Published : Mar 21, 1998 00:00 IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies emerge on top of the heap following the fractured verdict of Elections '98.

THE fine balance of political forces that emerged from General Elections 1998 proved marginally more advantageous to the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) and its allies than was commonly anticipated. This took some of the steam out of post-election efforts to put together a credible challenge to the BJP's claim to form a government.

Once they crossed the psychological threshold of 250 seats, the BJP and its allies exerted a strong enough gravitational pull to offset the reservations that other parties may have had about aligning with them. The counting trend in Jammu also was going quite strongly in its favour. Within a week of the closure of polls, the BJP's claim to government formation seemed to have acquired an irresistible force.

Certain factors seemed to have exercised a determinant influence on the outcome of the elections. Except in the States of Kerala, West Bengal and Punjab, the incumbency disadvantage was a fairly pervasive phenomenon. Strategic alliances were another ingredient of the electoral mix that left a strong mark on the final results, although the BJP seemed to have a special advantage vis-a-vis other formations in turning these into numerical benefit. A third factor with a markedly uneven impact in the States was the number of major contestants involved. A bipolar contest seemed to leave the BJP and its allies distinctly worse off, whereas on balance they seemed to emerge victors in multipolar situations.

Only Tamil Nadu, among all States, confounds an effort at comprehension in terms of these three factors. Not surprisingly, therefore, Tamil Nadu has made the final difference in these elections. Although the contest was essentially bipolar, the rump Congress faction had the residual popular allegiance to play spoiler role across the State. The BJP's alliance with Jayalalitha's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam(AIADMK) was a shrewd effort at penetrating a State that had remained impervious to its decidedly northern appeal for decades, but it was not expected to pay very high electoral dividends.

What turned the remote prospect of a handful of seats into a virtual sweep was a combination of the incumbency disadvantage, a brute consolidation of sectional vote loyalties pushed through by the embattled AIADMK leader, an unforeseen and extraordinary event like the serial bomb blasts in Coimbatore, and a reiteration of the Tamil Nadu electorate's tendency to vote for a stable dispensation at the Centre.

Tamil Nadu, in the final analysis, made the difference between a seats tally of around 225 to 230, which most practised observers of elections were willing to give the BJP alliance, and its actual tally of more than 250. Since this was achieved entirely at the cost of the United Front, Tamil Nadu represented the difference between the former ruling coalition's expectation of around 125 seats and its actual achievement.

The project of putting together a government with the Congress(I) and the U.F. in implausible association, though with roles reversed in relation to the earlier experiment, might have taken off if the two formations had between them the number of seats that the pre-poll forecasts seemed to indicate. But with the most slender of numerical advantages over the BJP alliance, the Congress-U.F. combine proved a non-starter. It held out little assurance of stability and required too great a sacrifice of accustomed political postures on the part of the principals to warrant even a trial.

The Congress game plan to seek a dramatic rapprochement with the U.F. just days after the bitter contention of the election campaign was further deflated by the defeat of Arjun Singh from Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh. Although Arjun Singh was the principal belligerent in the destabilisation manoeuvre over the Jain Commission's Interim Report, he was considered to have a reasonable record of opposition to the policy of appeasement that the P.V. Narasimha Rao Government had adopted in relation to the BJP. He was expected to parlay this advantage, together with the benediction of the Nehru-Gandhi family, into a successful bid for the leadership of the Congress-U.F. combine. With the electoral defeat having claimed one of its principal sponsors, the notion of a post-poll tie-up of the forces ranged against the BJP lost some of its strategic thrust.

The erosion of its rivals' hopes did not, ironically, boost spirits commensurately in the BJP alliance. The election of Atal Behari Vajpayee as leader of the BJP in Parliament was accomplished with due ceremony and jubilation. And commitments of support were won from all the electoral allies for a government headed by Vajpayee. However, few of the allies seemed eager to participate in the new government. And many of them retained an unseemly focus on regional agendas that a minority government would be ill-equipped to fulfil.

Heady from her triumph in West Bengal, accomplished more at the expense of her erstwhile party than of the ruling Left Front, Mamata Bannerjee has already been demanding a special focus on the interests of her State. In putting her ally on notice that the welfare of religious minorities would also be a priority, she has established a set of rules of good behaviour that the BJP may find difficult to conform to.

Jayalalitha has not been quite so outspoken. But her pronounced sense of insecurity would need assuaging in ways that could prove detrimental to the due process of law. Jayalalitha has already signalled her intent to have Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy, a new-found ally, in a senior ministerial position. A fortuitous winner from Madurai on account of a division of votes between the DMK alliance and the CPI(M), Subramanian Swamy's earlier tenure as a Minister in the Chandra Shekhar Government was marked by controversy in relation to Bofors and the world trade negotiations. A minority government that allows these proclivities any space would be inviting its own early demise. And yet, Jayalalitha's bloc of MPs is vital enough for the BJP to seek at least to meet her demands halfway.

The early commitment of support that the BJP won from Om Prakash Chautala's Haryana Lok Dal (Rashtriya) put it four seats closer to an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. Chautala has been at pains to emphasise that his offer is unconditional, although his campaign rhetoric makes apparent an obsessive preoccupation with regaining the chief ministerial chair in the State. The dissolution of the BJP's coalition Government with Bansi Lal's Haryana Vikas Party, though not an immediate prospect, could be a long-term requirement of retaining Chautala's allegiance.

All indications are that the Vajpayee Ministry, even if it survives the vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha, will have a messy tenure, dominated by the compulsions of managing the diverse interests of its support base. At the same time, there will be the internal ideological rigidity of the BJP's mentor organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, to deal with.

The uneasy backdrop to this prognosis is provided by the recent election results. Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Haryana have proven that the BJP in administration is as susceptible to the perils of incumbency as the parties it derides. Its supposed ideological focus and distinctive brand of campaign rhetoric may serve well to ride to power but not to retain it. Its survival strategies, as epitomised by the unending farce in Lucknow, could indeed be a liability in a longer-term perspective.

ANY assessment of the prospects of a BJP-led government is concurrently one of the state of the Opposition. The U.F., which honed its identity equally in opposition to the Congress(I) and the BJP, is today in rather reduced circumstances. A substantial section would like to bolt towards the Congress(I), although the Left sections which constitute the majority of the U.F. in Parliament today would like to maintain a distance while tilting in that direction. There is, however, a section which will simply not entertain the idea of any alignment with the Congress(I) and would not like to bring down a BJP government immediately for fear of being driven into the Congress(I) camp as a consequence.

At least three constituents of the U.F. look poised to take their flocks over to the Congress(I) camp, interestingly at a time Sonia Gandhi has signalled her willingness to take over the party reins. G.K. Moopanar's Tamil Maanila Congress(TMC) has been badly shaken by the recent verdict and may need the residual vote share of his parent organisation in the State as ballast in future contests. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi's Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) will have little problem playing along, since he could gain substantial electoral dividends at little cost. The BJP's advent as a force in Tamil Nadu, neutralises the Congress(I)'s future room for manoeuvre, rendering it especially susceptible to the DMK's diktat.

A third likely recruit to the Congress(I) ranks is Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party(S.P.). Mulayam Singh has reached out in recent years to other States, but his primary focus remains Uttar Pradesh, where no other constituent of the U.F. has a worthwhile presence. He loses little in taking his party out of the U.F. and could potentially add on the Congress(I)'s 7 per cent share to his substantial vote share in the State. His fruitful partnership with the Congress(I) in Maharashtra could, in this respect, be a pointer to future strategic moves.

The immediate provocation for the flight into the Congress(I) ranks could come from the position taken by the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Being averse to a deal with the Congress(I), the TDP could be impelled to abstain from voting on the motion of confidence that the Vajpayee Ministry will be obliged to table in the Lok Sabha. That could cause much concern within the Left parties, which might refrain from precipitate action in the longer-term interests of Opposition politics. Similar subtleties of perception may not be found among the S.P. or the TMC.

SITARAM KESRI'S resignation and replacement by Sonia Gandhi as party president could prepare the Congress(I) for another phase of serious engagement in national politics. A diminution of the power of the old guard and a corresponding accretion to the influence of those who have shown an appetite for mobilisational politics - such as Sharad Pawar, A.K. Antony and Rajesh Pilot - represent maybe the starting point. Future prospects would, however, depend upon the Congress(I)'s infamous factional rivalries.

The infusion of an element of dynastic charisma into the Congress campaign has proven, in retrospect, to be a holding operation. Large-scale desertions from the ranks were halted but little was done to rebuild the tattered party organisation. The election outcome, in fact, is conclusive evidence that dynastic charisma is no substitute for the hard slog of organisational work at the ground level. States like Kerala and Karnataka, which were marked out for special attention by Congress(I) star campaigner Sonia Gandhi, produced indifferent results for the party.The outcome in U.P. was nothing short of disastrous, and little could be done to stem the anti-incumbency tide in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa.

In its post-election mood, the Congress(I) seems rather disinclined to learn the appropriate lessons. The leadership choice has been delegated not to the parliamentary forum where it belongs but to Sonia Gandhi, though the rout of all her personal favourites in the recent elections makes it amply clear that she has little contact with political realities. The mood clearly is to cede greater powers to her as head of the party, increasing her salience as the final arbiter of internal party affairs.

Where an effort to reverse the ideological drift of the Rajiv Gandhi years and correct its strategic blunders may have paid dividends, the Congress(I) seems intent on plunging further down that path. Salvation, if at all, would then lie in forging new strategic partnerships in areas of vulnerability, on the lines of the Bihar experiment in the recent general elections. The Congress(I)'s fortunes may, in other words, vary inversely with those of the U.F., in particular with the number of coalition partners it is able to attract into its fold.

The mutual absorption between the Congress(I) and the U.F. partners will obviously be an uneven and patchy affair. Certain regions like Maharashtra, Bihar and U.P. offer rich potential for the process while others like West Bengal and Kerala offer none. A catchy sporting metaphor has gained currency in the light of the last elections - that this has been the penultimate round, the finale is to be the next general elections, when two clearly defined and ideologically coherent formations will confront each other across the country. This may offer some consolation for those who see the two-party model as an example of finished democratic perfection. But it evades the difficulties inherent in the process of political adaptation and overlooks the problems that could surface in the interregnum when the continuing infirmities of governance could take a heavy toll of basic economic and social welfare commitments.

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