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Operation Defection fails in Delhi

Print edition : Dec 13, 1997



Unable to do a U.P. at the Centre, the BJP seeks to make gains in the coming elections, using Hindutva as a major campaign platform.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party made a desperate attempt to form a government at the Centre after the collapse of the United Front Government. While the BJP's leader in the Lok Sabha, Atal Behari Vajpayee, gave an open call to Congress(I) members on December 1 to leave the party for the "sake of providing a stable government and avoiding mid-term polls," party president L.K. Advani justified the party's attempt to stake a claim to form a government through splits in other parties. According to him, the 10th Schedule of the Constitution provides scope for political realignments. But the party kept President K.R. Narayanan and the nation in suspense with regard to the means by which it would secure such "realignments".

It pressed into service Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who has behind him the experience in running a minority Government in Rajasthan for four years, and Samata Party leader George Fernandes, who sought to win over persons from the Congress(I) and the other parties. The non-BJP members of the Kalyan Singh Government in Uttar Pradesh were also in Delhi to try to rope in MPs belonging to the Congress(I) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

The amorphous association of "first-time MPs" was the brain-child of Shekhawat. Rajiv Pratap Rudy, BJP MP from Chapra (Bihar), was instrumental in giving shape to it by enlisting the support of many first-timers from different political parties. Members of this group submitted a memorandum to the President asking him not to dissolve the Lok Sabha.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam MPs K.P. Ramalingam and P. Shanmugam reportedly joined this group, while Tamil Maanila Congress MPs kept a distance from it, although their party was against dissolution. However, the DMK MPs refused to sign the memorandum submitted to the President. Ramalingam told Frontline: "We cannot differ from our party line, which is in favour of dissolution." The group of "first-timers" could not get more than 150 signatures on the memorandum and its convenors, chosen from different parties, failed to get another appointment with the President.

On November 25, the 'Forum Against Dissolution of Lok Sabha' was launched at a meeting of first-time MPs. Although five Congress(I) members participated in the meeting, they did not nominate a convenor to the Forum as other parties did. The forum was soon expanded to include those elected to the Lok Sabha more than once and it claimed the support of over 300 MPs. P. Kodanda Ramaiah of the Janata Dal was elected its chairman.

That the Forum had the BJP's blessings was obvious from the time it was launched. Jaswant Singh, the BJP's deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, said that although the party stood for the dissolution of the Lok Sabha and fresh elections, party members were free to express their opinions even if the opinions went against the party's stand. A day after Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma adjourned the House sine die on November 24, a delegation of the BJP and its allies led by Vajpayee and Advani told the President not to dissolve the Lok Sabha without consulting all political parties.

GEORGE FERNANDES said that the BJP's move to form a government and demand the dissolution of the Lok Sabha was a strategy aimed at countering the moves of the Congress(I) and the U.F. According to him, the Congress(I) and the U.F. were trying to keep the hopes of a patch-up between them alive in order to stop fence-sitters from breaking away and backing a BJP-led government. Thus, on November 27, when BJP spokesperson Sushma Swaraj said she believed that the Lok Sabha was heading for dissolution, Vajpayee asked the Speaker to reconvene the Lok Sabha. The purpose of adjourning the session sine die had not been achieved, he said, with the U.F. and the Congress(I) continuing to bicker.

With the resignation of Prime Minister I.K.Gujral on November 28, the focus shifted to the question of forming an alternative government. When it seemed that the Congress(I) was trying to strengthen its claim to form a government, BJP leaders staked an oral claim to form a government on November 30. The BJP and its allies urged the President to give the party a chance since it was "better placed" to form a government than other parties.

The BJP also needed time to prove its strength to the President on the basis of political "realignment", a euphemism for splits in other parties. Advani said that realignments could have taken place had the Lok Sabha not been adjourned sine die and that the party had to wait till MPs returned to Delhi for the reconvened session on December 2.

Throughout the crisis, the BJP focussed its attack on the Left parties and the Congress(I). It kept off the non-Left constituents of the U.F. so that what it considered realignment could take place.

Senior BJP leaders admitted in private that it would not be possible to get the requisite number of MPs to form a government without violating the Constitution and that they were reconciled to the prospect of a mid-term election. The BJP kept talking about realignment only to keep first-timers in the party in good humour and also to prevent the fence-sitters in other parties from backing either the Congress(I) or another U.F. government. Besides, the party was reluctant to urge the President to dissolve the Lok Sabha when both the Congress(I) and the U.F. had not made a similar demand. The party did not want to be the first to ask for the dissolution of the Lok Sabha when the mood of a section of MPs was against such a move.

On the evening of December 3, the BJP informed the President about its failure to muster a parliamentary majority. Advani told the President that about 40 Congress(I) MPs were willing to desert their party and support the BJP. However, since the number did not constitute one-third of the Congress(I) strength in the Lok Sabha, the BJP decided to give up. (Under the anti-defection law, a political party is to be considered to have split only if one-third of the members of its parliamentary party break away from it.)

According to a senior BJP leader, Advani was bound to explain to the President why the BJP was unable to fulfil its promise to secure realignments enough to achieve a majority in the Lok Sabha and that it was to ensure "transparency" that he made an open claim about the support from a section of Congress(I) MPs. "The Congress(I) knows who these 40 MPs are. We don't have to reveal their names," he said and asserted that the MPs would have come out publicly had they succeeded in getting the support of seven more MPs. The BJP leader also said that had there been monetary and other allurements it would not have been difficult to win over the remaining MPs to split the Congress(I).

The BJP was also wary of getting MPs from other parties openly to defect because what it did in U.P. to form a government under Kalyan Singh's leadership had knocked the bottom out of its claim to being a "party with a difference". Advani now talks of a "realignment at the grassroots level," implying that the perceptions of those who who voted for the anti-BJP parties in the last election have undergone a change and that they would support the BJP this time.

George Fernandes said that the Congress(I) did not split because there was no leader who could mobilise enough MPs to cause a split. "Those who took the initiative did not have the courage to seek support openly among Congress(I) MPs," he said. About 15 MPs from other parties and a few independents were willing to support the BJP but were reluctant to jump onto the BJP bandwagon before the Congress split. According to him, about 40 Congress(I) MPs had signed a memorandum that was to be submitted to the President and the Lok Sabha Speaker in which they stated that they would support any stable government.

The fact remains that the BJP has not been able to come out of its political isolation. For instance, its attempt to win over former Union Minister Kalpnath Rai, an independent MP, is reported to have failed because Rai felt that the BJP would alienate Muslims in his constituency.

GIVEN its continued isolation, the party appears to be in search of an issue that can help it improve its present parliamentary strength. Notable in this context are Advani's remarks at a Muslim youth conference organised by the Bharatiya Yuva Morcha in New Delhi on December 4. In his inaugural address, Advani sought to link the Ayodhya issue with the Kashi and Mathura "disputes". This marks an apparent shift in the party's stand since it has said in recent times that Kashi and Mathura are not on its agenda. Advani resurrected the proposal he made before the demoliton of the Babri Masjid, saying that if Muslims gave up their claim over Ayodhya he could negotiate with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to give up its claim on the "disputed" shrines of Mathura and Kashi. "If Muslim leaders - not those belonging to the BJP - were to declare that they respect the wishes of Hindu society to have a magnificent temple constructed at Ram Janmabhoomi and withdraw all claims to that site," he said, "I am willing to help Muslims have a fruitful dialogue with the VHP so that the Kashi and Mathura disputes are sorted out amicably."

Within the BJP, the main beneficiary of a mid-term election is Advani, who will continue as president till the elections are over. The party has put off organisational elections in four States, including Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. It plans to launch its campaign after its National Executive meeting to be held in Bhubaneswar between December 19 and 21.



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