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In pursuit of power

Print edition : Nov 15, 1997 T+T-

The events in U.P. mark a key shift in the BJP's pursuit of power: it is now ready openly to engineer splits in other parties and accept support from splinter groups.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN

COMMENTING on the recent political developments, including the survival of the Kalyan Singh Government in Uttar Pradesh and the creation of the jumbo Ministry thereafter, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president L.K. Advani indicated that the events reflected a change in the party's stand. The BJP is ready to accept splinter groups from other parties, including the Congress, and form coalition ministries. Advani added that the BJP was even willing to consider joining hands with a section of the Congress and forming a Government at the Centre. What is significant about this statement is the absence of emphasis on any of the BJP's professed political and ideological commitments and the acceptance of these commitments by the prospective allies.

This undoubtedly marks an important shift in the BJP's pursuit of power at the national level. Until the recent events in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP'sstrategy to augment its Hindutva-based vote bank and capture power at the Centre involved forming coalitions with regional and caste-based parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samata Party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and factions of the Telugu Desam. The idea was to contest elections in alliance with these parties and evolve a majority for a coalition at the Centre.

According to sources within the BJP, what the party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the mother organisation of the Hindutva combine, aimed at was a loose tactical combination that would not overly militate against the essential secular character of these parties, even while adhering to the Hindutva objective of developing a pan-Hindu political identity in the country. This short-term strategy was reflected in the care taken by the BJP leadership in the last three years to tone down its extremist Hindutva agenda based on the Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura temple agitations. When the alliance with the BSP was formed in Uttar Pradesh in March 1997, the combine's assessment was that it had made a significant beginning in this direction.

HOWEVER, the problems in the alliance with the BSP, causing a steady erosion of the BJP's upper-caste support base and the final collapse of the alliance, forced the BJP to rethink and led to the emergence of what has been termed as the "Kalyan Singh line". This visualises the adoption of the Congress' strategy and even using it against the Congress. In simple terms, this means engineering defections and coming to power. The emergence of this "formula" was aided by the perception within the RSS that if the BJP did not come to power at the Centre in the near future, it would lose the power game. Kalyan Singh's argument was that winning over legislators from other parties in Uttar Pradesh would strengthen the party's position not only in the Assembly, but also at the grass-roots level. Kalyan Singh's contention was that each Congress and BSP MLA had a significant following in his constituency, which could, cumulatively, make a difference of three to four per cent in popular vote. That would be enough to see the BJP (which has 32 per cent of the popular vote) through to power.

BY all indications, the success of the Uttar Pradesh experiment has inspired the Hindutva combine to try the same strategy at the Centre too. In this context, the inclusion of all the breakaway Congress, Janata Dal and BSP MLAs into the Kalyan Singh Ministry also acquires a different dimension, notwithstanding Advani's pronounced unhappiness with the exercise. Sources within the BJP say that the pressure exerted by the breakaway factions to grant ministerial positions to all the MLAs has been used by the BJP leadership to advance its new strategy. The creation of the jumbo Ministry in Uttar Pradesh holds out the promise to potential defectors at the Centre that they too will be rewarded similarly.

BJP sources aver that Advani's professed objections to the size of Kalyan Singh's Ministry is for public consumption. Advani's contention was that Kalyan Singh was compelled to undertake this exercise because he did not have enough time to complete negotiations with the splinter groups of the Congress, the Janata Dal and the BSP as total entities. The discussions were conducted at the level of individual MLAs, hence the inclusion of all the MLAs from the breakaway parties into the Ministry. Advani's arguments suggested that the BJP was opposed, in principle, to gratifying the wishes of defectors, although it was forced to compromise in Uttar Pradesh.

However, sources within the Hindutva combine, including RSS leaders, told Frontline that the compromise could have been avoided if the BJP had wanted to and if it had taken a strong stand vis-a-vis the breakaway Congress group, which was making the highest demands. Kalyan Singh, however, advocated submission to their demands, claiming that the party would make gains at the Central level. "In fact," a senior BJP leader said on condition of anonymity, "even the RSS top brass, including Rajendra Singh, were taken into confidence before going in for the jumbo Ministry." The RSS leadership was, at that time (the last week of October), meeting at Nasik as part of the annual convention of State pracharaks, and the final clearance to "accommodate the defectors" apparently came from this conclave.

DEVELOPMENTS at the Centre in the immediate aftermath of the Kalyan Singh Ministry expansion exercise further highlighted the BJP's game plan, as Vajpayee himself said that the Uttar Pradesh strategy could be emulated in Delhi too. Advani, for his part, said that the BJP was getting "many feelers" from Congress Members of Parliament. Vajpayee's statement was preceded and followed by negotiations with Congress and BSP Lok Sabha members.

Some of the prominent leaders involved in the discussions included the BJP's Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, Pramod Mahajan and Vajpayee and, reportedly, the Congress' K. Vijayabhaskara Reddy. Negotiations with the BSP members were said to be carried out with the help of D.P. Yadav, the BSP MP from Uttar Pradesh. According to sources within the BJP, 53 Congress MPs and five BSP MPs pledged to join hands with the BJP to form an alliance at the national level. Apparently, the discussions on how these MPs would be rewarded remained incomplete, because the defection of 58 MPs by itself does not ensure the BJP a majority in the Lok Sabha. How and when this game will be completed is to be seen.

It is not as if the adoption of the new strategy has created a win-win situation for the BJP. The policy of according greater recognition to defectors, rather than to committed party workers, has already created tension in the party's Uttar Pradesh unit (see main story) and at the national level.

According to sources, notwithstanding his public support to the new strategy, Vajpayee had reportedly challenged RSS supremo Rajendra Singh with a query about what had happened to the Hindutva combine's visions of forging a pan-Hindu political identity. (Vajpayee is credited with the view that the collapse of the alliance with the BSP was unfortunate.) Sections of the party also point out that the new strategy relies greatly on political intrigue, which not only gives the party a bad image, but also accentuates the importance of "mere operators" within the party.

The emergence of Uttar Pradesh party president Rajnath Singh as a prominent leader is highlighted by these sections as a clear indication of the rise of an "operator class". Rajnath Singh played a major role in winning over MLAs, particularly those belonging to the Thakur community, in the days preceding the vote on the confidence motion. "He has won only one election in his entire political career," a four-time BJP MLA told Frontline . "Nevertheless, he has become more important than leaders who have won the confidence of the people by getting elected to the Assembly four or five times."

Some of the dissident MLAs say that at this rate, Rajnath Singh could even upset Kalyan Singh's chief ministership. They are of the view that Rajnath Singh's statement about taking punitive action against Ministers freshly charge-sheeted in criminal cases could work against Kalyan Singh too. According to one senior MLA, Kalyan Singh is likely to be charge-sheeted in a criminal case (other than the Babri Masjid demolition case). This would increase Rajnath Singh's chances of becoming the Chief Minister. "If this possibility becomes a reality," the MLA added, "the BJP will have a Chief Minister without any mass base."

How the dissent within the BJP will manifest itself and what the net result of the party's new game plan will be is, however, still not clear.