Big setback for the BJP

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

The rupture of the Bharatiya Janata Party's alliance with Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh is a big blow to the party's electoral prospects, and undermines Hindutva's claimed ability to forge strategic alliances with diverse social groups on its terms.

SO widespread is the prejudice within much of our media towards Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati that all her actions are invariably attributed solely to personal pique and whimsicality in keeping with the stereotype of a social-climbing leader given to extravagant ways. Thus, when she took the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership completely by surprise on August 25 by announcing the termination of her alliance with it in Uttar Pradesh, and recommended dissolution of the Assembly, most commentators said her decision flowed from her mercurial temperament and irritation with the BJP's central leadership because of its hostility towards the Taj Mahal Heritage Corridor project near Agra.

Mayawati had to eat humble pie in July, they argued, when she foolishly demanded Union Culture and Tourism Minister Jagmohan's resignation for criticising her and riding the high horse on the Taj issue. Breaking the alliance was her way of "avenging" her humiliation, especially after the Supreme Court ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the way the project was cleared. On this view, a pathological form of egotism, combined with peevishness, explains her decision to sacrifice her government. It is another matter that some of these same analysts had earlier attributed all of Mayawati's actions to her lust for power: she'd do anything to stay in office!

Mayawati is of course a thorough and unreliable opportunist. But she is no fool. Even if she was rattled by the CBI's grilling of one of her Ministers, it made no practical sense for her to demit office. Continuing as Chief Minister was perhaps her best protection against victimisation by the Central agency. Mayawati is not blind to her self-interest. Indeed, she is an accomplished tactician, who has had the better of her rivals three times as Chief Minister, and who has not only built her party's Dalit social base, but made it impregnable with supplementary support from some other marginalised social groups.

It is not easy to list and weigh the many considerations that went into Mayawati's August 25 decision. But based on past experience, and conversations with keen observers of the BSP in Uttar Pradesh, the most plausible hypothesis seems to be that the alliance had outlived its utility for her; and that she had an inkling that a split in her Legislature Party had become imminent, with growing manipulation by her opponents.

Unlike in her last tenure as Chief Minister, Mayawati this time was hemmed in by the enormous fiscal crisis of the State. Earlier, she could at least find substantial funds with which to nurture the BSP's social base (for instance, through the Ambedkar villages programme, the only rural development scheme that received half-way decent grants). This time around, she had to satisfy herself with a few parks and grounds named after Phule, Ambedkar and his wife, and so on.

For Mayawati, winning the Centre's acquiescence on the Taj corridor project was a quid pro quo of sorts: had she not rescued L.K. Advani, M.M. Joshi and Uma Bharati in September last by transferring the Babri mosque demolition case - minus the conspiracy charge - to a special court in Rae Bareilly, thus saving them a huge, potentially extremely damaging, embarrassment just when the litigation is coming to a head? The BJP central leadership's "hostile" and "unhelpful" response on the Taj corridor issue probably alarmed her: she did not want to become a Laloo Prasad Yadav, himself long paralysed by the vastly exaggerated "fodder scam" charges.

Mayawati could have had little confidence in her own Legislature Party, which was comprised of all manner of "outsiders" upper-caste or Muslim leaders to whom she gave the party ticket in the last election to widen the BSP's vote-base and emerge as U.P.'s second largest party. Thus, of its 110 MLAs, 20 were Thakurs, 12 Brahmins, 6 Yadavs, and 17 Muslims. Most of them have no loyalty to its Dalit-centred ideology, and could potentially engineer or join a split. Rather than become a lame-duck Chief Minister following such a split, Mayawati decided to strike at the BJP.

The BJP was stunned. Its leaders had no clue as to what move Mayawati might make - even after she told the media on August 24 to expect "spicy news" at the two-day all-India BSP workers' convention in Lucknow, beginning the next day (planned a month earlier). When Mayawati convened a Cabinet meeting on August 25 to demand that the Assembly be dissolved, some BJP ministers objected. But their objections were meaningless: Mayawati, according to The Indian Express, had obtained the prior signature of each Minister on a blank sheet of paper - "as has been the tradition".

The BJP's parliamentary board later made a big fuss about the "unilateral" decision that she took without "consulting" her allies. But this lacked conviction. Under the Westminster system which India has adopted, the Chief Minister's word is paramount and final at the State level. Ministers are appointed at his/her will. Two hours after the Cabinet meeting that decided on the dissolution, BJP leader Lalji Tandon handed over to Governor Vishnu Kant Shastri a letter withdrawing support to Mayawati. This was an afterthought. In truth, the BJP, supposedly a party with some self-esteem - the "party with a difference" - had agreed to a bizarre, servile and humiliating arrangement just to share power with a leader who made no secret of her contempt for its Manuvadi ideology.

The BJP later also tried to make constitutional virtue out of the Governor's decision to invite Yadav to form a government. But it is unclear that the Governor acted dispassionately and wisely in ignoring Mayawati's recommendation for dissolving the Assembly. Strictly speaking, the recommendation was made when Mayawati still enjoyed majority support. As such, her decision should prima facie have been binding on Shastri.

The uncomfortable questions this raises about the Governor's role should not be dismissed merely because a new government now seems a fait accompli. The fait accompli was part of the sole post-rupture "damage control" strategy that worked for the BJP. It pressed Vishnu Kant Shastri, a former RSS pracharak, not to dissolve the Assembly - which would have thrust early elections on a weak, floundering and unwilling BJP.

THE BJP's setback in Uttar Pradesh is major. Staying in power under Mayawati's dominance caused a huge erosion of its upper-caste core base. U.P.'s savarnas cannot countenance a Dalit Chief Minister or programmes in favour of the underprivileged. First the Brahmins, and then the Rajputs, deserted the BJP, reducing its base to a ragtag band of small groupings, with little in common. Earlier, most of the party's support-base among the Other Backward Classes vanished when former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh was expelled.

The BJP's gains from power were paltry, except for individual opportunities to make money. Unlike the BSP, the BJP cannot take its base for granted irrespective of party performance. If present trends persist, it will be hard put in the next elections to garner enough votes to win even half the Assembly seats it holds (87). Sharing power with the BSP in U.P. for the second time, on the basis of a shamelessly corrupt politics of unprincipled alliances, has inflicted a huge loss on the BJP's political credibility nationally.

The BJP's loss consequent on the breakdown of the BSP alliance is even heavier. The party seems headed for a split. The RSS has reportedly warned the BJP leadership that as many as 30 MLAs are about to defect and join Mulayam Singh Yadav's ruling coalition. According to other reports, the number may be 40-plus. The party is clearly paying the price of rapid expansion during the 1990s when all manner of political adventurers joined it because it was on the ascendant. They could now desert it - equally rapidly.

The divorce in U.P. ends the BJP leadership's hope of extending the alliance to the national level at least temporarily. This would have potentially produced an "external" replication of the classic Congress "internal" coalition based on the upper castes and Dalits (minus the Muslims). Electorally, the transfer of a significant number of Dalit votes would have provided a big boost to the BJP. This is unlikely to happen.

That is not all. The rupture in U.P. will have an immediate, major impact elsewhere in the country, especially on the four Hindi-heartland states (Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi, in that order) for which elections are due this year. By all indications, the BJP seemed extremely badly placed in Rajasthan and Delhi even prior to the U.P. drama. In Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh too, it faced a daunting task. Without the crutch of the BSP's 6 to 8 per cent transferable vote, the BJP could now face a defeat in three or even all four States, especially if the Congress reaches an informal understanding with the BSP.

Admittedly, the Congress will not find this easy after Mayawati on September 4 expressly ruled out any alliances. She was also remarkably soft on the "Advani group" in the BJP. She accused Vajpayee of having "succumbed to pressures from his group", although he too "supported our government". This new line on exploring "continued friendship" with the BJP follows her detailed cross-examination by the CBI on the Taj corridor case. The Times of India (September 6) has quoted "sources close to" Mayawati confirming that she spoke to L.K. Advani to plead for help. Advani reportedly "advised" her to stay away from the Congress. Her September 4 statement duly reflects this "advice".

What is in progress is blackmail and arm-twisting by the BJP to keep the BSP away from the Congress. The BJP has also signalled to Mulayam Singh Yadav that it is willing to do business with him especially because he has split the BSP, and not the BJP.

New political equations are emerging. The BJP has decided to vote against Mulayam Singh Yadav in the confidence vote - largely not to alienate the BSP, but also assured that Yadav is likely to win the vote despite its opposition. Any party that allies itself with the BSP risks antagonising the Samajwadi Party. The S.P. will see and shape its attitude to national politics, especially on forming a broad-based Centre-Left anti-NDA coalition, through the prism of U.P.

There are rumours of a clandestine deal between Mulayam Singh Yadav and the BJP, which involves going soft on the Babri demolition case, not poaching on BJP MLAs, and continuing with Kesri Nath Tripathi as the Speaker - in return for tacit BJP support to the S.P. Not all these rumours may be true. Mulayam Singh Yadav has the numbers to achieve a majority independently of the BJP. His Muslim constituency would be loath to any understanding with the BJP. But a secret, limited, deal cannot be ruled out. Nor can the floating of a new front of former socialists like George Fernandes and Chandra Shekhar, both of whom enthusiastically hugged Mulayam Singh Yadav at his swearing-in. It bears recalling that the same group contributed to disrupting the formation of an anti-NDA national alliance in 1999 after the successful no-confidence vote.

All these factors, not least the fickle-mindedness of Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav, make for a good deal of uncertainty. It is also unclear whether the BJP will try to overcome its deepening crisis nationally by using ultra-sectarian and adventurist means - communal polarisation, caste riots, terrorist violence (for which to blame Muslims), or the "hostility-to-Pakistan" card.

ONE thing is certain. The BJP has taken a slap in the face. It is on the defensive. It now bases its entire political strategy and most of its tactics on the expected behaviour of its rivals, especially Mulayam Singh Yadav, over whom it has no control. This does it little credit. The BJP and allies, forecasts a sympathetic India Today-ORG-Marg poll, will lose about 55 Lok Sabha seats (from the present 304), reducing the NDA to a minority. On present trends, the BJP's national tally could well drop from 182 to under 150 seats.

For many years, the BJP could summon up tremendous flexibility: it would make all kinds of alliances with divergent subaltern social groups and yet preserve its Hindutva upper-caste appeal. This ability is in decline. It is now necessary to revise the view that the BJP is a party of extraordinarily astute tacticians, which knows how to set the agenda and which is always one step ahead of its adversaries.

The collapse of the BJP-BSP alliance in U.P., and earlier, Kalyan Singh's departure, means that the party has failed - despite attempts - to relate to the two great recent phenomena of the Indo-Gangetic plains: the forward march of the backward classes (or OBC self-assertion), and the Dalit upsurge. The "novelty" or "try-us-out" factor too has now run its course. The BJP has discredited itself in government. This is the right time to forge a broad centre-Left coalition with a progressive alternative programme to send the BJP packing.

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