Better late than never. The prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has decided, many would say at last, to exert and express his authority. It is crucial for a prime minister — especially for Mr Vajpayee since he heads a coalition government — to be perceived as the prime minister within and without the government. Of late, this is not the way the prime minister has been perceived. Outside the government there have been reports of his failing health and the growing impression that he is either not in control or no longer interested in the job. Within the government, there has been the rise of Mr L.K.Advani who is clearly being projected by his supporters as the prime minister-in-waiting. Other ministers too have not been quite as respectful of Mr Vajpayee’s position as they were before. Governance suffered as did the image of the prime minister. The latter touched a nadir during the pogrom in Gujarat when it was obvious that Mr Vajpayee was incapable of moving against the chief minister of Gujarat, Mr Narendra Modi. The prime minister’s reprimand of Mr Modi was fumbling and weak. In Goa, at the meeting of the national executive of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the prime minister was in some discomfort as he spoke in terms that run against the grain of his own personal beliefs. Nobody could be blamed for deriving the conclusion that Mr Vajpayee was on borrowed political time.
Mr Vajpayee’s speech on Wednesday belies this conclusion. The choice of words, the thinly veiled barb and the newly-recovered body language — all these conveyed that there is life in the old Adam yet. It was Mr Vajpayee in the way his admirers want to remember him best. He came down on the tendency to form cabals within the cabinet: a clear hit at the meeting of Mr George Fernandes, Mr Murli Manohar Joshi and Mr Ram Naik to put a stop on disinvestment. What was at issue was not disinvestment per se, but the authority of the prime minister. Mr Vajpayee, in no uncertain terms, made it clear that he was in charge and that he was in no mood to tolerate sniping at his authority. The target of this was not only a handful of recalcitrant cabinet colleagues but also sections of the sangh parivar which have been trying to undermine the prime minister’s position. If Mr Vajpayee follows up this return to form then Mr K.S. Sudarshan, who has begun to flex his muscles against the prime minister, can look forward to another spell out in the sticks.
The operative words are follow up. The declaration of authority and the show of confidence manifested on Wednesday cannot be allowed to become a flash in the pan. This time round a pause between this declaration of authority and the next will spell the beginning of the end of this prime ministerial writ. Mr Vajpayee has already allowed things to drift too much. He cannot afford any more to be seen as a prime minister propped up by a strong deputy prime minister. The pecking order should be clarified and the word deputy underlined for all concerned. Mr Vajpayee’s second innings will show if this is a genuine return to form.