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BOOK EXCERPT: Vajpayee, The Years That Changed India

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Even before the terrible murder of the Staines had occurred, the narrative that minorities, especially the Christians, were under attack had gained considerable traction. The level of communal violence was actually quite low, but perceptions are important and the BJP was lagging in this.

BOOK EXCERPT: Vajpayee, The Years That Changed India
Since the BJP is at the core of the alliance, it shall make every effort to ensure that the prestige and cohesiveness of the coalition are not diluted by organisations belonging to its ideological fraternity.’
—Resolution of the NDA Coordination Committee, 2 February 1999
After the horrible months of most of 1998, with Vajpayee gradually clawing back his autonomy but with the situation mostly in crisis mode, it was difficult to believe that the Vajpayee government had any other way to exist. It was a constant struggle to set the new agenda—meant to lift the trajectory of the country so that it would be recognized as an emerging powerhouse.
Not that the external environment was particularly hospitable, despite Vajpayee’s best efforts to tell the ‘free world’ that their hopes of China evolving like one of them was going nowhere; instead, it was with India that there was a convergence of interest and values.
If Vajpayee was not taken as seriously as he should have been, it was not just because of the minuscule size of the Indian economy but also because of the doubts about Vajpayee’s longevity as a PM and his ability to push India forward, weighed down as he was by the political baggage of a fractious alliance and intra-party challenges. Lahore and his assertion domestically was potentially a game-changer.
The NDA Coordination Committee met yet again on 2 February 1999. This was meant to be one more attempt at trying and salvaging the government. On the one hand, there was a certain ambiguity about what the stance of the BJP’s ideological partners—the members of the Sangh Parivar, like the VHP, Bajrang Dal, Swadeshi Jagran Manch or even the RSS—would be on economic policies.
Even before the terrible murder of the Staines had occurred, the narrative that minorities, especially the Christians, were under attack had gained considerable traction. The level of communal violence was actually quite low, but perceptions are important and the BJP was lagging in this.
The Coordination Committee made it clear that the onus of keeping its ideological cousins under control was on the BJP. However, the meeting balanced this by calling upon all coalition partners to ensure that none of them ‘shall publicly voice its opposition dissent to any policy or order of the government’.
As expected, Jayalalithaa did not attend the meeting, and Thambidurai, who did, was not authorized to sign any document. A few days later, when Fernandes met Jayalalithaa, she refused to endorse the agreed statement of the meeting, highlighting the part about partners agreeing not to go public with their disagreement about government policies and actions. She clarified that she did not object to it but had her reservations.
However, though Chandrababu Naidu also did not attend, he was not about to withdraw his support to the government. Mamata Banerjee had walked out of the Coordination Committee in November 1998 in protest against the ‘neglect’ of West Bengal, particularly in terms of railway projects, and refused to budge. But she, too, was not likely to pull down the government.
Responding to the demands of its allies, the government had rolled back wheat and rice price hikes in the public distribution system (PDS) for the below poverty- line (BPL) families but managed to retain it for others. The extra burden was a steep Rs 1800 crore.
Vajpayee
Though Vajpayee’s Lucknow press meet was noted more for his announcement of accepting Nawaz Sharif’s invitation to visit Lahore, he had also used this platform to inform the media that there were to be no further rollbacks. He called fora fresh look at the economics of subsidies and clarified that the government was willing to take tough decisions.
Vajpayee was forced to say this, as there were persistent questions about his government’s inability to say ‘no’ and stick to doing what it had announced. The tensions within the coalition were best expressed in a Hindustan Times editorial of 4 February (‘Back from the Brink’), which said that this was a case of one step forward, two steps back. The editorial also said that there was a distressing pattern of the allies and the organizational wing of the BJP pushing the coalition to the edge of the precipice and then pulling back in the nick of time.
--Excerpts from the chapter – “The Fall”. Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India. Price INR 599, title releases on December 25.

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