Sucheta Dalal :Prabhu's exit: End of a fairy tale
Sucheta Dalal

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Prabhu's exit: End of a fairy tale  

August 23, 2002

By all counts Suresh Prabhu was a good power minister. Although the benefits of his policies and actions are not yet quite visible, he has made a name for himself as an efficient and clean minister. Ironically, the latter has caused his downfall.

Bal Thackeray, supreme leader of the Shiv Sena and the man who put Prabhu in Parliament as also in the ministerial chair, has pulled the plug. Prabhu was ordered to resign as power minister and had no option but to comply.

Newspaper editorials have bemoaned the exit of a 'clean' minister and criticised the dictatorial Thackeray for putting his party before the country by sacking Prabhu.

But let us face it - that is the ground reality of Indian politics and we need to recognise it. I am not condoning Thackeray's actions or his priorities, but I am equally surprised at the naïve expectations that the media and the intelligentsia still seem have from its politicians.

In a hard-hitting interview to The Indian Express last week, Thackeray had signalled his displeasure over Prabhu's performance and called him 'Alice in Wonderland' who was trying to be clean like Rajiv Gandhi.

The description probably applies to all those of us who are surprised at Prabhu's ouster. And it certainly applies to Prabhu if he thought he could defy the party leader and get away with it.

Let us look at who is Suresh Prabhu. Less than five years ago, he was just the husband of a colleague and the head of Saraswat Co-operative Bank - a tiny, but successful and high profile, outfit.

He was occasionally mentioned in connection with his directorship and (probably) personal guarantee extended to the Western India Group of Pune whose promoter Nandan Gadgil was in serious financial trouble. There was also some skirmish over loans extended by Saraswat Bank to fictitious cobbler co-operatives in what was dubbed as the 'cobbler scam'. But none of it was any worse than anything other bankers have been in trouble for.

Prabhu's decision to throw his lot with the saffron Shiv Sena was a surprise, but hardly anyone gave a second thought to the aspiring politician's ambitions. It only showed how foolish we were. The decision was the beginning of a virtual miracle - a non-cash jackpot.

Less than a month after Prabhu moved from being a banker to a politician, he was a Member of the Lok Sabha and was swearing in as a full Cabinet minister. In fact, Prabhu's meteoric rise is more like Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland rolled into one.

Prabhu was hand picked by Bal Thackeray for a political career. In the past, he had catapulted a journalist-editor-entrepreneur into the Rajya Sabha, but that did nothing for the party's national profile. This time he wanted an educated, articulate and moderate face to be the Sena man in Delhi, and chose Prabhu.

He ensured that Prabhu won his election through a super-safe seat in a constituency that was the fief of former Maharashtra Chief Minister Narayan Rane. Prabhu's win was a cakewalk. When he became the Shiv Sena minister in the National Democratic Alliance's Cabinet it was again Thackeray's choice. It was never the prime minister's decision. And that was probably Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's first mistake.

When the PM acquiesced to having Prabhu in his Cabinet, he could have had no notion that he would either be clean or even passably efficient. He took him on without question because he had no choice.

It was a bonus for the Bharatiya Janata Party that Prabhu turned out the way he was; an even bigger bonus was that he seemed keener to please the prime minister than his party boss.

Since Thackeray made no bones about the fact that he held the 'remote control' over his party men and women and dictated their actions, Prabhu was clearly asking for trouble. That he lasted for so long, or had his tenure extended at the prime minister's personal intervention was also part of the Prabhu fairy tail.

But the clock may have finally struck midnight and the horses have probably turned into mice.

Prabhu knew exactly what the score was when he made his pact with the Shiv Sena and became a minister. In fact, when Thackeray chose him, several senior party leaders had been furious at his instant stardom. They felt let down that the boss should choose a novice over them.

Prabhu knew that his selection came with specific expectations. His decision to incur the Thackeray wrath by being more useful to the BJP may have been a calculated move. He may have planned a successful switch in political affiliations and the fairy tale could get still have another chapter.

But let us face it; Prabhu is not a grassroots politician with a mass base. He has no track record of public service. He is just a nominee of the Shiv Sena leader. We can complain all about the destructive nature of coalition politics but we cannot change it in a hurry.

As for the prime minister wanting Prabhu to remain a minister because of his efficiency - that is pure hogwash. If Vajpayee wanted ministers who were clean and efficient, there is nothing to stop him from choosing any number of them with long and proven track records in their respective fields.

He could hand pick people with intelligence and dedication and make them ministers. They needn't even all be in the Rajya Sabha; the BJP surely has a few safe seats from which to get them elected to the Lok Sabha.

For instance, why not ask Infosys chief N R Narayana Murthy to be minister for information technology? He could win an election from Bangalore; or appoint Deepak Parekh as finance minister - after all they seem to consult him on so many issues. He would probably have as much of a chance of winning from South Mumbai as his friend Murli Deora.

Surely a Sunil Gavaskar or a Kapil Dev would make an excellent sports minister and even win an election with ease. You could also have efficiency, honesty and talent in the Rajya Sabha by getting someone like R A Mashelkar to head science and technology, or Arundhati Roy to head the ministry for social welfare or even education; a Keki Dadiseth would make a good industries minister and Dr R Chidambaram could be the defence minister.

But we don't expect that to happen, do we? While a Suresh Prabhu may have had his own little fairy tale, we can't expect a much bigger one to transform this nation and its politics.

So let us stop moaning over Prabhu's exit and accept the reality. The very fact that he himself hasn't said a word, shows that he knew the consequences of his actions and was possibly looking far ahead.

-- Sucheta Dalal