COALITION CONFLICTS

Print edition : May 09, 1998

As the divergent political agendas and styles of the coalition partners come out in the open, the BJP-led Government in New Delhi strains under the weight of its contradictions.

NO government has had as many opportunities to demonstrate its commitment to probity in public life as the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition in New Delhi. This is because no other government has been quite so flagrantly in breach of basic norms of accountability at the moment of its birth. But propriety cannot be indefinitely flouted. If tolerance for corruption was forced upon the BJP as a concomitant of its quest for power, then the following sequence of ministerial resignations is fair recompense for that unseemly rush.

"Two down with no runs on the board," said United Front spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy, when judicial strictures forced Buta Singh's exit from the briefly held office of Union Minister for Communications. In just over a week, it was three down, with the unceremonious exit of Sukh Ram, lately made Deputy Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh. After a few weeks of pretence that electoral victory effaced his record of malfeasance in the office held by Buta Singh, Sukh Ram decided to resign when the President granted sanction for his prosecution in a case of corruption. (The decision came after a meeting with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, but he had not put in his papers as on May 4.)

As for the scoreboard, there had been no material change since Jaipal Reddy proposed the cricket analogy. Pronouncements of policy issued forth from a variety of sources, but failed to gel into any form of coherence.

Leaders of the BJP and some of its coalition partners. (From left) Ramakrishna Hegde, George Fernandes, Bansi Lal, Surjit Singh Barnala, S. Ramadoss, L.K. Advani, Jayalalitha, Jaswant Singh, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthi.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

DEFENCE Minister George Fernandes made a well-publicised visit to the Kashmir Valley, and invited all elements involved in the militancy to join his initiative for a settlement. He seemed oblivious to the viewpoints of the Cabinet he was a member of, and the Chief Minister of the troubled State. A few days later, Fernandes unburdened himself of opinions that, in their totality, represented an overturning of every accepted verity of Indian foreign policy. Far from being a potential ally in global affairs, China posed the principal security threat to the country, he said. And from being the option of last resort, nuclear weapons acquisition, he said, could well be one of the foremost priorities of the imminent process of security review.

Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha was meanwhile continuing his laboured effort to square the circle - to achieve a measure of consonance between the conflicting objectives of swadeshi and globalisation. He only succeeded in attracting the ire of the BJP's affiliated trade union organisation, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which debunked his effort to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Shortly afterwards, Vajpayee made a highly commended address at the annual conference of the country's premier chamber of commerce - the Confederation of Indian Industry. He was followed within the hour by Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, who offered the support of her party for any constructive economic proposals the Vajpayee Government might put forward. The BMS seemed abruptly to change its tune, with the introduction of the new motif that foreign investment did not necessarily undermine the spirit of swadeshi.

To BJP partisans discomfited by the extra distance the party had to travel to accommodate its allies, the promise of gubernatorial office was an important lure. The first few weeks of the Vajpayee Ministry featured a number of gubernatorial appointments involving BJP veterans who may have had reason to feel neglected in the distribution of ministerial office. A monitory warning was sounded by Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, who insisted that his party - the Shiromani Akali Dal - should also be given its due. A direct outcome was the appointment to gubernatorial office of an obscure provincial politician from Punjab, Darbara Singh.

Urban Development Minister Ram Jethmalani.-V. SUDERSHAN

West Bengal witnessed the fraying of the BJP's alliance with the combative Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress (see separate story), while Gujarat and Orissa made clear their intentions to seek a special status for themselves. And the BJP's truculent ally in Tamil Nadu, who set under way the competitive spiral of political extortion, remained as focussed as ever on her narrow agenda of dismissing an elected State government.

From Mumbai, there were more demonstrations of the dangerous strain of intolerance that the Hindutva brand of politics has injected into the cultural domain. The BJP leadership was quick to distance itself from the more extreme expressions of the Shiv Sena's activism - such as the ban on visiting Pakistani cultural figures and sportsmen. It also made clear its disapproval of the Maharashtra State Government's refusal to publish the report of the Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry into the Mumbai riots of 1993. But the practical consequences of these disagreements remain unclear - it is far from evident that the BJP leadership has an influence over the actions of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.

THE first 45 days of the Vajpayee Government will not be remembered for the boldness of its political initiatives or the creativity of its policy proposals. One possible claim to fame, though of a dubious sort, lies in its restoration of the art of political invective to a prominence it has not for long enjoyed. Urban Development Minister Ram Jethmalani's polemic against Subramanian Swamy drew more cheers for its pithy characterisation of the individual than for its factual recounting of his political background. For his part, Swamy cut himself adrift of all links with the BJP-led coalition once it became apparent that he would have no place in its apex consultative forum.

Awakening rather late to the need to have a body where the political interests of its diverse allies would be articulated and harmonised, the BJP leadership constituted towards the end of April a consultative committee of 14 members. There was some early uncertainty about its composition, with the BJP being keen that Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu should be on board, and the latter himself proving reticent. In contrast, Swamy's exclusion reflected a considerable sense of deliberation and design on the part of the BJP leadership. Seemingly relieved at being unfettered, Swamy soon announced that he would take a place in the Opposition benches, and work towards the formation of a new political front of "secular and patriotic" forces. This front, he announced characteristically, would also include the Left parties.

Defence Minister George Fernandes at a press conference in Srinagar on April 30.-AIJAZ RAHI / AP

The Left parties, however, demurred. Swamy was a political gadfly who endangered the stability and cohesiveness of any alliance he was a part of, said Atul Kumar Anjan, national secretary of the Communist Party of India. Sources in the Communist Party of India(Marxist) were equally dismissive of Swamy's claims to being the nucleus of a new formation that would take on the onus of governance at this juncture.

Having begun his new venture with the supposed blessings of Jayalalitha, Swamy was soon seeking to bring in a breadth and diversity of political players into his consultative process - from Laloo Prasad Yadav to Sonia Gandhi. As a shrewd political observer commented, the only doctrine, the only political 'ism', that Swamy has ever been consistent to is opportunism. And his effort to woo Laloo Prasad showed that proclivity in ample measure.

JAYALALITHA'S most serious grievance is the Central Government's insistence that the conditions prevailing in Tamil Nadu do not warrant the invocation of Article 356, which enables the dismissal of an elected State government. In a different context, this grievance is shared by the Samata Party, which believes that the conditions are appropriate for the dismissal of the State Government in Bihar, run in all but name by Laloo Prasad. Swamy's effort to bring about a harmony of interests between Laloo Prasad and Jayalalitha, notwithstanding their divergent perceptions, may elicit some mirth were not stranger alliances of convenience an undeniable part of current political reality.

The Samata Party is getting increasingly restive at the BJP's scruples over Article 356. At a recent conclave of its apex executive body, the Samata Party adopted a resolution calling for the immediate dismissal of the State Government in Bihar. In shedding all pretence of self-restraint, the Samata Party was impelled by the survival imperative. With his shrewd eye for tactical advantage, Laloo Prasad had begun preying on the loyalties of several stalwarts of the Samata Party, aware that disgruntlement was rising within the ranks over the dominance of Nitish Kumar's caste grouping. An embarrassing loss of face for the Samata Party's leadership duo of Fernandes and Nitish Kumar seemed a possibility unless Laloo Prasad was quickly neutralised.

Used to hearing what she wants to, Jayalalitha meanwhile was not obtaining the most reassuring feedback from her allies. Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Vaiko (formerly V. Gopalsamy) expressed himself, even if obliquely, against the perennial game of brinkmanship she had embarked upon. There was a clear mandate for Vajpayee's prime ministership, he indicated, and care should be taken that nothing is done to undermine it.

Another ally of Jayalalitha, S. Ramadoss of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, also seemed less than convinced of the wisdom of the course she had adopted. Shortly after she made public the opinion that her acolyte Sedapatti R. Muthiah's exit necessitated the removal of Ramakrishna Hegde, Ram Jethmalani and Buta Singh from the Union Cabinet, Ramadoss subtly distanced himself from the demand - there had been no prior consultation on this issue, he claimed.

THE Prime Minister, meanwhile, seemed to have chosen the strategy of saying little and deciding nothing. Despite retaining the External Affairs portfolio and professing an abiding interest in international relations, he decided against attending the Cairo summit of the group of 15 developing nations (G-15) towards the middle of May. This would represent the second successive summit of the G-15 that India has failed to send its Prime Minister to, after I.K. Gujral opted out of the Kuala Lumpur meeting in November last year. India's record of commitment to this alternative deliberative forum stands undermined to some degree by this decision, while the rewards accruing on the domestic front remain uncertain.

Vajpayee had reportedly been instrumental in securing Buta Singh's removal from the Union Cabinet, as also Sukh Ram's removal from the Himachal Pradesh Ministry. Buta Singh, however, was threatening dire consequences. At the ethical level, he claimed, his exertions on behalf of the BJP were commensurate with whatever he had done in the case of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha - lobbying for votes for the survival of the P.V. Narasimha Rao Government - for which he was facing criminal indictment. Whether this was to be read as an admission of equal culpability or equal innocence was left enigmatically unsaid. Buta Singh also alleged threats and harassment from the Prime Minister's principal political adviser, Pramod Mahajan, prior to his removal from the Union Cabinet. Although he insisted, in initial pique at his summary ejection, that he would initiate legal proceedings against Mahajan, he is yet to follow up the threat with any action.

Commerce Minister Ramakrishna Hegde.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

After their initial belligerence, Hegde and Jethmalani seemed to retreat into a mood of caution. Hegde was obviously offended by the virulent reaction he had elicited from All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam circles. There have been few precedents for a group of Ministers signing a petition directed against a senior colleague, demanding that he either "shut up or get out."

In suggesting that elections would be preferable to continuing forbearance - when certain allies were unrestrained by any sense of decorum - Hegde showed a certain insensitivity towards the mood of election fatigue that has beset the political class. He was quick with the disclaimer that elections would only be a last resort. He retained his counsel after the public reproach administered by the AIADMK. But he could not have been reassured by Vajpayee's comment that early elections were a "preposterous" idea.

Vajpayee's sense of outrage at Hegde's minor transgression of coalition etiquette reflects his own sense of priorities. Hegde brings a meagre three seats to the ruling coalition, from a State where the BJP has realistic ambitions of emerging the clear winner in next year's Assembly elections. Jayalalitha, in contrast, could claim between 18 and 27 Members of Parliament as her committed followers, all from a State where the BJP enjoys only a peripheral presence. That this has induced a sense of subservience in a party till recently used to projecting itself as a purposive and committed formation is a reflection of the BJP's insecurity. Few observers seem willing to bet that this vulnerability will be substantially assuaged with the meeting of the coordination committee.

The stakes on all sides are high, and the game of one-upmanship could soon push all the players into a competitive spiral of political extremism.

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