The BJP attempts to champion States' rights seriously through a conference of its Chief Ministers. However, such articulation of federal issues on a party platform rather than among all Chief Ministers cutting across party lines indicates its political isolation.in New Delhi
ONCE bitten twice shy, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has implicitly accepted that governance in States where it is in power needs to be spruced up and that mere boasting about its so-called achievements in office, as it did during the term of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government at the Centre, would be disastrous. The party, which did not feel the need to convene a meeting of its Chief Ministers to discuss issues of governance in States all these years, now considers it useful to identify gaps in governance, articulate the federal grievances, and more important, adopt a united strategy to defend itself from the challenges posed by the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre. As an exercise in this direction, the party convened a two-day conference of its six Chief Ministers (of Gujarat, Jharkhand, Goa, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh) and one senior Minister from the coalition government in Orissa, in New Delhi on September 11 and 12.
As former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani admitted in his inaugural remarks at the meeting, the BJP's earlier avatar, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), had tried to evaluate governance while in power in 1967 in some States as a coalition partner. Called the `Bhopal Ministers' meeting', the exercise was abandoned following the BJS' long stint in the Opposition, both at the Centre and in the States, and its merger with the Janata Party in 1977. Since 1980, when it was formed, the BJP was so preoccupied with the pursuit of power at the Centre that it did not consider it relevant to revive this legacy even in the 1990s, even though the party was in power in several States. During the six years it was in power at the Centre, the BJP probably believed that governance in the States where it was in power was secondary to the consolidation of power at the Centre. The holding of the BJP Chief Ministers' conclave at this juncture shows that the BJP is reconciled to a long stint in the Opposition at the Centre.
Whatever the political compulsions of holding the conclave, the deliberations therein show that the party is still grappling with a dilemma - whether to focus on governance or to play adversarial politics dictated by realpolitik. At the Mumbai national executive meeting held after the Lok Sabha election results, a section of the leaders felt that the failure to run an adversarial campaign was responsible for the party's rout. It was pointed out that the BJP's campaign was largely positive, in that it sought to project the so-called achievements of the Vajpayee government.
This section of leaders argued that as voters were generally swayed by a negative campaign, it was imperative to discredit the Opposition, by focussing on its lack of cohesion and its perceived inability to provide a stable government. By the time the BJP sought to make the required correctives in its campaign, it was too late, it was suggested. However, the party's official documents, released at the meeting, did not find anything wrong with the party's `positive' campaign strategy, underlining the divergence of perceptions within the party.
At the Chief Ministers' conclave in New Delhi, the issues of governance in the States, in terms of the implementation of the promises made in the party manifestos released for the State Assembly elections, did not dominate the discussion. The party entrusted the responsibility of examining manifesto-implementation to a five-member task force comprising Yashwant Sinha, Arun Jaitley, Arun Shourie, Vijai Kapoor and Sudheendra Kulkarni. Instead, a "Charter of Action" was unveiled, making several new promises.
First, the conclave asked the BJP-ruled States to oppose the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which the UPA government has promised to do through an Ordinance. The conclave did not elaborate how the State governments should oppose the move. Secondly, it asked the BJP-ruled States to enact quickly anti-terrorism laws in case POTA is repealed. Obviously, both these steps are in line with what a section of the party believes to be an effective adversarial strategy to discredit the ruling combine. The party hopes to use the repeal of POTA as an instance of the UPA government's reliance on "vote bank politics" and "compromise" on internal security. Party general secretary Arun Jaitley criticised the Union Cabinet's decision to repeal POTA, claiming that the law was required to tackle the menace of terrorism. It could be argued, however, that the BJP pandered to the vote bank politics while enacting the law, dismissing all reasonable warnings from across the political spectrum about its likely abuse. Indeed, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government felt the need to create a Central Review Committee last year, admitting instances of abuse, to review the cases registered under the Act.
The BJP used the enactment of POTA - in the face of stiff opposition from the non-NDA parties in Parliament in 2002 - to advertise its commitment to fighting terrorism and thereby defending Indian nationhood. But the party found to its dismay that the anti-terrorism plank alone would not yield any electoral dividend. POTA was unable to prevent terrorist incidents from happening, nor was it an effective answer to secure the conviction of real terrorists. POTA's due process was unable to prevent its abuse against innocent persons, and this was widely acknowledged to be a factor contributing to the NDA's rout in the Lok Sabha elections. By appealing to the BJP-ruled States to reinvent POTA, the BJP, it seems, has learnt no lessons from its electoral debacle.
The States are no doubt competent to enact a new law to replace POTA, but under such a law, the scope for limiting its abuse is far more limited in the absence of a neutral authority to review the cases. As revealed by the People's Tribunal's report on Jharkhand, which registered the highest number of POTA detenus in the country, the BJP government in the State used POTA indiscriminately against its political opponents as well as innocent tribals fighting for their rights. The Gujarat government, too, invoked POTA against all the accused belonging to a minority community in the 2002 Godhra case. Only a national uproar forced it to reverse its move to impose POTA en masse on members of one community. If the BJP-ruled States have their way in enacting a new law to replace POTA, it would pose a serious challenge to the survival of civil liberties in these States. The BJP apparently has no patience to wait for the promised amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to strengthen the efforts to fight terrorism without the need for a special law.
The Chief Ministers' conclave proposed other steps as well: submission of a supplementary memorandum to the 12th Finance Commission for raising the State's share in Central revenues from the present 29.5 per cent to 40 per cent and for reducing the debt burden of States, with a one-time settlement of all old, high-cost loans; promotion of population control measures with incentives and disincentives to popularise the two-child norm uniformly among all sections of society. It also urged the UPA government to end delays in the allocation of funds to States, especially the BJP-ruled States, for construction of rural roads.
The BJP, it appears, has begun to champion States' rights seriously after losing power at the Centre. However, such articulation of federal issues on a party platform rather than among all Chief Ministers cutting across party lines suggests the BJP's isolation in the political spectrum. The Congress convened five conclaves of its Chief Ministers after 1999, the last one in Srinagar in May 2003, in order to expand its horizons and be inclusive. This tactic worked and the Congress came to power at the Centre despite losing power in some States. On the contrary, the BJP's politics of exclusivism would seem to be a serious liability in its efforts to improve governance in the States and prepare them, as former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said at the meeting in his valedictory address, for "greater responsibility" than what they have been entrusted with so far.