Contrasting Fronts

Published : May 09, 1998 00:00 IST

For all its starting glitches, the United Front never plumbed the depths of personal rancour that is on display in the BJP-led coalition.

AS coalitions go, the Atal Behari Vajpayee Ministry is an omnibus of considerably greater size than the United Front which preceded it. Despite having a larger number of constituents, coalition spokesmen insist that it retains greater internal coherence. In the mesh of alliances that constitute the ruling arrangement, the majority of linkages were forged prior to the electoral contest, argue BJP spokesmen. They have been tested in the heat of battle and pre-election agreements alone brought into the BJP's embrace a tally of seats only marginally short of a parliamentary majority. The foundations of the ruling coalition, they conclude, are rather well placed.

The early turbulence, in other words, is no prognosis of the longer term prospects of the BJP-led coalition. Once the ripples die down, the country, in the confident estimation of BJP partisans, can be certain of a long spell of stable and responsive governance.

These claims need to be assessed against the actual record of the Vajpayee Ministry's first 45 days, when it has been beset by the kind of turmoil that the United Front Government never confronted. To an extent, this is a reflection of the U.F's ability to keep alive the culture of dialogue, and the presence within the BJP coalition of whimsical and volatile personalities such as Jayalalitha.

The U.F. was also a grouping of very diverse political interests, converging only on two fundamental axioms - the BJP could not be allowed anywhere near the levers of power, while the Congress(I) was acceptable as a passive prop, but not as an active determinant of policy. It was nevertheless successful in establishing a far more serious tone of policy discussion in its early phase than the Vajpayee Ministry has achieved.

As a political experiment, the U.F. was also distinct from the current coalition in being a confederacy of equals. There was no single party or bloc that could exert a disproportionate influence within it. It was a circumstance that induced a sense of mutual respect among the participants and also gave the parties of the Left, particularly the Communist Party of India (Marxist), an opportunity to drive certain hard bargains on matters of both policy and personnel.

VAJPAYEE'S coalition, in contrast, provides an immense numerical advantage to the BJP - the next largest partner of the front has just under one-tenth the seats tally of the leading party. Ironically, this has contributed not to a greater sense of stability, but to a disproportionate accretion of power in the hands of the bit players. Far from inducing a sense of mutual respect, this seems to have only sharpened the reciprocal sense of aversion between the partners. Despite its numerical dominance, the BJP seems, in a perverse sense, the most insecure element of the coalition, eager to yield to all demands, anxious to placate every ego.

The U.F. could take the serious risk, at the moment of its constitution, of fighting a bitter battle over the propriety of including an individual facing criminal prosecution in the Union Cabinet. It was an encounter that ended with decidedly mixed results. As a weighty participant in U.F. councils, Laloo Prasad Yadav made no secret of his pique at the denial of a ministerial berth to Sharad Yadav, his close associate.

In a spirit of defiance, Laloo Prasad responded by appointing Sharad Yadav the working president of the Janata Dal - a placatory offering cast very strongly in the Congress mould. Informed observers then wondered whether Sharad Yadav would not be a lesser hazard within the Cabinet than in occupation of a pivotal position in the U.F's leading party. These forebodings proved well-founded in the months that followed.

Consistency was not apparent in the application of this basic principle of public accountability in the case of the U.F. Orissa patriarch Biju Patnaik was excluded from the Cabinet despite his compelling political stature, on account of his indictment in an ongoing corruption case. But S.R. Bommai, who then seemed in imminent danger of indictment in the hawala case, gained a Cabinet position because the intricacies of factional politics in Karnataka made it obligatory for H.D. Deve Gowda to accommodate him in the Cabinet.

Ramakrishna Hegde, who ironically finds himself again at the storm-centre today, had also posed the most serious challenge to the internal cohesion of the U.F. in 1996. Although his sense of isolation within the Janata Dal had been growing over the years, Hegde's expulsion just the day after the Deve Gowda Ministry obtained a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha created much early turbulence. The precipitate move, which dispensed with due procedures of party discipline, was clearly an act of reprisal for the less-than-flattering opinions that Hegde had been airing about Deve Gowda's suitability for the Prime Minister's job. This was the culmination of a long-running feud between the two Karnataka leaders.

The immediate outcome was that Deve Gowda had to make one more placatory offering for a disgruntled Minister from Karnataka. R.L. Jalappa of the Janata Dal thus had the distinction of being sworn in twice within a week - first as Minister of State with independent charge of Textiles, and then as Cabinet Minister.

Beni Prasad Verma of the Samajwadi Party also went through the same upgradation though not in quite so compressed a time-frame. With elections to the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly being imminent, the U.F. was initially divided over the choice of allies. A strong opinion within the party favoured the marginalisation of the Samajwadi Party and the courtship of the Bahujan Samaj Party. It took the vigorous intervention of the Left parties to settle this particular dispute in favour of Mulayam Singh Yadav's S.P. Once that controversy was settled, Verma earned a promotion as a recognition of his leader's heightened clout within the U.F.

Mohammad Taslimuddin, who had been sworn in as a Minister of State and entrusted with important responsibilities in the Ministry of Home Affairs, was meanwhile getting dragged into controversy. Certain unsavoury aspects of his past political conduct were dredged up by a vigilant newspaper whose editor had earlier suffered electoral humiliation at his hands. Although well short of judicial strictures or indictment, Taslimuddin was compelled to recognise certain proprieties and quit.

Sharp disputes over policy arose in the early days of the U.F. over a hike in petroleum prices that was announced without the courtesy of prior consultation within the full Cabinet. A set of austerity measures that the Finance Minister proposed, again without the requisite effort at consensus-building within the coalition, also proved contentious. There was also a spot of discord over the appointment of Romesh Bhandari as Governor of U.P. - a position from where he was to create infinite embarrassment for the U.F. in the months that followed.

Discord does not lend itself to quantitative treatment. It is impossible to compare the BJP coalition's rocky debut with that of the U.F. in absolutely objective terms. But the U.F., for all its starting glitches, never quite plumbed the depths of personal rancour and ill-will that are on display today. Nor did it allow itself to become hostage to the kind of crude pressures that Jayalalitha is today bringing to bear on the Vajpayee Ministry. And even if the distribution of office was a continual process of responding to pressures and buying peace with power-brokers, there were certain institutions - such as the gubernatorial posts, that remained largely immune from the taint of the spoils system.

TO an extent, the U.F. benefited from having a charter of association that was relatively detailed and covered all the major priority areas of policy. The Common Minimum Programme that formed the basis for the U.F. as an alliance was as broad in its conception and as focussed in its attention to detail as the BJP coalition's National Agenda for Governance is hasty in its conception and banal in its contents.

Although the U.F's record of adherence to the promises of the CMP was considerably less than distinguished, all through its rocky tenure it served as a standard of political performance. The BJP coalition has set itself no such standards. That may be a circumstance of some convenience, making any kind of bargain and compromise justifiable in the cause of survival. But it also raises the possibility that survival, rather than governance, may become the sole passion of the ruling coalition.

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