Out of the gridlock

Print edition : December 13, 1997

Elections 1998 will be yet another way station in the evolution of the Indian polity towards a more genuinely democratic and federal structure.

SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi

FOR reasons that are not too obscure, the Congress(I) sees the Indira-Rajiv Gandhi legacy as its last encashable political asset. But for all the parties that have honed their identities in opposition to the dynasty, the Congress party's slavish devotion to the family and its willingness to play along with any manner of political abuse on behalf of the family represent the most unsavoury aspect of the Congress' long and, till recently, distinguished history. It is not known whether the Congress(I) had any reasonable expectations of success when it began its game of feint and manoeuvre over the patent artifices of the Jain Commission report, seeking the ejection from the United Front Government at the Centre of a party with well-established claims to popular allegiance. There was, from the beginning, a strong suggestion of bluff nd bluster about the utterances of Congressmen. Sifting wild fantasy from hard political calculation was, for this reason, a difficult task.

It was only when the dust had finally settled and parliamentary general elections became an imminent reality that the Congress(I) pronounced the final lines in the political burlesque it had forced upon the nation. Neither the Jain Commission report nor the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, it transpired, would be issues in the elections. Rather, the main planks of the party would be secularism and stability. Congress(I) president Sitaram Kesri announced that he would make a serious endeavour to involve Rajiv Gandhi's widow Sonia Gandhi in the election campaign. As for the indictment of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) by the Jain Commission, Kesri would only say that the Congress(I) would oppose the ruling party of Tamil Nadu if it showed any communal inclinations.

Two weeks were all it took for the Congress(I) to awaken to the folly of the Jain Commission report. From maligning an entire people on its spurious inferences through the grudging acknowledgment that the Jain Commission may have been imprudent in its phrasing of certain findings to the final admission that an issue that was used to bring down a Government would not figure in the ensuing electoral contest, the Congress(I) travelled the entire spectrum in just one turbulent fortnight. It was a fortnight that saw the false bravado of the Rajiv loyalists evaporate as they encountered the U.F.'s resolve that it would not be dictated to. And if sustenance for the adventure might have been extended from Rajiv's widow at least in the early stages, the later days showed a degree of equivocation. Always known to be a zealous guardian of the prestige of the family name, Rajiv Gandhi's widow reportedly did not take kindly to the crude merchandising of the memory of her late husband by certain of her most vocal partisans. Although this was unlikely to be publicly acknowledged, she might have also realised that the whole thing had boomeranged. This may have induced a degree of sobriety into the party's fervid attempt to crucify the DMK in the first flush of Jain Commission-inspired adventurism.

PARTY is subordinate to family in the scheme of the Congress(I), which means that a political legacy can be transmitted only through immediate kinship ties. Congress satraps intent on encashing the dynastic legacy depend crucially on the patronage of Sonia Gandhi. "Enigmatic" is a word often used to dignify her seeming disdain for the power that beckons her, her sulks and silences at the importunities of ardent Congressmen. "Inability" or even "ineptitude" would perhaps be closer to the truth. But for Congressmen who have become inured through the years to genuflection before a supreme leader and today find Sitaram Kesri grossly deficient in the requisite stature, Sonia represents the only gloss that could possibly be applied to the growing internal void of principles and ideology within the party.

United Front leaders at a press conference in New Delhi on November 29. The Front is still riding the crest of the solidarity it achieved against an external threat.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The Congress party's persistent obstruction of parliamentary debate on the Jain Commission report was a desperate effort to cover up this vacuum. And its equal keenness that the Gujral Government should resign without going through the formality of a no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha was prompted by the realisation that such a debate would inevitably develop into a minute dissection of the Jain Commission's contrivances.

The Congress(I) began its offensive against the U.F. with a maximal charter of demands, perhaps with the intention of bargaining its way towards a reasonable via media. This resolution could not be worked out in the public forum of Parliament, since that would expose the party to the biting political sarcasm of those like Home Minister Indrajit Gupta. After plunging headlong into the cul-de-sac of the Jain Commission, the Congress(I) proposed several face-saving formulae, none of which won any latitude with the U.F.

Two days before it finally withdrew its parliamentary support to the Gujral Government, the Congress(I) proposed a compromise. Two possible formulae could be adopted.

Prime Minister I.K. Gujral with President K.R. Narayanan at Rashtrapati Bhavan on December 2.-KAMAL KISHORE / REUTERS

Under one, a three-member committee of Judges would be appointed to evaluate the Jain Commission report. The assessment of this committee, to be presented within a month, would be accepted by both the Congress(I) and the U.F. as the final word. Both sides would frame their responses accordingly and allow no further room for discord or acrimony. The DMK was to sit out of the Government for the duration of the evaluation by the committee of Judges.

A second proposal, cutting out all residual elements of risk involved in the first, was to appoint an "eminent person" to study the report and provide his own balanced assessment. Since both sides to the dispute presumably were to have a say in the choice of this individual, this was essentially a method of pre-determining an outcome of mutual convenience. For the U.F., by now aware that the Congress(I) would insist on salvaging something of value out of a report that they were inclined to view as unmitigated farce, this only seemed to open the door to further futile bargaining. With little ceremony, both the Congress(I) proposals were turned down.

This did not prevent the elaborate charade of election evasion from proceeding in full public view. For the record, the appearance of intense and potentially fruitful negotiations was kept up. It was clear that neither side was quite prepared to take the steps that were indicated by the inherent logic of the situation. The Left parties kept up insistent pressure on the Prime Minister to take the bit between the teeth and recommend the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. But Gujral's conciliatory instincts stood in the way. Although seeming in public utterances resigned to the loss of his job, he entertained till the last the hope that some miracle would intervene to put him back again on the prime ministerial pedestal. For much of the period, it appeared that the U.F., while successful in holding the bottom line, lacked any mechanism for sending Prime Minister Gujral to the Rashtrapati Bhavan on a winding-up mission.

ON November 28, the Congress(I) decided to end the agony. A formal letter withdrawing support to the Government was presented to President K.R. Narayanan. With Parliament in session, it seemed a legitimate recourse for the President to ask the Congress(I) to move a no-confidence motion and proceed in accordance with established convention. There was, in fact, a pending motion of no-confidence against the Government which under the normal course would have been the first item to be taken up by the Lok Sabha when it readjourned. Tabled by Mamata Banerjee, the Congress(I)'s obstreperous Lok Sabha member from West Bengal, this motion was a source of considerable embarrassment for the party bosses, and could have been used by the U.F. as an occasion to berate the party for its political inconsistencies and irrationalities. But ever the conciliator, Gujral passed up the opportunity and, backed by a formal U.F. decision, presented his resignation. Since his Cabinet was not unanimous on the political wisdom of taking on the Congress(I) in mortal parliamentary combat, Gujral was able to win generalised assent for his conciliatory course as the easiest way out of the deadlock.

Congress(I) leaders after a meeting with the President at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Two weeks were all it took for the Congress(I) to awaken to the folly of the Jain Commission report.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Gujral did not accompany his resignation with advice to the President to dissolve the Lok Sabha and call for fresh elections. What should have been the final act thus was transformed into the precursor to another round in the game of manoeuvre. The BJP, till then a rather bemused bystander, moved up its poaching operations a notch. With party general secretary Pramod Mahajan playing the ringmaster, these operations reportedly enjoyed the financial patronage of some of the most prominent of Bombay's new breed of industrialists. An element of novelty came from the spiritual huckster Chandraswami's exertions on the Bharatiya Janata Party's behalf. A number of Congress(I) politicians who enjoy extreme proximity to Chandraswami were reportedly closely aligned with Pramod Mahajan in the effort to enlist parliamentary support for the BJP.

At one stage of the operations, the BJP claimed to have won the committed support of 40 MPs from the Congress, six from the Bahujan Samaj Party and seven from the Janata Dal. What prevented the final fruition of these efforts was the inability to cross the magic threshold of 47 Congress MPs, which would have represented the minimum qualifying requirement under the Anti-Defection Act for recognition as a split group with a legitimate parliamentary identity.

It was in the context of the BJP's declared intent to poach on its parliamentary contingent that the Congress decided to stake a claim to form a successor Ministry. The idea was to continue negotiations with the U.F. after staking the claim. And though the U.F. had quite definitively slammed the door shut against any future accommodation with a Congress(I)-led Government, the mere appearance of some activity and movement, it seemed, would beguile the party's restive MPs into a sense of security.

These efforts were a non-starter. Under the insistence of the U.F.'s dynamic organiser, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and Telugu Desam Party leader N. Chandrababu Naidu, and Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, who has acquired a rare moral authority within U.F. councils, all the coalition partners had pre-empted these manoeuvres informing the President in writing of their non-availability for any Congress-led (or for that matter BJP-led) dispensation. The Tamil Maanila Congress and the Samajwadi Party had their reservations about slamming the door shut against any future deal, but they were won over by the need to preserve the solidarity of the coalition against the Congress(I)'s unreasonable and preposterous demands. Mulayam Singh Yadav of the S.P. did, however, float a trial balloon shortly after the Gujral Ministry resigned. His 'Purnea declaration', that a new alignment of the secular political formations was imminent with the full involvement of the Congress(I), led to some momentary disquiet in U.F. circles. Later, it was put down as an effort to firm up the backbone of the Congress(I) and shore up its immunity to the BJP's poaching efforts.

Leaders of the BJP and its allies at Atal Behari Vajpayee's residence in New Delhi.-V. SUDERSHAN

JUST when dissolution of the Lok Sabha seemed imminent, the Congress(I) came out with a fresh proposal. In a gesture of appeasement, Sitaram Kesri sent Arjun Singh, the principal drum-beater of the Rajiv case, to Surjeet with the outlines of a new deal. The idea was to provide an entirely new look to the U.F. Government by changing the leadership and reconstituting the Cabinet. The overall size of the Ministry was to be pruned, which meant that all parties would lose part of their representation in the Central Government. The impression that the DMK was being singled out would hence be avoided, since the party's most senior Minister, Murasoli Maran, would be given a berth in the proposed successor Ministry. The calculation clearly was: if this could be dribbled past the CPI(M) and the other Left parties, it would be home and dry with the U.F.

The Congress(I)'s initial choice for U.F. leadership was TMC leader G.K. Moopanar. But when this was turned down for reasons that were familiar from the party's previous effort to anoint him for the prime ministership in April, it put forward Mulayam Singh Yadav's name as an acceptable choice. Surjeet's handling of the new move was masterly. Plainly exhausted by the Congress(I)'s internal agonies and very clear about the bottom line, he listened to Arjun Singh with elaborate politeness. He was not one to be seen as spurning all options for a settlement honourable to both sides. But Arjun Singh was sent packing after a quick round of discussions with Chandrababu Naidu and other luminaries of the U.F. The calculation within the ruling coalition was plainly that it had won valuable political capital by its resolute stance against political blackmail. This was not about to be squandered through a sordid last-minute compromise with the Congress.

A possible controversy was forestalled by Gujral's decision not to recommend dissolution of the Lok Sabha soon after the Congress(I) withdrew support, though the political wisdom of not forcing the issue on the floor of the House could still be debated. President K.R. Narayanan, for his part, declared his intention very early: to go strictly by the book. Cabinet advice to dissolve the House prior to a Congress(I) decision to withdraw support would be binding on the President: constitutionally, there could be little question about that. But Cabinet advice to dissolve the House after the Congress(I)'s withdrawal of support might have put the President in an awkward situation, since he would then have to face the challenge of possibly disregarding the Cabinet decision. Referring any such advice back for reconsideration would only have heightened the political frenzy and fed an unsavoury round of horse-trading. Spared this conundrum by Gujral's decision to resign without undue fuss, the President decided to wait out matters a bit before dissolving the House.

The interregnum was dominated by various futile manoeuvres from both the Congress(I) and the BJP, with the U.F. essentially sitting back to watch the proceedings. The Congress(I), at one stage, put forward the claim that it should be allowed to form a Ministry and then subject itself to a trial of strength on the floor of the Lok Sabha. This demand was met with the simple request that the party demonstrate a credible base of parliamentary support that could give the President prima facie grounds to invite it to constitute a Ministry.

Congress leaders intent on encashing the dynastic legacy depend crucially on the patronage of Sonia Gandhi.-SUNIL MALHOTRA / REUTERS

In that uneasy interregnum, each of the three main contenders met the President no fewer than three times. Each such consultation only confirmed that the central polity was in a state of gridlock which could only be broken through a fresh reference to the people of India. Ever the stickler for correctness, the President then seemed to indicate that it might help move things along if the Cabinet - by now reduced to caretaker status - officially advised him to dissolve the Lok Sabha and order elections. That formal communication was received late on the evening of December 3. By mid-afternoon the next day, the 11th Lok Sabha was history and the electorate was afforded the opportunity to arbitrate yet again on the state of the polity.

FEW observers seem willing to hazard definitive predictions on the outcome of the general elections. Aside from the general, and by now quite hackneyed, prediction that the BJP has to be the beneficiary of the charisma deficit within the Congress(I) and the discord within the third force, there are few other projections available. Sections of the Congress(I) seem to believe that the party has overcome the charisma deficit by recruiting the services of Sonia Gandhi for the electoral contest - whether with good reason or otherwise, only time will tell, though current betting does not seem to favour this line of argument very strongly. The United Front is convinced that it has only enhanced its credibility with the solid evidence of its brief tenure in office, and the cohesion it was able to achieve in the face of Congress threat and blandishments.

The BJP, for its part, is convinced that its time has come. Being disinclined to take any risks, it has already started cranking up the tempo of communal polarisation. RSS supremo Rajendra Singh, who functions as the paterfamilias of the Hindutva combine, held a series of consultations towards the end of November in Lucknow. According to insiders of the combine, he spent a whole day with U.P. Chief Minister Kalyan Singh to disabuse him of his newly acquired sense of ideological promiscuity. The BJP's current political stance, that it will welcome defections to its ranks in the interests of forming a Ministry, has not gone down too well with its patrons in the RSS. Rajendra Singh is reported to have advocated a more forceful line by the Hindutva combine on the Ayodhya, Varanasi and Mathura disputes, to create the "right emotional atmosphere" for the elections. While all other issues are to be pursued with due seriousness, the RSS chief believes that the restitution of sacred Hindu sites should be the "icing" on the BJP's election propaganda.

Historical revanchism has been proven to be a self-limiting strategy. It attracts large numbers to the BJP's camp but it equally provides those resistant to the appeal of Hindutva with a reason to cement their solidarity in the common effort to shut the Hindutva combine out. This is the political reality that the BJP has not quite been able to overcome despite the enormous electoral gains it achieved through the Ayodhya agitation. This was part of the provocation for the pragmatists within the party to seek an escape from the cocooned isolation of Hindutva and adopt a more permissive line towards what they euphemistically refer to as "the realignment of forces". But the disapproval of the BJP's ideological progenitors now presents it with an acute political dilemma and the potentiality for internal turmoil on an extensive scale.

Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma outside Parliament House.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

THE U.F., on its part, is still riding the crest of the surprising solidarity that it achieved against an external threat. Potential sources of discord are, for the moment, dormant, though they could surface in the run-up to the elections. The TMC, for one, is torn between its natural moorings in the Congress(I) and its fawning loyalty towards the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty on the one hand, and its vows of fealty to the U.F. on the other. Mulayam Singh Yadav believes that his coalition partners' aversion towards the Congress is self-defeating and is impelled to seek an accommodation with that party in the interests of protecting his home turf of U.P. And the coalition still has too many lacunae in its organisational network and political support base to be able to face confidently a future of autonomy and independence from the Congress(I).

Mulayam Singh faces an acute dilemma over augmenting his vote share beyond the core constituencies that he has nurtured over the years. The BSP, which served him well as an ally for a brief period that saw a notable triumph against the BJP, is today irredeemably alienated. The Janata Dal has been decimated and the Left cannot go beyond its few pockets of influence. The Congress(I), though now reduced to a parlous share of the popular vote, could still swing the contest in his favour in several decisive constituencies and thus represents a resource of undoubted utility for the Samajwadi Party strongman. A harmonious adjustment of seats in this State is likely to establish Mulayam Singh's credentials to bid for a few seats in States where the U.F. presence is as yet marginal. Maharashtra is a case in point. There the Samajwadi Party, its case boosted by a strong showing in various local bodies elections, is likely to make a case for a seat adjustment on fairly honourable terms with the Congress(I).

The pivotal State of Bihar presents a completely disordered picture. Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal is now totally alienated from the U.F. and has made clear its intentions to hitch its fortunes to the waning star of the Congress(I). As in U.P., the Congress(I) is likely to have a worthwhile influence on swing voters in several constituencies. If a faction of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha is added on to this alliance, its prospects over the whole State should not seem unreasonable, though on current reckoning, the BJP-Samata Party alliance might seem to have the edge.

The Left parties, though firmly committed to the U.F., are inclined to look at the coalition's record in Government with mixed feelings. Economic policy presented a multiplicity of areas of discord, often straining the commitment of the Left. There is a line of thinking that the U.F. should adopt an enhanced version of the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) adopted at the time it took office last year, as an election manifesto. The CPI(M) favours a Left Manifesto this time, plus a joint appeal of all the parties in the U.F. indicating broad policy directions. The party is also likely to issue an independent appeal to voters. The most likely outcome: the Left parties, by going into the contest with a Left Manifesto, will emerge as a well-organised pressure group within the U.F. in the post-electoral context.

Another factor is that the U.F. goes to the polls with many of its constituents facing the perils of incumbency in the States. The Congress(I), in contrast, approaches the electorate in a state of grace as it were, unencumbered by power in all but a handful of States. The BJP faces a mixed picture. There are several States where it might perhaps merit summary electoral ejection by its record in office. But the Opposition in some of these States has been reduced to a state of disarray and may not be able to capitalise on the opportunities available.

WHOEVER gets his predictions right in the elections could well do so for all the wrong reasons. But for any polity to shy away from the prospect of elections merely because of the concomitant risks of uncertainty is clearly not a sound politcal or ethical option. Although an early reprise was foretold by the indeterminate outcome of the 1996 contest, most observers have, at the decisive moment, developed a fit of nerves. But for those of more stoic disposition, elections 1998 will be yet another way station in the evolution of the Indian polity towards a more genuinely democratic and federal structure. Running the gauntlet of historical revanchism and communal provocation is perhaps one of the unescapable elements of risk involved in that process.

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