NATIONAL

A birthday and a message

The President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, greeting the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, on his birthday at the latter's residence in New Delhi on Wednesday. — Photo S. Arneja  

The President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, greeting the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, on his birthday at the latter's residence in New Delhi on Wednesday. — Photo S. Arneja

New Delhi Dec. 25. Birthdays of political leaders are becoming carefully choreographed occasions, where cultivated loyalties are displayed and hierarchy is reaffirmed. They are also an opportunity for political rivals to observe the rites of civility. The Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, is neither a stranger nor an exception to this unique phenomenon in Indian politics.

Mr. Vajpayee turned 79 today. Expectedly, his Cabinet colleagues and party comrades came in hordes, each keener than the other to be seen as having put in an appearance. Political foes such as the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh, the Rashtriya Janata Dal boss, Laloo Prasad Yadav, and the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, chipped in with birthday greetings. Also came in the RSS bosses, K. Sudarshan and Madan Das Devi. As did the President, Abdul Kalam, and the Vice-President, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Manohar Joshi, and the Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, Najma Heptullah.

The Prime Minister's s political managers used the occasion to re-position him as the pre-eminent leader within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. A man taller than anyone, in and out of the Sangh Parivar. A man who looms larger than the party.

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister had used the BJP's national executive forum to puncture the Gujarat bubble and told the Hindutva hotheads to come down from their Modi high-horse. Perhaps, a kind of Vajpayeean perseverance. But he served notice on one and all that he was going to keep trying to set the BJP agenda. Latecomers will not be permitted to hog the centre-stage.

Nothing conveys the uninterrupted iconisation of Mr. Vajpayee better than the billboards put up by the BJP on both ends of Ashoka Road, near the party's national headquarters. The brush artist, probably under instruction, had painted Mr. Vajpayee in disproportionately large size, and Lal Krishna Advani and Venkaiah Naidu had been literally cut to size.

The message on the billboards salutes the Vajpayee leadership: "Revolutionary achievements, outstanding leadership.''

If there were doubts on who was calling the shots, the Prime Minister gave an interview to a Hindi daily. Without ambiguity, Mr. Vajpayee asserted that the "Gujarat `spirit' would have to be tempered." Political pundits and observers believe that the Prime Minister would be passe after the "Modi-centric" victory in Gujarat; the birthday celebrations were used to tell the sceptics to hold back the final judgment. The old order is not prepared to get out of the way. Not yet.