A 'resign' of our times Back   Home  
A perception of weakness creates the reality of weakness. Power is not the ability to give orders. Power is the capacity to get them obeyed. Mr Vajpayee was on the verge of becoming powerless. He resigned to regain his authority. He realised that there was a chance that his gamble might backfire... Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee has saved his government, because his government is worthless without him.
IS any Prime Minister serious when he, or indeed she, offers to resign? This is the job to die for, isn't it? Or, if you are lucky enough, this is the job to die with. Should we take a Prime Minister who offers to resign with a tablespoon full of salt?

There are Prime Ministers who have to be taken out of office kicking and screaming. The elderly cocktail circuit in Delhi still amuses itself with stories about which senior Congressman lost his future because he wanted to "rescue" Mrs Indira Gandhi from her present after the Allahabad High Court judgment in 1975. Even the mild and mannered Sardar Swaran Singh was apparently among those who wanted to save the Congress by stepping into temporarily of course, very temporarily the Prime Minister's kursi. That was the end of the good Sardar. Jagjivan Ram had similar ideas, but wisely preferred to keep them to himself. Mrs Gandhi never trusted him again. She preferred the advice of men like Siddhartha Shankar Ray and Deb Kanta Barooah who told Mrs Gandhi that the law was subservient to the national interest, that she was the national interest, and that any talk of her resignation was a conspiracy hatched by the CIA (that famous foreign hand), and that India would disintegrate if she was not made Prime Minister for life. Prime Ministers tend to like such advice. Indira Gandhi took her indispensability so seriously that she transferred the responsibility for saving the nation to her heirs as well, choosing a young and rather rude and immature younger son for the honour. It soon became a question of the whole family never having to resign.

P.V. Narasimha Rao never confused himself with his family, although his family was never reluctant to link its fortunes with his. Treat "fortune" as a literal word in this context. But there was never any question of Rao resigning either, although he caused and provoked the greatest crisis in Congress history after the Emergency, when, deliberately, callously and consciously he presided over the destruction of the Babri mosque. Resignation? What kind of animal is that? Anyone who dared to raise even a mild question, like M.L. Fotedar, was punished. Sycophants, like his favourite Muslim ministers, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Salman Khurshid, "begged" with him to remain Prime Minister and of course save the nation, for which they were handsomely rewarded with power and protection. This was the true tradition of the office. Power could never be shared with accountability. Rao left no space for dissidence, let alone revolt.

That chair becomes so addictive that Prime Ministers simply refuse to face the truth even when it stares them in the face, pleading hard to be recognised. They become a parody of themselves as they surrender to illusion. Towards the end of his tenure Narasimha Rao spent a great deal of time with astrologers (including a regular from Chennai imported by fawning courtiers) who predicted that he would win 350 seats in the 1996 general elections (he got 141, a figure repeated by Sitaram Kesri but not by Sonia Gandhi, who managed to bring it down to 112 by 1999). Any astrologer who dared to predict that Rao would end his days fighting court cases was dismissed with imperious disdain.

Maya. Illusion has claimed more than one Prime Minister. Even H.D. Deve Gowda began to entertain thoughts of worthiness instead of generally thanking his stars that he had hit some extraordinary lottery. He would not resign even after the Congress withdrew support and forced a bitter, name-calling, televised debate in the Lok Sabha before being forced out of office. Inder Gujral was bewildered and equally bitter when his turn came, and the Congress tripped its potential friends in order to pave the way for an alleged foe, the BJP. Vishwanath Pratap Singh was the most sensible by far of the brief PMs, fully conscious that he could not purchase an extension with the currency of compromise, but he too wanted an untenable lifeline from Rajiv Gandhi's Congress, "for a few months more". When Chandra Shekhar actually resigned rather than face continual provocations from his Congress allies, everyone was stunned. Prime Ministers do not leave the most powerful office in the country; they have to be either pushed by mortals or picked up by the immortals.

Morarji Desai could have kept the Janata alive although to what purpose, it is difficult to say by making way for the ambitious Charan Singh. But he preferred to fight, and took Charan Singh eventually with him. Charan Singh never resigned either, although he was never confirmed in office by Parliament; he sat in that chair until the people threw him out in an election. Indira Gandhi did send a thank you note to Charan Singh for enabling her to return to office, but she should in all fairness have sent one to Morarji as well.

Lal Bahadur Shastri was in office for too short a while to contemplate resignation, but one wonders what he would have done if the popular mood had turned against him after the Tashkent agreement. Lal Bahadur was, after all, famous for having resigned as railways minister after an accident.

What is not well known is that Jawaharlal Nehru was once very keen to resign. Paradoxically, this was not after the Chinese war debacle but before that when the sun was shining in his life and all was well with the world. When the Congress, reflecting popular anger, demanded that someone take responsibility for the humiliation of 1962, Indira Gandhi, who had become a political advisor in addition to being a beloved and trusted daughter, ruled out her father's resignation with a hint of the steel that she was to show later. Instead V.K. Krishna Menon was thrown to the Congress wolves, who satiated their appetite on a hated target. The Congress was appeased but not the country, with consequences visible in the 1967 elections. If the Indo-China war had happened before the 1962 general elections rather than after them, the history of India would have been a different story.

Jawaharlal was very serious about resigning circa 1958-59. His reason was too human to sound credible these days. He just wanted a break. He was tired. Tired of the bickering and the interminable conflicts among Congressmen that disrupted and sabotaged policy. And tired, physically. He was edging towards 70 and wanted some time to read and write and enjoy a sabbatical. One person who dissuaded him from any such option was the American President Dwight Eisenhower, who wrote a long and personal letter to this effect. The two leaders got along better than they allowed the world to know. Still, it is unlikely that Nehru would have resigned, with or without the Eisenhower letter.

The sheer power of the Prime Minister's job, and its ability to suck you into that fantasy-land where an instrument becomes more important than the objective: this is where the human being, however tired, never retires.

So is there anything about Atal Behari Vajpayee's resignation that makes it anything more than a ploy in an internal game? We must assume that the Prime Minister is a politician and not a saint. There was no real risk in the Prime Minister's sudden brinkmanship. But every such exercise peels off one more layer of credibility to reveal levels of inner vulnerability.

This resignation confirmed, better than any story, every allegation and rumour of bitter infighting at the highest levels of the BJP.

Mr Vajpayee has faced so many crises during his two terms (yes, two, the first of thirteen days) as Prime Minister that he must have become immune by now. But never has he offered to resign. At the heart of every previous challenge to his government lay the behaviour of some partner in what began as an improbable coalition but matured, thanks almost completely to the maturity and leadership displayed by Mr Vajpayee, into a functioning alliance. Not only did he have to contend with a historic problem (coalitions have been bad news since 1967), but he also had to deal with the BJP's untouchability, thanks to its own past and its aggressive temple movement. The victory of 1999 in particular was a Vajpayee victory. The voter punished the Congress for its temerity in wanting to replace a Prime Minister it considered decent and capable.

Enemies have rarely been Mr Vajpayee's problem. One cannot be equally sanguine about his friends. The syndrome has travelled a step further.

This is the first time that Mr Vajpayee has been challenged, and ferociously, by friends within the BJP rather than friends within the alliance. The displeasure of allies never provoked a resignation, as we saw when he stood and fought his ground during the no-confidence motion of 1999. He was driven to resignation by the challenge from Mr L.K. Advani, who had clearly lost faith in his own Prime Minister. Nothing else could possibly have driven Mr Vajpayee to such an extreme step.

It is an old story now that the challenge began over the Agra Summit. The squeeze started there. That was the political blow. But others soon followed with a nasty personal campaign that alleged corruption by those closest to the Prime Minister. They were in fact alleging that the Prime Minister himself was corrupt since he was deliberately permitting corruption in his own home.

If Mr Vajpayee had not responded, he would have lost power in any case.

A perception of weakness creates the reality of weakness. Power is not the ability to give orders. Power is the capacity to get them obeyed. Mr Vajpayee was on the verge of becoming powerless. He resigned to regain his authority. It is no accident that he did so in as public a place as he could find. He realised that there was a chance that his gamble might backfire. Before he left home that morning for the parliamentary party meeting he joked that he hoped that someone was looking for a place for him to stay after he left 7 Race Course Road. He expected to win, but he could not be certain.

Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee has saved his government, because his government is worthless without him. But has he saved himself?

The answer to that is not certain either.
This article was published in DailyStar of Bangladesh. Author M.J.Akbar is the editor of AsianAge. I like his articles..because they are littly witty some times.