After the National Democratic Alliance lost the Lok Sabha elections last year, as Manmohan Singh was in the process of putting final touches to his cabinet and deciding the portfolios of the UPA ministers, there was a crucial, but secret, top-level exchange of views between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress.
A man who aptly fits the description of 'Vajpayee's Vajpayee' because of his proximity to the outgoing prime minister, explained to a Congress leader in the party's very top rung of leadership why Vajpayee was determined that the BJP should keep all the sensitive portfolios and not share them with allies in the NDA when he formed the government in 1998 and again in 1999. The only exception was George Fernandes, but Vajpayee was convinced that Fernandes had earned the nation's trust with decades of public service: his life was an open book.
'Vajpayee's Vajpayee' told the Congress leader on this occasion that he hoped the incoming United Progressive Alliance government would use the same yardstick while distributing portfolios. 'We are now a nuclear weapons state and that carries its own responsibilities', the Congress leader was reminded. Implicit in this advice was the hope that, like the BJP in the outgoing dispensation, the Congress would reserve all the sensitive ministries for its nominees alone in the new cabinet.
Those in the BJP who knew about this exchange with the Congress leadership were immensely relieved when Manmohan Singh announced the portfolios of new ministers. The Congress kept home, defence, external affairs, finance and so on. No UPA ally, no regional party, whose national vision or interest was confined to the borders of states where it operated, got charge of any portfolio that directly affected national security. Singh had set at rest widespread worries that Laloo Prasad Yadav might get charge of the Union home ministry or that Ram Vilas Paswan might get defence.
This columnist will not identify the interlocutors in this episode because both the Vajpayee emissary and the Congress leader will deny that such a conversation ever took place. Realpolitik demands that any such dialogue between arch enemies in politics at the time of ministry-formation be unequivocally denied by both sides.
But this was one of the finest hours for Indian democracy. The country's two main political parties were rising above their partisan political divisions and cooperating on an issue of vital national interest, just as politicians in the United States of America and western Europe have worked together for centuries in times of national crises in a bipartisan spirit. Sure, it is possible that even without the BJP's advice, the Congress leadership may have kept key portfolios for its ministers. Maybe, the advice from the outgoing government had nothing to do with that decision: that is something which only historians will reveal.
But it is necessary to recall this episode now because the Manmohan Singh government is breaking the spirit of that vital understanding ' it does not matter whether the BJP's advice was taken or not ' by which the Congress kept portfolios such as home, defence and external affairs to itself. In recent weeks, the country has witnessed the unedifying spectacle of a free-for-all among parties, which make up the ruling coalition and its supporters, on issues of foreign policy and national security. Many such leaders, from Prakash Karat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to T.R. Baalu of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, have shared their wisdom on security issues with the people of India. That, in itself, does no damage, but it becomes a problem when these regional leaders ' in some cases, leaders without any base anywhere in India ' insist that the prime minister should convert their view of the world into the nation's policy ' or else!
Just imagine what would have happened if Manmohan Singh was the head of a UPA government on May 11, 1998, the day India proclaimed that it was a nuclear weapons state. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to test a nuclear weapon that day, only a handful of people at the heart of policy-making in New Delhi knew about his decision. Had Singh been prime minister instead, the way things are now in the UPA, all hell would have broken loose.
K. Chandrasekhar Rao, president of the Telengana Rashtra Samiti and Union minister for labour and employment, would have, in all probability, made his party's support for the nuclear tests conditional on the creation of a separate Telengana state. The Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam would have insisted that New Delhi recognize the Tamil Eelam as a separate state and set up an embassy in Jaffna before its representatives in the Union cabinet voted for any measure that would be a logical follow-up to the nuclear tests. The CPI(M), on the other hand, would have demanded the immediate resignation of Manmohan Singh and a prime ministerial replacement who would unequivocally declare, before he is sworn in, that the Pokhran tests posed no threat of any kind, now or in the future, to China.
There would be an unending procession of open dissent within the Union cabinet and opposition to the nuclear tests in any UPA forum. Echoing a statement by Bill Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, US Senator Jesse Helms, then chairman of the senate foreign relations committee, had said after Pokhran-II that 'the Indian government has not shot itself in the foot ' it has most likely shot itself in the head.' Such statements would have proved to be prophetic: the shooting would have been done, not by the Americans or others elsewhere in the world opposed to India's emergence as a nuclear weapons state, but by the constituents of the UPA.
The problem is not the prime minister's clarity of vision or the growing willingness of the Congress to run a coalition, but the very composition of the UPA. Despite some differences within, the NDA was a cohesive alliance in comparison to the present ruling coalition. Unlike the Congress and its allies, the BJP and its NDA partners were not at each other's throats in the states. Except in Haryana for a limited time, the NDA partners worked together both at the Centre and in the states, in governance and in fighting elections, as long as the NDA remained what it was when Vajpayee was leading it as prime minister.
Besides, the NDA's sole raison d'tre was not to keep the Congress out of power. Deep down, many CPI(M) workers see no difference between the Congress and the BJP. In Kerala, where the CPI(M) is highly communalized and draws more than 60 per cent of its support from Hindus, it is not uncommon to sense a sneaking camaraderie among the CPI(M)'s rank and file with the BJP, and see uncompromising opposition to the Congress because the Congress banks heavily on the support of both Christians and Muslims in the state.
This foretells more attacks on the prime minister by his allies, and in all likelihood, in fields such as foreign and defence policies. Because allies have sensed that the Congress is vulnerable on foreign policy and defence, they are more likely to chip away at the prime minister's strength ' and that of the Congress ' in those areas.
Every prime minister in India has had a free hand to deal with foreign policy. V.P. Singh and H.D. Deve Gowda were the only exceptions, because their interest in external affairs was limited. Despite an unpredictable external affairs minister, who apologized for Pokhran-II on a trip to Seoul and opposed his own government's policy on Iran in his final moments in South Block, Manmohan Singh has tried his utmost to put India's best foot forward, especially in relationships which are vital for the country. At a time when India is at the crossroads of big time diplomacy, the prime minister must be given a free hand in foreign policy by his carping allies. Otherwise, India would have missed out on opportunities which may never again come its way to the eternal regret of generations to come.