Retreat of a Front

Print edition : March 21, 1998

The United Front has adopted the strategically more prudent course of occupying the Opposition space, but it has been stretched on a rack, torn between conflicting demands.

ITS strength depleted and its principal combatant seriously wounded, the United Front rapidly took itself out of the Ministry formation process. A slender hope was raised by CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, when he floated, quite early in the day, the possibility of the U.F. supporting a government led by the Congress(I), each individual constituent being free to decide between the options of joining the Ministry or staying out. The proposal came at a time when the numbers game looked likely to produce an advantage for a potential combine of the U.F. and the Congress(I). Within hours, however it became clear that the advantage that this combine would enjoy over the BJP alliance would but be marginal. Equally clear was the fact that it would be a seething mass of antagonisms and irreconcilable interests that could implode at the slightest spark.

Surjeet's proposal nevertheless won the ardent endorsement of Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, since it seemed tailored to his specific interests. But few others had much enthusiasm for it. Especially miffed was Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, who thought the interests of his Telugu Desam Party would be ill-served by any policy of accommodation with the Congress(I). It did not help matters that Surjeet's statement let loose a flurry of political activity within the TDP, unleashing a political tendency that saw greater virtue in tying up an alliance with the BJP at the national level (see box). The reading was simple. The Congress(I) remained the TDP's principal adversary within the State though the BJP had begun to show signs of a new robustness. Striking an alliance with the BJP at this stage would restrain the antagonistic growth of that party and enable the TDP to bargain in the long term for an exclusive sphere of influence in the State which would respect the BJP's claim to power at the Centre.

In the immediate wake of Surjeet's proposal, Chandrababu Naidu had to fight a desperate rearguard action within his own party. Sentiment for the Congress(I) was negligible, though there was a strong current of opinion that favoured the preservation of the U.F. as a coherent political entity. The trouble arose from the sudden effusion of sympathy for the BJP - a mood fomented in part by a visit by Dilip Ray, flushed with the success of the Biju Janata Dal's alliance with the BJP in neighbouring Orissa.

At the United Front Steering Committee meeting in New Delhi on March 6.-ANU PUSHKARNA

Concurrently, there was another influence being brought to bear on Chandrababu Naidu by Arcot N. Veerasami, confidant of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi. This represented an ironic reversal of roles in relation to 1996 when Chandrababu Naidu had been instrumental in deflecting the BJP's ardent overtures towards the DMK. Having gone its own way in 1996, the DMK was only brought on board the U.F. through the TDP president's untiring efforts. Two years on, it is Karunanidhi who had to counsel the Andhra Pradesh leader to retain his faith in the U.F. and go along with the majority view within the coalition.

CURIOUSLY, for a party whose presence in the U.F. Ministry provoked the withdrawal of Congress(I) sustenance, the DMK was among the strongest advocates of a line of reconciliation. The smug optimism of the pre-election context had evaporated, and with its ally Tamil Maanila Congress plainly impatient to effect a reunion with estranged factions of the Congress(I), the DMK was beginning to see virtue in another consolidation of votes that would keep the resurgent Jayalalitha at bay. A Congress(I) regime enjoying DMK support at the Centre was, in this perception, the best insurance against Jayalalitha.

Impelled variously from within and outside, Chandrababu Naidu's final attitude was one of studied neutrality. The Congress(I) remained his principal adversary and he was as committed as ever to a secular brand of politics, he said in his first definitive statement of intent since the election results came in. But the Congress(I) had no moral right to demand support after having toppled two successive U.F. governments at the Centre. Chandrababu Naidu also found the occasion appropriate for a retrospective judgment of the prudence and propriety of Uttar Pradesh Governor Romesh Bhandari's most recent constitutional misdemeanour in dismissing the Kalyan Singh Ministry one day before the second round of voting in the general elections.

Although he had then taken a non-committal stand in a concession to Mulayam Singh Yadav's sentiments on the matter, Chandrababu Naidu today is less inclined towards tolerance. The Bhandari coup was a clear misadventure, he now claims. And after having proceeded on a course of aiding and abetting him without the courtesy of consultations within the U.F., the S.P. and the CPI(M) could not expect other coalition partners to stand by them in any further pursuit of their exclusive interests.

CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet.-ANU PUSHKARNA

Mulayam Singh Yadav was, meanwhile, placing his quite definitive views before the public. The need for a secular government had not diminished in his estimation and the U.F., by virtue of its performance, had little moral authority to stake a claim for power. This left it with only the option of supporting a Congress(I)-led effort to form a Ministry, since sitting in Opposition when the BJP was running the affairs of state was simply an infeasible proposition.

This public ventilation of differences preceded the first meeting of the U.F.'s apex deliberative forum, the Core Committee, on March 6. Discussions at the meeting were by all accounts candid and often stormy. The TDP stand won the endorsement of the Janata Dal. Although decimated in numbers, the six-member Janata Dal group in the Lok Sabha includes one former Prime Minister and another who was soon to achieve that status. Both H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral nurse a deep sense of resentment against the Congress(I) for the premature termination of their tenure in office. An arrangement of mutual support with the Congress(I) was plainly unthinkable for the Janata Dal.

Amar Singh of the S.P., who has emerged as Mulayam Singh's principal spokesman and negotiator, bargained hard but won little support. The Left constituents of the U.F. remained equivocal on the question of supporting the Congress(I), but insisted that there should be no shift from the U.F. policy of opposing a prospective BJP Ministry in a parliamentary vote. The TDP would not even commit itself on this point since bringing down the government would only place a renewed onus upon the U.F. to provide an alternative dispensation in league with the Congress(I).

The Core Committee could only postpone a final settlement of the matter until March 10. Explaining his position at a press conference shortly afterwards, Chandrababu Naidu was insistent that he was committed to secularism. He was, however, equally resolute in refusing to apply the appellation of a "communal party" to the BJP. The following day, the final confirmation was provided - the TDP would in all probability abstain in a parliamentary vote of confidence in the BJP Ministry that was beginning to look increasingly inevitable. Subsequently, it would adapt its voting intentions to the character of the issues at stake.

AFTER a phase of further deliberations, certain of the Left partners also achieved a more definitive formulation. Chaturanan Mishra, senior CPI leader, put forward the argument that with a percentage share of the popular vote in the mid-30s and over 250 seats, it would not be prudent to deny the BJP alliance the opportunity to form a government. An alternative formation, if one could be cobbled together, would be inherently unstable and would generate the kind of incumbency disadvantage that the BJP could recruit to its favour in any future electoral contest. The strategically more prudent course would be for the U.F. to occupy the Opposition space and persistently play upon the internal conflicts and contradictions within the BJP alliance. That would make it the beneficiary of the anti-incumbency factor in the next round of parliamentary elections.

The sense of solidarity with the Congress(I) being rather infirm, this strategic perspective rapidly gained ground. The Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party - two other Left partners of the U.F. - were soon expressing themselves in broad disapproval of any effort to accommodate the Congress(I).

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK president M. Karunanidhi.-S. MAHINSHA

Divisions within the Congress(I) had meanwhile surfaced on the question of staking a claim to power. But the U.F. had collectively decided by then that it would do nothing to assuage the Congress(I)'s sense of doubt. A government led by BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee had begun increasingly to look an inevitability.

The nomenclature has gone through some alterations, but conceptually the politics of the Third Force, which witnessed certain phases of fruitful electoral engagement following the demolition at Ayodhya in December 1992, was premised upon a notion of equal distance from the Congress(I) and the BJP. The general elections in 1996 obliged the Third Force, in its newest incarnation as the United Front, to adopt a policy of accommodation with the Congress(I). But the coexistence was an uneasy one and was marked by an unequal relationship of power sharing. Efforts to work out a consultative mechanism were talked about, though with little of concrete substance being accomplished. With this recent record of indifference and even hostility, it seemed rather far-fetched to argue the case for a dramatic rapprochement to keep out an alliance that was only a handful of seats short of an absolute majority.

In the bargain, the policy of equidistance has been rather radically abridged. The U.F. today is stretched on a rack, torn between two conflicting demands. A section strongly impels it into the orbit of the Congress(I), though the majority remains uncommitted. But another group within would rather prefer an arrangement of mutual convenience with the BJP to avoid the irksome burden of governance at the sufferance of the Congress(I).

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