The battles within

Published : Sep 14, 2002 00:00 IST

Thanks to fierce factional fights and interest group conflicts, the Sangh Parivar's unity is disintegrating, as is its credibility.

DEFENCE Minister George Fernandes has thrown a spoke in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government's privatisation wheel by demanding a "review" and "course correction" of the public sector disinvestment programme which has now gathered the momentum of a juggernaut hurtling towards the wholesale liquidation of India's most precious nationally owned assets in the petroleum sector.

Whatever Fernandes' calculations and motives - and it is hard to accuse him of grounding them in political principle or the public interest - his intervention has catalysed yet another power struggle within the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is already riven by policy incoherence and factional conflicts. This could have profound consequences for the Parivar's future.

Fernandes' immediate focus is on the proposed disinvestment of public sector undertakings (PSUs) in the oil sector, specifically Hindustan Petroleum and Bharat Petroleum. He has questioned their proposed sale either to foreign companies (on "strategic" grounds) or to large Indian corporations with an interest in petrochemicals and synthetic fibres/fabrics (on anti-"monopoly" grounds). This has pitted him directly against Disinvestment Minister Arun Shourie who, with his characteristically obsessive zeal, is proceeding to dismantle as many PSUs as possible, including the Navratnas in the core sector. He has reportedly promised to raise as much as Rs.50,000 crores through PSU disinvestment this year alone as against the target of Rs.12,000 crores.

Shourie has launched a media blitz against the critics of privatisation by reiterating tired, shopworn neoliberal cliches and by citing a February 2002 Cabinet resolution as his mandate. He has attacked some of his own Cabinet colleagues by name, and accused them of being led by sectarian corporate interests.

But it is Fernandes who has succeeded in effectively reopening the disinvestment issue through the holding of an informal meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (September 3), and other manoeuvres. The present line-up within the NDA puts Fernandes and the Samata Party on one side, with Finance Minister Jaswant Singh, Petroleum Minister Ram Naik, Communications Minister Pramod Mahajan and Civil Aviation Minister Shahnawaz Hussain backing him. The latest to join this group are Human Resource Development Minister and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) favourite Murli Manohar Joshi and Coal Minister Uma Bharati.

On the other side stands Arun Shourie with a measure of (hesitant?) support from Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, and from outside the Cabinet, BJP general secretary and chief spokesperson Arun Jaitley. In progress is now a battle over turf (or control of different fields of economic activity), as well as a contest between different interest groups connected to business houses, over the likely spoils of the NDA's mindless privatisation programme.

Even if this conflict over disinvestment is resolved, it is only one of a series of battles being fought within the BJP over the past few months. Inner-party differences were publicly aired at the BJP National Council meeting on August 3. This witnessed unprecedented exchanges of sharp comment and a deceptively "friendly" banter: as, for instance, between party president M. Venkaiah Naidu and Pramod Mahajan, and between Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj and party general secretary Rajnath Singh.

Even more noteworthy are the recent wrangles between NDA Ministers - such as those between Shourie and Ram Naik, between Shourie and Urban Development Minister Ananth Kumar, and between Sushma Swaraj and Mahajan. No less significant are the heightened tensions between Venkaiah Naidu and Law Minister and former party president Jana Krishnamurthi, between Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, and in Uttar Pradesh between Vajpayee's lieutenant and trusted campaign-manager in Lucknow Lalji Tandon and other BJP heavyweights, including Kalraj Mishra.

THE inner-party struggle is also reflected in two recent media exposes: the petrol pump scam over the award of petroleum product dealerships to Sangh Parivar nominees, and the lease of prime real estate in the capital to various "cultural" and "educational" non-governmental organisations (NGOs) close to the Sangh Parivar. Both exposes can be attributed more to leaks by sources inside the BJP and the NDA government than to original, crusading journalistic investigation.

The BJP has long ceased to be a "party with a difference,"a disciplined, united, cadre-based party which abhors factionalism. But the power struggle on display today is new and is unprecedented in ferocity, scope and range.

This contestation has three dimensions: Cabinet wranglings over policies and turf-related interests, which are strongly influenced by industrial lobbies; fights between the BJP's governmental-parliamentary wing and its organisational apparatus; and the struggle for supremacy between Prime Minister Vajpayee and Advani. Behind all these lurk the RSS and other members of the Sangh Parivar who stand well to the BJP's Right.

The most important factor here is the takeover of the party apparatus by Hindutva hardliners, including RSS nominees and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) office-bearers. The party's organisational wing is increasingly in sharp conflict with its governmental wing over issues such as swadeshi and "security", policies pertaining to labour, the importance to be accorded to the Ram temple issue, the attitude to be adopted towards Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, and differences over Jammu and Kashmir.

For the most part, the RSS is unhappy with the NDA government's policies on disinvestment and labour. On Jammu and Kashmir, it has taken a stand that is sharply divergent from that of the BJP. It demands a separate State for the Jammu region. It has reduced the Jammu and Kashmir unit of the BJP into a supplicant of the Jammu State Front, which it sponsors. Arun Jaitley even had to go to the RSS' Jhandewalan office in Delhi and genuflect before the Sangh bosses to get for the BJP members the ticket for a few constituencies in the Jammu region.

The RSS has openly and combatively attacked NDA policies, short of destabilising the government itself. There also appear to be differences between the RSS and former and present office-bearers of the ABVP such as Madan Das Devi. Madan Devi, the RSS' official liaison man with the BJP, tends to promote the ABVP group in the party apparatus and is considered to be close to Advani. By contrast, Sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudarshan and RSS spokesperson M.G. Vaidya now tend to favour M.M. Joshi, and, to an extent, even Vajpayee.

This is a remarkable development. We are probably witnessing the first occasion when the RSS has come so close to taking sides in the BJP's internal factional fights - and to an internal division in its own ranks.

Not to be discounted are the divergences between the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the BJP. VHP hardliners feel let down by BJP leaders' reluctance to precipitate the Ram mandir issue. Thus, the VHP's "international working president" Ashok Singhal, has openly criticised the BJP for not backing Narendra Modi or "the Hindu cause" strongly enough.

Worse, Singhal has threatened to repeat the Gujarat carnage all over the country. In Amritsar, he said on September 3: "Godhra happened on February 27 and the next day, 50 lakh Hindus were on the streets. We were successful in our experiment of raising Hindu consciousness." Singhal also spoke glowingly of how whole villages had been "emptied of Islam", and how entire communities of Muslims had been "dispatched to refugee camps". This was "a victory for Hindu society", he added. The BJP has failed even to reprimand the man who should be arrested for his vile, inflammatory hate speech.

The third dimension of the inner-party conflict is the Vajpayee-Advani struggle for supremacy, which is being conducted in the covert, slimy manner typical of Hindutva. The power balance between the two BJP stalwarts has changed in Advani's favour thanks to the RSS' backing for his promotion as Deputy Prime Minister. Advani is now virtually setting up his own "DPM Office", headed by loyal bureaucrat Ajay Prasad.

Vajpayee is a tired, ailing, disillusioned man. It seems highly unlikely that he will lead the BJP in the next election. He would like the present governmental arrangement to carry on somehow. But Advani is in a hurry. He would have preferred early elections in Gujarat, his calculation being that if the BJP wins it, he could follow that up with mid-term elections to the Lok Sabha.

The Election Commission, and now the Supreme Court, has temporarily put paid to those plans. However, the party has not given up, as is evident from its deplorable plans to hold gaurav yatras in Gujarat and the brazenly communal propaganda campaign unleashed by Vinay Katiyar, the BJP's Uttar Pradesh chief, in which he openly says that the Ram temple issue is on the party's agenda.

The Advani camp gambles that it could firm up a national alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and stem any likely loss in the BJP-NDA's vote in the next Lok Sabha elections. Some of its members apparently feel that even if the BJP's seat tally decreases from the present 180 to 130 or 140, it could still form a government with its opportunistic allies, who stand badly compromised by their failure to get Modi sacked. If they could be bullied into living with the Gujarat pogrom, they could be made to swallow anything!

Vajpayee has reportedly been unhappy with the party's hard line on the Gujarat elections and on the election Commission (E.C.), in particular his own Cabinet's August 18 decision to refer the issue of the E.C.'s powers to the Supreme Court. Sources close to him are quoted as saying that Vajpayee thought of resigning as Prime Minister on August 18. But he is afraid to assert his authority for fear that it will rock the BJP/NDA boat. He lacks the stomach for a fight and has been content to play a manipulative power game from the sidelines. This is an unflattering comment on his "leadership".

None of this has prevented the BJP from unleashing its characteristically vicious communal propaganda or from bullying and censoring the media. The latest instance of the second is a notice served by the Delhi Land and Development Office - at the instance of Union Urban Development Ministry - to a national newspaper group on August 23, alleging infringement of building bylaws and demanding that it vacate the premises in three days flat!

The allegations were grossly exaggerated and meant to intimidate the proprietors. The matter was soon "settled" through the political mediation of BJP "fixers" and leaders, and after Vajpayee's own intervention. But the media group chose to keep quiet on the issue. The message has gone down the line all the way to the group's reporters - to "go slow" on criticising the BJP, especially on highlighting scandals involving its leaders. The BJP's purpose has been more or less achieved!

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