Published : Mar 02, 2002 00:00 IST

In the February 2002 round of Assembly elections, the electorate has put paid to the BJP-led government's gamble of stoking a new nationalist militancy over the scourge of terrorism. And the BJP's credibility as the leading party at the Centre comes under serious threat.

JUST short of touching the halfway mark of its tenure, the Atal Behari Vajpayee Ministry is lurching into a midlife crisis of multiple dimensions. There is a crisis of the imagination apparent in its blundering approach to the economic recession, its mindless reiteration of the discredited nostrums of privatisation and liberalisation. There is a crisis of internal cohesion manifest in the determination of the Hindutva fringe to resurrect the agenda of communal provocation, which has now decidedly reached the point of diminishing political returns. And there is a crisis of popular legitimacy evident in the complete shutout the Bharatiya Janata Party as a party has suffered in the recent elections to four State legislatures. Vajpayee and his associates, notably Home Minister L.K. Advani, may have imagined that they could renew their lease of political relevance by stoking a new nationalist militancy over the scourge of terrorism. But the electorate has put paid to this gamble in a manner that endows a bet on the imminent demise of the BJP-led government with a distinct chance of success.

Ironically, while shackling the government and preventing it from taking constructive initiatives to deal with the diverse challenges it confronts, political gridlock could also be its only assurance of survival. Disillusioned and clearly restive, the BJP's many partners lack real options. Parting company with the ruling National Democratic Alliance could destabilise the Vajpayee government though not topple it. Among all the constituent parties, only the Telugu Desam Party has the ability on its own to write the obituary of the government. But a powerful negative incentive exists for prospective deserters in the mutual allergies between the Congress(I) and its potential partners, which makes an alternative government a difficult proposition within the numerical parameters of the current Lok Sabha.

A powerful agent has now been found to dissolve mutual antipathies in the Samajwadi Party's dependence upon Congress(I) support for forming a government in Uttar Pradesh. The writing on the wall has been clear for S.P. president Mulayam Singh Yadav since the results came in on February 24. And inevitably, the price to be paid would be a reciprocal arrangement to back up the Congress(I) at the Centre as part of a national alliance.

By February 25, the final shape of the legislature in U.P. had become clear. With counting in two seats suspended on account of suspected irregularities, the S.P. had firmly consolidated its position in the 403-member House with a tally of 143 seats. With allies contributing another four seats, the S.P. was both the largest single party and the leader of the largest pre-poll alliance.

Falling short of a majority by over 50 seats, the S.P. had made discreet overtures to the Congress(I) to secure the support of its 26 members. Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was interceding in the mission of restoring relations between the embittered rivals to a semblance of cordiality. The Congress(I) has not forgiven Mulayam Singh for having refused to back Sonia Gandhi's bid for the Prime Minister's post in 1999. And Mulayam Singh, for his part, has been zealous in refusing to concede any ground to the Congress(I) in U.P., for fear that a recovery in its fortunes would cut into his core constituencies.

A mutual accommodation between the Congress(I) and the S.P. appeared inevitable simply because no other combination had even a remote chance of success. The big loser in the U.P. elections was the BJP, which finished with 88 seats, slightly over half its strength of 160 in the outgoing House. With its allies, notably the Rashtriya Lok Dal of Union Agriculture Minister Ajit Singh, the BJP is expected to command a strength of 107 in the newly constituted legislature. This leaves it with few options to make a realistic bid for power.

In proportionate terms, the biggest gainer in U.P. has been the Bahujan Samaj Party. Once the party of Dalit and backward class assertion, the BSP went through a complete character transformation, providing the party ticket to a wide range of communities in the just concluded elections. The rewards have been dramatic: it has increased its strength by close to 50 per cent, to finish with 97 seats in the legislature.

The big worry for the party now, of course, is retaining its flock. In 1996 the BSP began its tenure in the legislature with 66 members, but a succession of splits reduced it to 43 by 1998. In situations of stalemate, the BSP has been the first target of U.P.'s practised political head-hunters. Two days after the election results were in, the hunting expeditions had reportedly commenced. And the BSP's top leadership - party president Kanshi Ram and Chief Minister-in-waiting Mayawati - who had arrived in Delhi and maintained an inscrutable silence, were actively considering transporting their entire flock to safe havens in Punjab.

MAYAWATI has twice before, in brief tenures, been Chief Minister of the State. On both occasions she was propped up by the BJP, the second time on the basis of an understanding on alternating as Chief Minister with a BJP nominee at six-month intervals. Neither arrangement survived beyond a few months. But observers think that in the current situation there is likely to be a fresh stimulus for the two parties to arrive at an accommodation from their common interest of keeping Mulayam Singh out of power.

Party spokespersons discounted suggestions that negotiations had begun. But certain observers are convinced that the leaderships of the two parties had kept in touch all through the election campaign. Yet, both parties were wary of an open engagement because of the possibility of serious internal schisms emerging. A powerful section within the BJP, associated with incumbent Chief Minister Rajnath Singh, was known to be pressing the view that the best option for the party was to sit in the Opposition and allow its adversaries to be overwhelmed by the incumbency disadvantage in the next elections. This section derived considerable strength from the assessment of the national leadership of the party that the U.P. outcome would not have any immediate repercussions on the stability of the government at the Centre.

A day after formally submitting his resignation to Governor Vishnu Kant Shastri and being asked to continue till alternative arrangements were made, Rajnath Singh arrived in Delhi with Kalraj Mishra, president of the U.P. State unit of the BJP. After a meeting of the party's parliamentary board, the BJP's national president, Jana Krishnamurthy, made a brief public statement. The party, he said, read the electoral verdict in U.P. as a mandate for sitting in the Opposition. This reading was reaffirmed by Mishra in remarks to the media. The local chief of the party did, however, hint at the possibility of a flexible approach: "As the situation develops, we will decide our stand. We expect the Governor to find out who can give stability."

The BSP, which was waiting for a signal from the BJP about its intended course of action, did not react formally. Mayawati was undoubtedly inclined to view the BJP's formal disavowal of interest in forming a government as a negotiating ploy. But she had little to negotiate with since her claim to the chief ministerial post was an irreducible demand. The BJP was informally known to be willing to bring her on board the Union Cabinet, though it has firmly set its face against the option of propping her up as Chief Minister and submitting its fortunes in the pivotal northern State to her rather quirky style of governance.

As the BSP continued its agonising wait, pressures were building up from other quarters. A delegation representing the People's Front - which in U.P., translates itself effectively into the S.P. - was planning to call on the President, to impress upon him the need to invite the largest single party in the State legislature to form a government. The Congress(I) was awakening to the realisation that it could not remain uncommitted for too long, since, like the BSP, it also faced the threat of poachers making off with sections of its flock. An affirmation of support for the S.P. was expected to make a quantum difference in the situation, greatly enhancing Mulayam Singh's ability to attract fringe elements from within the BSP. Two days after the election results were in, the momentum was clearly in Mulayam Singh's favour, though he remained cautious in his utterances and showed little clarity about how he would finally assemble the requisite legislative numbers.

MEANWHILE, Vishnu Kant Shastri indicated that he did not contemplate any specific time-frame for completing the exercise of swearing in a new ministry in the State. The Constitution, he said, accorded legitimacy to the existing legislature until March 26 and the new House need only be constituted following that date. He also expressed the view that he would not be bound by the convention of giving the party with the largest number of seats the first chance at forming a government. Stability, he indicated, would be a crucial criterion and any party or combination of parties that staked a claim to Ministry formation needed to provide credible evidence of a legislative majority.

Constitutional experts have observed that there are diverse kinds of precedents that the Governor could follow in constituting the next Ministry. After the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, President Shankar Dayal Sharma went by the narrow precedent of inviting the leader of the largest single party to form a government. This proved an unworkable solution since the first Vajpayee Ministry collapsed within 13 days.

After the U.P. Assembly elections of 1996, Governor Romesh Bhandari declined to follow this precedent and instead recommended an extension of President's Rule beyond the maximum constitutionally-sanctioned period of one year. The Allahabad High Court held his action to be ultra vires of the Constitution. The matter was referred to a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, which is yet to give its ruling.

President K.R. Narayanan, following the indecisive outcome of the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, established the practice of seeking written statements of intent from all political parties seeking to form a post-poll alliance. Some constitutional experts believe that this is the best practice, though others are not convinced that the head of state should get involved in the business of creating political coalitions. The principle of the single largest party getting the first call, they say, is the best practice.

Where President S.D. Sharma probably erred in 1996 was in laying down a deadline for the newly sworn in Ministry to secure the confidence of the legislative body it was accountable to. Rather, say these experts, the onus should be on the Opposition to initiate a motion of no-confidence in the Ministry if it has valid grounds to suspect that the government lacks the requisite legislative majority. This would move the process of political coalition-building out of the presidential and gubernatorial mansions, into the hall of the legislature, where it rightly belongs, these experts argue.

IN both Punjab and Uttaranchal, the unequivocal majorities that the Congress(I) registered are being read as a clear-cut manifestation of the incumbency disadvantage. In relation to its senior coalition partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the BJP suffered disproportionately in Punjab, being reduced to less than a fifth of its strength in the outgoing Assembly. The SAD on its part has retained ground in many of its traditional bastions, despite opinion surveys and exit polls predicting a rout. Seen against the predictions made by the exit polls, the Congress(I) majority falls short by over 20 seats. The new Chief Minister will have a comfortable enough majority to provide a stable government, though the extravagant predictions made by the exit polls make his relatively slim majority seem almost akin to defeat.

The margin of popular vote share separating the Congress(I) from the rival SAD-led front is just 1.6 per cent. This has led to much speculation about what the SAD could possibly have done differently to improve its electoral performance. And one of the possible options that the SAD could have pursued to its advantage, in the assessment of election pundits, is to have parted company with the BJP and instead forged an alliance with the BSP. This is a reality that is likely to hang heavily over the future participation of the SAD in the NDA government at the Centre.

Despite a fairly comfortable victory in Uttaranchal, the Congress(I)'s choice for the Chief Minister's post remained shrouded in mystery for long. There was, to begin with, considerable speculation over Congress(I) spokespersons' announcements that the new nominee need not come from within the ranks of the elected legislators. This was initially regarded as a necessary concession to realities, since neither of the party's senior leaders in the State, Harish Rawat and Satpal Maharaj, contested the elections. Word was also leaked out that N.D. Tiwari, senior Congressman, former U.P. Chief Minister and one-time member of the Union Cabinet in virtually all the heavyweight portfolios, may be asked to take up the responsibility. This was considered a remote possibility since Tiwari's experience makes him an outsized political personality in relation to the responsibilities of administering a small State. But after a spot assessment in Dehra Dun, the two Congress(I) general secretaries - Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ambika Soni - could do no better than prepare a short-list of five possible nominees and leave the final choice to party president Sonia Gandhi.

THE verdict in Manipur has been remarkable for its complexity. With scant respect for reputations, the electorate has sent three former Chief Ministers packing - Radhabinod Koijam, Rishang Keishing and Nipamacha Singh. The Congress(I) has emerged as the single largest party, with 15 seats in the 60-member legislature. It is closely followed with 12 seats by the Federal Party of Manipur, the strongest of the five reasonably credible regional parties. The BJP again sought aggressively to build up a constituency for itself in the Naga hill areas, banking on the aborted decision of the Central government last year to extend the ceasefire with the Naga insurgent groups to the territorial bounds of Manipur. But it came a cropper with just one seat to its tally in the hills and another in the Imphal valley. Aside from the viability of any coalition that may emerge from the fractured verdict, the State also faces the problem of finding a new level of leadership that could substitute for the senior personalities who have been ejected.

Finally, there have been few unequivocal victors from this round of elections, though there is little ambiguity about identifying the one big loser. Now reduced to being the ruling party in just two States, and a junior partner in governments in two others, the BJP's credibility as the leading party at the Centre is under serious threat. The Congress(I), in contrast, is now the ruling party in no fewer than 13 States, though its growing irrelevance in the two largest states of U.P. and Bihar impedes it from making a credible bid for power on its own.

Intense political skirmishing is foretold by the agenda of the Budget session of Parliament, when, apart from the Union Budget, the government hopes to push through several important pieces of legislation. And then the election of the next President, which should take place not later than July, could test the main parties' political strength across the board - not merely in Parliament but in all the State legislatures too. Difficult days are clearly ahead for Vajpayee and his associates.

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