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NO CONFIDENCE

Weary, puffed up and old, the prime minister rose on his uncertain legs at close to midnight to reply to a two-day long debate full of sound and fury but, apparently, signifying, to him, nothing. For, instead of rebutting the charges laid at his door, he opened by faulting the leader of the opposition for bringing nine charges against his government. How, he demanded, can she charge-sheet me' Jaswant Singh cowered in embarrassment for Vajpayee’s vernacular speech-writers had failed to ask Jaswant Lord Haw-Haw to explain to their Great Helmsman the difference between bringing charges in Parliament and framing a “charge-sheet” in a court or a police thana. So, the prime minister, whose strong suit has never been the subtle nuances of the Queen’s English, laboured on his point of propriety that as he was PM, nothing less, it did not behove a lady of doubtful origins to bring a “charge-sheet” against him. And age, perhaps, or just incomprehension, left him deaf to interruptions from the opposition reminding him of the stentorian terms in which his finance minister, in humbler days, always peppered his speeches with, “I charge the Government…” with whatever it was he charged the government of the day. Clearly, not even in his youthful prime had the Hindi translation of “charge” — whatever it is — got through to the prime minister.

Following up this bungling of charges and charge-sheets, the prime minister went on to a little homily about how it was quite improper, not at all genteel, not in keeping with old-world etiquette, not quite kosher, to accuse him and his ilk, as Sonia Gandhi had done, of “incompetence”.

One wondered what then was his preferred synonym for “incompetence” that would better describe the incompetence of the government he has presided over for five years — for the collapse of gross domestic product growth rates from the Manmohan Singh high of 7.7 per cent to a fraction over 4 per cent in the last four years (1999-2003), the lowest average rate of growth since Vajpayee and Advani and George Fernandes were ministers in Morarji Desai’s ill-fated Janata Party government (1977-79). As for agriculture having slowed to virtual stagnation, foodgrains output having fallen by 3 per cent last year, handlooms extinguished, small industry in its death throes, employment growth having sunk to the lowest since the first five year plan, foreign investment, direct and portfolio, having dried up, and the stock market being frozen at 3,000 for 25 months since the disaster of March-April 2001, driving savings and investment rates down to what they were in the Eighties — all of which had been highlighted in opposition interventions over the previous 48 hours. The prime minister had nothing, absolutely nothing, to say beyond deploring the semantic correctness of using the word “incompetent” to describe his incompetence.

Next came a weird plaint about how foreign policy used to be a national consensus and why should it be questioned now that he has two flop summits with Pakistan behind him and a painful dragging of his knees before the Americans until the Congress strengthened his nerve to say “No” to Indian jawans dying for the Yanks in Iraq' Nor did he answer why he and his motley ranks (read Advani) hailed Pokhran-II as a “turning point”, the great and noble act of exploding a bomb that others had prepared, which, it was claimed, had turned India into a super-power' If, indeed, this were the case, then was not Chagai the Pakistani “turning point”' And if we had so impressed the world with our nuclear might, how is it that Kargil took but a twelve-month from Pokhran to unfold' And how come China thought they should honour the PM’s visit to Beijing with a blow across the border in Arunachal Pradesh (just as they had celebrated Foreign Minister Vajpayee’s “historic, path-breaking” visit to China in 1979 with their delicately timed invasion into Vietnam which sent Vajpayee scurrying for cover back to Delhi post-haste)' And where was the “turning point” in marching lakhs upon lakhs of our troops to the frontier for ten long months, so little fazing the Pakistanis that we simply had to march our men back again' All these were points raised in Vajpayee’s personal presence in the House. Yet, answer came there none.

No answer either to the detailing by the opposition (read l’il ole me) of the Subrahmanyam committee report or the absurdity of the PM’s defence minister (I stress, “the PM’s defence minister” for Georgie-Porgie Tehelka is no defence minister of mine) giving on the floor of our Parliament (not, please note, the Pakistani Parliament) the same lame excuse which Pervez Musharraf has trotted out for Kargil — that while the line of control has been “delimited” on a small map, it has not been “delineated” entirely on the ground' So, the government of India does not know where the LoC lies' And this is the man the prime minister wants as his defence minister' A joker who actually wrote (in his Foreword dated December 17, 1999 — four months before Kargil — to the Penguin edition of D.R. Mankekar’s The Guilty Men of 1962) that Pokhran-II had exploded “the well-fostered myth” of the “threat from Pakistan”' Myth' The threat from Pakistan' The defence minister thinks the threat from Pakistan is a “myth”'

Instead of dealing with any of this, or the mysteries of the self-styled most “transparent” defence minister in our history refusing to share key documents on dodgy defence deals with Parliament’s public accounts committee, the prime minister went into an absurdist panegyric of the virtues of a man who loans his official drawing room to his party president to talk to defence middle-men not above offering a little something to sweeten the mouths of delegates to a party convention.

In his rambling, incoherent, midnight meanderings, the prime minister answered not one of the many questions put by the opposition, failed to enlighten the nation on any of its doubts, and disgraced what he kept reminding us was a career of half a century of parliamentary oration. In half a century, he seems to have learned nothing of executive responsibility to Parliament. It really is time he is put to grass.

The purpose of the motion of no-confidence was to establish that Vajpayee is now past it. He did not get the message. But, thanks to the continuous country-wide telecast of the avidly watched debate, the country did. Which is why the crowd that turned up after the no-confidence debate to cheer Sonia Gandhi at the Bawana rally in Outer Delhi far exceeded in numbers — and, more important, in enthusiasm — the pre-no-confidence rally in East Delhi. Not the vote in the Lok Sabha but the November state assembly elections will show the outcome of the no-confidence motion. As will November foreshadow the end of the Vajpayee era at the next Lok Sabha elections. Bye, bye, Vajpayee. Hello, Soniaji.

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