NEW DELHI — For three years as Indian prime minister, the aging Atal Bihari Vajpayee was treated deferentially by the national media and intelligentsia. They portrayed him as a great leader, to whom there was no credible alternative. Even when his physical condition began to slip visibly, no questions were raised about his health or capacity to lead a nation of 1 billion people.

It took just one major scandal to shatter the high esteem in which Vajpayee was held. In a bribery expose last week, the president of Vajpayee’s party and some others were caught on camera accepting cash bribes from two journalists posing as arms dealers. The journalists’ hidden video camera also recorded statements concerning the shady role played by some of Vajpayee’s political cronies.

Now the political knives are out, with the opposition stalling all proceedings in Parliament to demand Vajpayee’s resignation, and some members of the governing coalition stepping up pressure on the prime minister to oust his cronies.

For the media, it is open season on the prime minister’s men. They include Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law, who is accused of being a behind-the-scenes power broker and deal fixer. And Vajpayee is under mounting pressure to fire his principal secretary, who is also his national security adviser.

India has been scarred by many scandals since the 1980s, with the state swindled of hundreds of millions of dollars. And the public’s cynicism about politicians has been reinforced by the fact that not a single Indian political leader is in prison on a scandal-related conviction.

The bribes involved in the latest scandal were trifling by Indian political standards. Yet its fallout has been unprecedentedly large, forcing swift resignations of the party president and defense minister and action against guilty military officers. Such is the power of the camera.

The scandal has hit Vajpayee hard in the twilight of his political career. He has neither the physical strength nor the necessary support of his Bharatiya Janata Party, or his coalition, to contain the widening political fallout.

The scandal seriously damages Vajpayee’s credibility and leaves him with little political space for bold policy initiatives. From now on, he will be preoccupied with damage control. Every major contract previously signed by his government will be analyzed. His health will henceforth will be a public issue.

The expose also dents the image of the BJP, which had claimed to be a “party with a difference.” The picture of the BJP president coolly taking a cash bribe will remain vivid in the public memory for a long time.

The scandal taints Vajpayee’s image in the one area where he sought to create a strong legacy — national security. It was Vajpayee who conducted a series of nuclear tests in 1998 and declared India a nuclear-weapons state. It was his government, again, that accelerated the ballistic-missile program and announced the commercial production of the Agni II, a weapon of deterrence against China.

Vajpayee’s record on national security, however, is anything but impressive. The Kashmir situation has progressively deteriorated on his watch, with Pakistan-backed Islamic extremists taking their battle to the lion’s lair — taking on the Indian Army in raids on military camps.

The summary dismissal of the navy chief in late 1998 — the first time ever a military service chief was fired in India — did not redound to Vajpayee’s credit. That his peace initiative with Pakistan, the Lahore Declaration, subsequently resulted in the Pakistani invasion of the Kargil region of Indian Kashmir showed him in a poor light.

Worse was the coverup that followed the Kargil encroachment, with the government inquiry holding no agency or individual accountable for the way India was caught napping by the invasion.

Yet another episode under Vajpayee brought national shame: His closest buddy, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, flew to Kandahar — headquarters of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia — on Dec. 31, 1999, to personally hand over three terrorist convicts from India to terrorists holding hostages aboard a hijacked Indian jetliner.

The bribery scandal has led the leader of the opposition, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, to accuse Vajpayee’s government of engaging in hazardous “commerce with national security.”

Vajpayee’s supporters contend that the appropriate response to the scandal should be reforms in the electoral system, in funding regulations and in arms-procurement procedures. To critics, however, a prime minister cannot wriggle out of a moral crisis by promising legal measures. They want him to assume moral responsibility and resign.

Vajpayee has pledged to the nation to “work to clean up the dirt that has come into view.” Few, however, expect the cleanup to begin.

Scandals in India generate intense political heat but little else. After all the noise and dust kicked up by revelations, the affair is either forgotten or allowed to fester politically. Remedial action is conspicuously absent.

Kickbacks in arms deals are common in many parts of the world. The problem in India is the extension of the spoils system from the arms trade to the entire economy. Economic liberalization, in fact, has fostered big-bucks corruption.

Yet another issue raised by the scandal is the growing concentration of powers in the prime minister’s office, manned by individuals accountable neither to the Cabinet nor to Parliament.

The scandal has ensured that political cronyism will now be a public issue. In recent days, Vajpayee is beginning to be portrayed as a doddering old leader surrounded by conceited cronies.

Given India’s record in utilizing scandals not to clean up but to add more red tape, it is certain that the already cumbersome arms-procurement procedures will be further tightened. And, as happened with the last major arms-related scandal — the one that contributed to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s defeat in the 1989 national election — there will be no further weapons-import contracts until the various inquiries are completed.

Also, at a time when scandal has exposed corruption among senior military officers, there will be greater political and civil-service resistance to the proposed expansion of the military’s powers. Seeking to reverse the military’s marginalization in policymaking, the Vajpayee government has proposed the restructuring of the defense ministry and the creation of a unified command under a chief of defense staff.

This is a scandal that won’t go away. It leaves a damaged government in office. And it will continue to haunt Vajpayee till the very end.

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