A coalition on hold

Published : Aug 29, 1998 00:00 IST

Despite the serious strains in the BJP-led coalition, the Vajpayee Government has survived solely because of the inability of the Opposition to put together an alternative dispensation.

WHEN Defence Minister George Fernandes purports to see a method behind the periodic tantrums from Chennai that are keeping the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition Government in a state of chronic anxiety neurosis, evidently he speaks on the strength of experience. Jaswant Singh, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, has been busy in his assigned special mission of global nuclear diplomacy, and Fernandes has earned the honour of being the BJP leadership's special emissary to the court of Jayalalitha in Chennai. By any reckoning, the task of mediation has been arduous. No sooner is one grievance assuaged than the truculent ally opens another front.

Between his effort to sort out the Cauvery water-sharing dispute involving four southern States and a supposedly routine bureaucratic reshuffle at the Centre, last fortnight it seemed that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had arrived perilously close to the final break. He was dismayed that his persuasive powers, which had earned the appreciation of the Chief Ministers of the four States - all incidentally from adversarial parties - only merited the scoffing disdain of his political ally from Tamil Nadu. And just when Fernandes seemed to have placated Jayalalitha's sense of pique came the descent to a new depth of uncivility.

This is not by any means the first time that accusations of receiving bribes have been laid at the doorstep of the Prime Minister. Parties of the political Opposition, under extreme duress and with firm evidence of efforts to cover up wrongdoing at high levels, have done so in the past - notably during the Bofors scandal. But for a partner in the ruling coalition to bring up such a charge is unprecedented. And for the leading party in the coalition to respond with a few admonitory noises and then resume business in an elaborate pretence of harmony within is perhaps an equally curious spectacle.

IF considerably lower value - since there is little novelty about them - were the utterances of certain individuals who seemed likely at one time to catalyse the formation of a new political alliance that would shut the BJP out of the corridors of power. Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, whose prophecy in mid-June that the BJP-led Government would fall within a week found few takers, today grumbles at the failure of initiative on the part of the other parties. Subramanian Swamy, yet to overcome his pique at exclusion from the Union Cabinet, continues to play the role of Jayalalitha's advance guard. But in each of his periodic forecasts of the imminent demise of the BJP-led Government, he shows the tendency to stray into thickets where his mentor is reluctant to follow.

Each phase of disharmony only succeeds in bringing things back where they started - in the intervals between attending to each of Jayalalitha's demands, the BJP-led Government has not had very much time to provide the kind of purposive and efficient administration that it promised. From the rather exceptional administrative arrangements that Jayalalitha demanded, which were partially conceded, to the dismissal of the Tamil Nadu Government, which was not, to the most recent fracas, Vajpayee and his circle of political confidants have seemingly had little time to attend to the pressing tasks of governance. If the spirit of dialogue and a degree of tolerance for dissent are prerequisites of successful coalition arrangements, none of the principals to the current goings-on seems to possess these attributes in any measure.

Fernandes' reading is that Jayalalitha's manoeuvres are part of a deliberate design to disrupt the task of governance. In compelling default on every promise made to the electorate, Jayalalitha's conduct goes beyond the irresponsible, says an obviously irritated Defence Minister.

Fernandes may well have a point, though the basis of his argument - that the BJP has an innate capacity for good governance which is being negated by its dubious allies - could conceivably be challenged. As far as current political realities are concerned, his intervention comes at a most inopportune time, in fact, just when the principal belligerents are seeking to reassure each other that there is no imminent prospect of a parting of ways.

BJP president Kushabhau Thakre set the mood, telling his party's National Executive in Jaipur that there would be no preemptive move to eject Jayalalitha's AIADMK from the ruling coalition. A day later, V.R. Nedunchezhian, notionally Jayalalitha's second-in-command in the AIADMK hierarchy, disavowed any intention of withdrawing support to the BJP-led front. The party would continue to campaign for causes that it believed were in the best interests of Tamil Nadu, he said, but it would do so as a responsible member of the ruling coalition.

The Defence Minister's remarks seem to suggest that he is only now catching up with the battle plans that the BJP had committed itself to a week before. Nettled by Jayalalitha's charges of bribe-taking at high levels, the BJP leadership had decided shortly after allowing the aggrieved Pramod Mahajan an opportunity to threaten retaliatory legal action, to get rid of the source of the turbulence. They obtained a valuable commitment of support from Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, who just when Jayalalitha opened up a new front in hostilities within the coalition, was working herself out of a mood of diffidence and preparing to take up ministerial responsibilities. Also buttressing the BJP's planned course of action was the conspicuous disinterest of the AIADMK's lesser allies in Tamil Nadu - Vaiko's Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and S. Ramadoss' Pattali Makkal Katchi, not to mention Union Minister Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthi's single-seat party, the Tamilaga Rajiv Congress - in settling scores with the BJP for imagined slights.

ONE force that restrains the disintegration of the BJP-led coalition is the sheer inability of the Opposition to put together an alternative dispensation. Perceptions remain fragmented on the other side of the divide, which has been described in wilful ignorance of the alacrity with which certain parties bridge it, as the chasm between secularism and communalism. Chandra Shekhar had added a virtual importunity to the Congress(I) in his mid-June prophecy, directed particularly at its newly-anointed president, Sonia Gandhi. Overlooking the basic fact that a prophet who transfers the onus for the fulfillment of his prophecy elsewhere forfeits all claims to that status, Chandra Shekhar suggested that the Congress(I) should do all the hard work to make a non-BJP government a reality. Subramanian Swamy, similarly, in defiance of the credibility gap he suffers in dealings with other parties, has assigned a pivotal position in his stratagems to the Congress(I)'s willingness to step in and fill the breach that the BJP collapse may engender.

These plans have strained against the obvious reality that the Congress(I) is still less than certain of the optimal strategy it should adopt in the effort to restore its centrality in Indian politics. A section led by Sharad Pawar believes that the current composition of the Lok Sabha offers adequate room for manoeuvre. Pawar's convictions enjoy the endorsement of powerful figures from the erstwhile United Front, like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav. This trio form a strong cross-partisan group advocating a phase of engagement with Jayalalitha, to accommodate her insecurities and entertain her whims, in the interests of toppling the BJP Government.

Pawar himself does not suffer from any lack of assurance. He showed an abundance of pragmatism and foresight in widening the Congress alliance in Maharashtra by bringing on board parties that had solid claims to local voter constituencies, but no independent claim to parliamentary representation. Though he oversaw the best performance by the Congress party in any State, he suffered the chastening experience of dealing with the central leadership's insecurity. He struck back, ensuring the defeat of a Rajya Sabha candidate who he thought had no claim to representing Maharashtra even if he was favoured by the central leadership.

Pawar suffered the censure of the central leadership in silence, confident that he alone was indispensable among all the regional satraps of the Congress. Now he has struck back with the suggestion that the Congress, if it entertains ambitions of governance, should learn to work with parties and formations which may not believe that Sonia Gandhi's leadership claims have any kind of axiomatic quality about them.

Other Congress(I) leaders have received this negation of dynastic legitimacy with a sense of outrage. Purno Sangma and Rajesh Pilot have both rejected Pawar's recent statement as an articulation of personal opinions, unrepresentative of party sentiment. Their reaction only seems to suggest that a raw nerve has been touched.

Sonia Gandhi remains averse to any kind of engagement with coalition politics - Jayalalitha tops her list of undesirable political associates, though Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav are not far behind. In the event of the Vajpayee Government collapsing, she would have few options in the current Lok Sabha, but to bargain for a Congress government enjoying the external support of all other parties. As of now, there are few parties save those on the Left, that have a favourable disposition towards this formula. Laloo Prasad and Mulayam Singh see little benefit in being passive props of a Congress government. Both need, in their current state of political vulnerability, the positive assurances of power that positions in government alone can bring them.

A factor that further confounds these calculations is the infirm state of loyalties of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which tends today to see national politics through the prism of factional animosities in Tamil Nadu. The DMK is almost certain to sign up as a member of the BJP-led coalition should Jayalalitha decide to part ways with it. This would not bridge the gap in the BJP coalition's parliamentary strength, but it would cause enough turbulence on the other sight virtually to paralyse all efforts at putting together an alternative coalition that has the requisite numbers in the Lok Sabha. Finally it is this negative assurance - that there is no alternative, an ironic reprise of the claims of dynastic legitimacy in the Congress - that alone sustains the Vajpayee Government.

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