The fallout in the alliance

Print edition : March 02, 2002

INDIA'S federal scheme has a built-in insurance provision against electoral verdicts in the States being treated as people's judgment on the performance of the Central government, and vice versa. Therefore, technically speaking, the Atal Behari Vajpayee government has not lost its legitimacy to govern the country following the reverses that partners in his ruling alliance have suffered in the latest Assembly elections. The Prime Minister had also denied during his election campaign that the outcome of the polls would amount to a reflection on his government's performance or that they would constitute any sort of a referendum on his government.

But India's federal structure is such that political changes in the States will inevitably have an impact on the character of the Central government. More so when different political parties rule the States and the Centre. Even though it would be correct to say that voters in a State election vote on State-level issues rather than on national issues, there is bound to be some overlapping, as the agenda for the State elections is sought to be articulated by leaders concerned with national issues. And in India today, it is not unusual to find leaders aspiring for space in national as well as regional politics.

The Prime Minister and other senior leaders of the BJP, therefore, now find themselves in a quandary. Having campaigned on the issues of fighting terrorism, Pakistan's proxy war and the build-up of tension on the border, BJP leaders are acutely embarrassed to concede that the electorate has decisively rejected the Vajpayee government's stand on all these issues and refused to be swayed by war-mongering.

Indeed, observers are tempted to compare the present predicament of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with the euphoria witnessed during the 1999 general elections. Held in the aftermath of the Kargil War, the BJP managed to whip up patriotic sentiments across the country during the run-up to the elections and managed a stable majority for the NDA. However, with the Kargil victory pushed to the background, the performance of the government on various issues became the criterion for the electorate in Assembly elections held thereafter.

In the February 2000 Assembly elections held in Bihar, Orissa, Haryana and Manipur, the Congress(I) no doubt suffered a rout, but the BJP did not emerge as the principal beneficiary of that. The BJP's allies, the Biju Janata Dal and the Indian National Lok Dal, achieved remarkable victories in Orissa and Haryana respectively while in Bihar, it was the Samata Party's Nitish Kumar who managed to become Chief Minister, albeit for a short while, through tactical manoeuvres.

In the May 2001 Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Assam and Pondicherry, the BJP was not in the reckoning, and this offered an excuse for its poor performance. Of over 800 Assembly seats at stake in the elections then, the BJP won the princely number of 11; its allies in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Assam suffered the worst rout.

The outcome of the February 2002 Assembly elections follows the script written soon after the Vajpayee government was returned to power in October 1999. Information Technology Minister Pramod Mahajan explained the results from Uttar Pradesh as being not vastly different from what the BJP secured in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. In terms of Assembly segments, the BJP had won perhaps a few more seats than what it has secured in the recent elections. The difference, therefore, he hinted, could be easily explained in terms of the anti-incumbency sentiment.

In Punjab, the BJP was hardly in the reckoning, and it was not expected to do any better than what it secured in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, even though its ruling ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), had improved its strength since the previous Lok Sabha elections, party leaders reasoned. In Uttaranchal, the BJP's rout hardly surprised party insiders, who admitted a series of mistakes on the part of the Central leadership in its efforts to tone up the party machinery.

While changing the Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh a year ago helped arrest the slide in the BJP's fortunes, a similar exercise carried out belatedly in Uttaranchal failed to help the BJP, it was felt. The relative inexperience of the new campaign strategists in the party's central office (as the tried and tested leaders have joined the Vajpayee Cabinet) and their inability to command the respect of State-level leaders were cited by party sources as the probable reasons for the debacle. In the case of U.P., some party leaders suggest that the BJP has to have some understanding with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in order to keep the Hindi heartland under its influence.

Whatever the factors, the NDA government at the Centre now finds only a few States under its control. On its own, the BJP rules only in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Goa. Its allies hold sway over Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Orissa. The BJP's diminishing influence in the Hindi heartland will therefore have a significant bearing on the ability of the NDA government to continue in office. Even though no one expects any ally to walk away from the BJP in the immediate aftermath of these elections, the poll outcome is expected to influence subtly relations between the Prime Minister and several of his allies.

Today the BJP's allies feel that they have nothing to lose if they cling to the ruling alliance. They are still not ready to accept that the verdict in the State elections indicates the diminishing returns of Vajpayee's charisma. Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee has reportedly expressed reservations about the Centre's disinvestment policy and the labour reforms, which, she believes, could have contributed to the BJP's reverses in the polls. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader in Parliament, K. Yerran Naidu, has expressed similar sentiments.

But apart from these mild pleas for mid-term course corrections, most of the BJP's allies appear unconcerned about the impact of the election results for the NDA. At the first meeting of the NDA held at the Prime Minister's residence on February 25 after the results came, the allies avoided the subject altogether, even though they reportedly requested NDA convener George Fernandes to convene a separate meeting to discuss the issue. Leaders of the BJP, sensing the mood of the allies, refuted the argument that the poll outcome amounted to an admonition of the Centre by the electorate. "There was no political issue involved in the U.P. elections. It was nothing but casteism that influenced the outcome," said former BJP vice-president J.P. Mathur.

The real indications of the impact of the election outcome on the NDA will be felt when the Vajpayee dispensation comes under pressure to take some hard decisions to contain the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) before its current campaign to build a temple at Ayodhya crosses legitimate limits and threatens communal peace. The Shiv Sena has already sounded a clear warning. Its supremo Bal Thackeray has blamed the BJP's ambivalent stand on building the Ram temple at Ayodhya for its poor performance at the hustings.

While the hardcore elements within the BJP subscribing to the VHP's militant agenda would agree with Thackeray, saner elements, if any, within the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar may say that Ayodhya was not an issue in the elections. Indeed, it was the fear that overplaying the Ayodhya card would further erode the party's vote bank that prevented the BJP and the NDA government from openly backing the VHP's latest campaign. Realising that Ayodhya would no longer serve as an effective electoral plank for the BJP, Vajpayee tried another game aimed at communal polarisation by his remark on the BJP's ability to win the elections without the support of Muslims. The remark, made towards the close of the election campaign, seems to have led only to the loss of whatever little support the BJP enjoyed among secular middle class voters.

Delinking Ayodhya from the electoral outcome would help the Parivar and the BJP substantially, it is felt. A return to hardline Hindutva agenda surreptitiously is possible if the BJP leadership distances itself from Ayodhya as an election issue. If it is conceded that Ayodhya was an election issue, and the failure to take a clear stand on it alienated the BJP from Hindu voters, an open espousal of the VHP's pro-temple movement by the BJP would be seen by its allies as furthering its electoral prospects as a prelude to the Lok Sabha elections due in October 2004. The dilemma of the BJP - and Vajpayee - now appears to be that it wants its allies, and also the VHP. Whether Vajpayee succeeds in keeping both with him remains to be seen.

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