Contradictions and compromises

Print edition : March 21, 1998

A BJP government may survive a confidence vote, but the stability of the government, headed by a party that came to power on the stability platform, will forever be in question.

THERE was an air of subdued excitement at the gathering of newly elected MPs of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Central Hall of Parliament on March 7. The meeting had been convened to elect the leader of the BJP's parliamentary party, and with the BJP having fought the election with senior leader A.B. Vajpayee as its prime ministerial candidate during its campaign, the election was only a formality. It was clear that for the assembled MPs, the meeting represented a defining moment in the party's history.

When the party's senior vice-president, Sunder Singh Bhandari, who was the returning officer for the election of the leader, asked the gathering whether there were any candidates other than Vajpayee, the MPs responded with a thunderous "No".

The arithmetic of the 12th Lok Sabha and post-poll developments in the various political formations contributed much to the BJP's sense of confidence. Although the party, together with its allies, fell 21 short of a majority in the 543-member Lok Sabha, it appeared confident that given the contradictions within the United Front and the differences between the U.F. and the Congress(I), the BJP would be able to muster a majority.

BJP president L.K. Advani, who proposed Vajpayee's name, and other leaders such as Sikander Bakht and Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, who seconded the nomination, sought to remind the MPs of the momentous nature of the moment. The BJP, they said, was electing not just its parliamentary party leader, but the country's Prime Minister.

After his unanimous election as leader, Vajpayee said that the BJP was on the threshold of power and since it had not been able to get a majority on its own, it would need help from its allies. He then called for a "new era of cooperation" in the task of nation-building. "We do not think of the Opposition parties as our enemies," he said; he added that the acrimony of the electoral battle should be left behind and that everyone should join the venture of building India's future.

'CONSENSUS' on major issues appears to be the BJP's new mantra. Party spokesperson Sushma Swaraj admitted that the BJP was acutely conscious of the fact that it and its allies did not have a clear majority. For that reason, she said, the party's Hindutva agenda had necessarily to be given low priority. Party persons said that issues such as the BJP's manifesto commitment to the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution (which relates to Jammu and Kashmir), and the enactment of a uniform civil code would be put on the backburner.

The BJP has decided to use the issues raised in the President's address to the joint session of Parliament immediately after the 1996 elections as the basis for negotiations with its allies on evolving a National Agenda, a policy document corresponding to the United Front's Common Minimum Programme. The text of the address, which was prepared by the Vajpayee Government that was in power for 13 days, steered clear of the contentious issues in the BJP manifesto. A coordination committee (on the lines of the U.F. Steering Committee), which would include representatives of the BJP and its allies, is also likely to be established.

Vajpayee and Advani with leaders of some of the BJP's alliance partners, (from left) S.S. Barnala, Bansi Lal, Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthy, Ramakrishna Hegde, George Fernandes, V.R. Nedunchezhiyan, Prakash Singh Badal, Subramanian Swamy and Navin Patnaik.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The BJP was initially unnerved by the possibility of the U.F. and the Congress(I) working out an arrangement between themselves to keep it out of power. When Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet said, even as the results were coming in, that his party would support a Congress(I)-led government to keep the BJP out of power, the BJP accused the Left parties of trying to form "yet another illegitimate government" by an "unnatural" alliance formed after the polls.

The BJP made much of the fact that its alliances with smaller parties in many States had been finalised before the elections. It contrasted its own pre-election alliances with the efforts of the U.F. and Congress to build alliances after te elections. However, when the final results were in and it became known that the BJP and its allies were still short of a majority, the BJP's stated position on the "immorality" of post-poll alliances was quickly reversed. Over the next few days, the party's political negotiators kept themselves busy trying to forge post-poll alliances to make up the deficit.

The first such post-election alliance was struck when the Haryana Lok Dal (Rashtriya) of former Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal, which won four Lok Sabha seats in Haryana, offered its support for a BJP-led government. There was a certain irony involved in the BJP accepting the offer with such alacrity. In Haryana, the BJP, in alliance with the Haryana Vikas Party led by Chief Minister Bansi Lal, had fought against the HLD-Bahujan Samaj Party combine. The BSP refused to support a BJP government, but the HLD offered its support. (Although it was claimed that the HLD's offer of support was unconditional, it is well known that Devi Lal's son and former Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala wants to see the HVP-BJP Ministry in Haryana out of power.)

SOME of the BJP's allies have not shown much enthusiasm about joining a BJP government at the Centre. All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary Jayalalitha unilaterally announced in Chennai that her party would not join a BJP Ministry, although its MPs would sit in the Treasury benches in Parliament. AIADMK leader V.R. Nedunchezhiyan told Frontline that the party's decision was motivated by a keenness to avoid the ill-effects of incumbency in the event of Assembly elections being held in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalitha, who arrived in New Delhi on March 8, however, indicated that she was ready to review, at a later date, her decision not to participate in the Government.

The AIADMK has reportedly demanded that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Government in Tamil Nadu be dismissed, but it realises that a BJP-led government at the Centre may be constrained in the matter. Jayalalitha said that there was no question of setting a time limit for the dismissal of the DMK Government, and denied that she discussed this issue with the BJP leaders.

Samata Party president George Fernandes said that although his party would participate in a BJP-led government, he would himself prefer not to join the Ministry. Earlier, Fernandes had expressed reservations about being a part of a Ministry in which the AIADMK too found a place. But subsequent statements by Samata Party leader Jaya Jaitley pointed to a change in the party's stand: it now feels that every party that adheres to the National Agenda can be a part of the Government.

Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee said her party would support a Vajpayee Ministry from the outside and that her party was principally interested in protecting its interests in West Bengal. While the Biju Janata Dal was non-committal about joining a BJP Ministry; the Lok Shakti led by Ramakrishna Hegde, which won three seats from Karnataka, did not reveal its stand.

The BJP was completely at a loss to explain its debacle in two States in which it is in power - Maharashtra and Rajasthan. A resolution adopted at a meeting of the BJP's central office-bearers on March 6 made the contestable claim that Verdict '98 was a "mandate" for the BJP and its allies. Significantly, the resolution made no mention of the party's reverses in Maharashtra and Rajasthan. The resolution further claimed that the BJP was, in the voters' perception, "the only party that can provide a stable, clean and efficient government at the Centre."

The BJP took comfort in the fact that the party had won more seats - and a bigger share of the popular vote - than the Congress(I). "We have broken new geographical and social ground by winning seats in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Orissa," the resolution claimed. It cited analyses of voting patterns that claimed that a significant number of people belonging to the minority communities had voted for the BJP, and welcomed the "noteworthy" development.

The party's performance in Tamil Nadu exceeded its expectations. The secretary of the State unit of the party, K. Ganesan, said: "We expected a tough fight and hoped our front would win 50 per cent of the seats."Venkaiah Naidu said that the results in Maharashtra and Rajasthan were a matter of concern to the party. The official line is that in Maharashtra, the BJP-Shiv Sena's adversaries - the Congress(I), the Republican Party of India and the Samajwadi Party - had "ganged up" to defeat the ruling alliance. Some leaders, however, conceded that the debacle was an indication of an overwhelming anti-incumbency sentiment. BJP leaders from the State blamed the BJP's poor showing on some Shiv Sena leaders' "arrogance". "The voters in Maharashtra have taught the Sena a lesson," said a BJP national executive member from Maharashtra.

One BJP ideologue from Maharashtra put a brave face on its reversal in the State. He said that the Congress(I)-RPI alliance would have a positive effect at the social level, although it had harmed the BJP politically. All four RPI candidates won because the Congress(I)'s votes came to them, he said. This, according to him, augured well for social harmony in the State.

In Rajasthan, the official line is that the BJP had fared badly owing to a "sharp polarisation" of votes between the BJP and the Congress(I). Venkaiah Naidu said that with the "decimation" of the third force in the State, the Congress(I) had benefited from a consolidation of the votes of Jats and Muslims, which would otherwise have gone to the Janata Dal and resulted in a division of the anti-BJP vote.

Others interpreted the verdict in Rajasthan as an expression of the people's resentment against the poor performance of the State Government. One leader said: "There are rough patches in its performance. The anti-incumbency factor and the minority character of the State Government seem to have had an impact on the results."

A member of the national executive of the party said that the party would have to correct "organisational weaknesses and make certain micro-level changes to keep some communities happy, communities that are strategically placed to influence the electoral outcome."

The BJP has clearly been caught on the wrong foot on the issue of corruption, and is hard put to square its professed commitment to combating corruption with its alliances with Jayalalitha and Sukh Ram. Addressing public meetings during his Swarna Jayanthi rath yatra, Advani had responded to the Congress(I) slogan that the BJP was a "Jai Shri Ram party" by saying that the Congress(I) was "a party of Sukh Rams". Today, the BJP is banking on Sukh Ram's support - in Himachal Pradesh, where it is campaigning to bring down the minority Congress(I) Government of Virbhadra Singh, and at the Centre.

As the date of constitution of the 12th Lok Sabha drew near, the chances of a BJP-led government coming to power at the Centre appeared bright. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has said that his party's stand is one of equidistance from the BJP and the Congress. The BJP reckons that if Telugu Desam MPs abstain from voting against them in a confidence motion, the Vajpayee Government can survive. (In its eagerness to seek the Telugu Desam's support, the BJP has even parted ways with its pre-poll ally in Andhra Pradesh - the TDP (NTR) led by Lakshmi Parvati.)

Apart from the four HLD(R) MPs, two independent MPs - Maneka Gandhi and Sainam Singh Kainth - have pledged their support to the BJP. Together with the Rajmahal seat in Bihar, which the BJP won on March 6, and the Jammu seat, which it won won on March 9, the BJP-led alliance's tally went up to 258. The party hopes to win the Udhampur, and Patna seats, and to gain the support of former Union Minister Buta Singh, who won as an independent in Jalore, Rajasthan, and with that, to push its tally to 262. If the 12-member TDP abstains from voting against it, that number may be enough for the Vajpayee Government to survive a confidence vote. But the stability of the government - headed by a party that came to power on the stability platform - may forever be in question.

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