister and leader of the BJP and rein in the Modis, the Togadias, the Singhals and the Uma Bharatis

Or will he remain morally blind to the outrageous slurs that are being hurled everyday at those who do not subscribe to the perverse philosophy of cultural nationalism, particularly at the people who believe in other religions

Governance All About Choices
At every turn, the Prime Minister will be faced with choices. The choice, for a prime minister, must always be determined not by any immediate electoral or political advantage, but by the lasting benefits that it will bring to the nation as a whole.Here are some issues on which choices have to be made.

First, Indias relations with Pakistan. Pakistan is a neighbour, shares a border with India, a theocratic State, and more likely to be ruled by a military dictator than a democratically elected Prime Minister. It cannot be wished away. Pakistan covets the Kashmir Valley. India will not yield under any circumstances. So what do we do For over a year, the government amassed 700,000 troops on the border and spent more than Rs 10,000 crore on such mobilisation. That could not prevent infiltration or the horrible crime at Godhra or the audacious assault on the Akshardham temple.

Vajpayee must therefore change course, and begin a dialogue at two levels. The first must be within Kashmir, with all sections of the political leadership and taking advantage of (not ridiculing) the healing process initiated by chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. The second level must be with Pakistan.

Bilateralism is not an unalterable principle. All over the world, conflicts have been resolved using the good offices of mediators. It is wrong to imagine that Indias sovereignty will be diminished if the talks are facilitated or the dispute is mediated by a third country. Mr Vajpayee has a great opportunity to break away from the past and put India and Pakistan on the road to a final resolution of the dispute over Kashmir. An obvious solution is to convert the Line of Control into an International Border.

The Hurdles
Mr Vajpayee must also make a choice between policy drift and policy decisions in matters concerning the economy. Why are some people happy with government control The reason is it enables rent seeking. Ministers want control, so they oppose disinvestment. Bureaucrats want control, so they write meaningless rules and regulations. Bankers want control, so they put retired bankers on the boards of companies. Judges want control, so they ente the field reserved for the executive branch under the pretext that the executive has failed to act.

Government policies must be designed to break this sranglehold of controls. There is no better place to begin than disinvestment in PSUs and downsizing of the Central government. Before the year 2003 is out, Mr Vajpayee must ensure that at least two dozen PSUs (including some banks) are privatised and that totally redundant jobs in the Central government are abolished. When these two processes are finally under way, a firm message will go out to every section that Vajpayees Government means business and will walk the walk of economic reforms.

The Idea Of India
The greatest challenge of 2003 will be to the very idea of India. When Vajpayee responded to Pravin Togadia and asked, Has not India been a Hindu Rashtra for over two thousand years, I believe he was trying to deflate Togadia and not endorse the mischievous doctrine of Hindu Rashtra. But that is not enough. The two rulers of India who deservedly are called Great were Asoka the Great and Akbar the Great. Both were non-Hindus. They earned their greatness by being inclusive rulers. Kings like Aurangzeb, who ruled by the sword, not only ended a dynasty but were also condemned by history.

What kind of nation does Vajpayee want to rule and how does he wish to be remembered by posterity Let Mr Vajpayee call a meeting of BJP party workers in a town like Aurangabad or Kanpur or Jabalpur. I dare say that there will not be a single Muslim in that gathering, and I would be surprised if there was a Christian or a Sikh. The BJP may be happy being the party of the majority community, but Mr Vajpayee cannot be happy being the PM of a majoritarian government. After Gujarat, the alienation of the minority communities is nearly complete. A ruler cannot be blind to the political incorrectness of Venkaiah Naidu or Uma Bharti who rail against so-called minorityism. Despite his famous backwoodsman image, President George Bush did not hesitate to condemn Senator Trent Lott (the third most powerful Republican leader) for his remarks that appeared to endorse segregation. Cultural nationalism is no less pernicious than segregation, because the sub-text of both is majoritariarism. Mr Vajpayee must reclaim the moral high ground that he seems to have lost during the Gujarat elections and post-Gujarat.

If wishes were horses... My fervent hope is not that my wishes will be horses, but my wishes for 2003 will also be Mr Vajpayees wishes.

(The writer is former Union finance minister)