Delicate balance

Print edition : July 18, 1998

The Congress(I)'s effort to patch up alliances that could ensure it a majority in Parliament is unlikely to run a smooth course in any State.

IT seemed at the moment of most acute vulnerability for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government at the Centre that a new alignment of political forces would take place with the Congress(I) propelled to a position of renewed pre-eminence. In mid-June, former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar seemed to be speaking with concrete foreknowledge of momentous events to come, when he predicted the demise of the Atal Behari Vajpayee Government within the space of one week. All it took for an alternative dispensation to emerge, he said, was for the Congress(I) to put in the necessary effort.

For the first time perhaps, the Congress(I) has fewer people from within than without working for the restoration of its centrality in Indian politics. The numerical balance of the current Lok Sabha makes it necessary that the Congress(I) should attract virtually every party that is not allied with the BJP into its orbit, and then work on some of the more restive partners in the ruling coalition. This makes for a recipe for instability - many of the potential partners that it may be forced to woo may be uncomfortable in the presence of the Congress(I), while some may be uncomfortable with each other.

The arithmetic being as delicate as it is, the Congress(I) would need to have both the Tamil Maanila Congress and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam on its side, and both the Trinamul Congress and the Left. It would, in other words, have to gather a melange of mutually conflicting political interests and then seek to govern on that basis.

Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and Rashtriya Janata Dal president Laloo Prasad Yadav at the launch of the Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha in New Delhi in June. In the Congress(I)'s reckoning, given the numerical balance of the current Lok Sabha and the mutually conflicting political interests of some of the parties, an alternative government led by the Congress(I) would be inherently unstable.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Majority opinion within the Congress(I), recognising the impracticability of such an exercise and the potential damage that a clumsy effort at coalition management could do to its image, is in favour of steering clear of this course of action. It is only a minority within - notably the Sharad Pawar group - which believes that an appropriate solvent can be found for any recalcitrant political interest in the shared exercise of power at the Centre.

A certain impetus to the process of forming an alternative to the BJP-led coalition came from the decision of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav to bring their parties together in a new alliance. The Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha effectively put an end to the United Front experiment and opened up new possibilities of collaboration between the Congress(I) and parties that had earlier been steadfast in their commitment to the politics of the "Third Force". A dramatic accretion of new adherents to the ranks of the RLM was promised. But in the three weeks since its formation, it was only able to attract the allegiance of former Union Minister Buta Singh, a recent victim of the BJP's late awakening to the need to maintain an appearance of political probity.

The Left parties have seemingly recognised that the U.F. experiment is at an end. Laloo Prasad and Mulayam Singh may have imparted the final blow to its fortunes, but the U.F. was always going to be a hard act to revive. As long as the politics of the Third Force retained some viability, it had depended crucially on the Janata Dal. As a centrist party with a reasonable geographical spread, the Janata Dal could become the hub around which a constellation of regional and Left parties could revolve. Its disintegration today in all but name spells the end of the politics of the Third Force and the need to transform this idiom into something more attuned to current realities.

The Left today recognises that the Congress(I) is the only party that can fulfil this function of the hub, around which the diversity of parties that have representation in Parliament can revolve. Communist Party of India (Marxist) veteran and West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu was the first to articulate this political posture with some clarity. The BJP experiment had failed, he said, and it was necessary to put together a new coalition to govern at the Centre. Since the Congress(I) was the only force that could impart some momentum to the search for an alternative, the CPI(M) would be prepared to cooperate with it to a limited extent, he said.

West Bengal Chief Minister and CPI(M) leader Jyoti Basu.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

By all accounts, Basu's views do not represent the official position of his party. But they were buttressed by the CPI, which shortly afterwards put the finishing touches to the draft political resolution that will be discussed and placed before its party congress in Chennai slated for September. The Congress(I), said the CPI resolution, would be an ally in the battle against the BJP and would have to play a vital role in the constitution of a "new United Front" to take on the responsibility of governance at the Centre.

This marks a revision of the CPI position since the last party congress in 1995. The earlier experiment with the U.F., says the draft political resolution, has "lost much of its relevance... due to several factors." And if the 1995 posture was to defeat the Congress(I) and prevent the BJP from coming to power, the current priority is clearly to eject the BJP-led alliance from power. This entails a grudging acceptance of the Congress(I)'s centrality, since it is the "main force against the BJP".

Basu had, meanwhile, reiterated his conviction that the Congress(I) must be given the requisite backing of the Left, should it seek to form a government to replace the BJP-led alliance. Should the BJP-led Government collapse, he asked of party colleagues who were unconvinced of the prudence of the line he advocated, what other option would there be, but one led by the Congress(I)?

An accommodation is rendered easier in West Bengal, since Mamata Banerjee's defection has decimated the Congress(I) and largely dispelled the antagonism that has always existed with the Left at the local level. But the Kerala unit of the CPI(M) would have more serious problems with accepting a phase of collaboration with the Congress(I). After all, the BJP is yet to exhibit any signs of electoral strength in that State.

UTTAR PRADESH and Bihar, where the Congress(I) has been reduced to a pale shadow of its former self, are two States where it could expect a relatively friction-free accommodation with the new allies. Mulayam Singh in U.P., however, has been ruffled by the appointment of Salman Khursheed as State Congress(I) president. He views this as an overture to Muslims, who are a vital part of his political constituency. And with the low threshold of tolerance that he has exhibited in recent times, he could well turn his back on any future arrangement with the Congress(I).

Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Mulayam Singh has shown this vulnerability earlier. He had early in the last election campaign warmly welcomed Sonia Gandhi's decision to campaign for the Congress(I). He was, however, less well-disposed towards Sonia's effort to regain the loyalty of Muslims through a patently simulated sense of regret over the Ayodhya incident. To an extent, his resentment was well-founded, since he had borne the brunt of the Congress(I)'s waffling attitude all through the days of menace in 1990 and 1991. But the sharpness of his reaction then had suggested a man who was keen to keep his electoral base intact against the threat of Congress(I) encroachment.

The prognosis then is that the Congress(I)'s effort to patch up a set of alliances that could ensure it a majority in Parliament is unlikely to run a smooth course in any State. This accounts for much of the reluctance of the party to go ahead with this effort. There is also a strong line of advocacy within the party that it can just wait out the BJP-led Government and capitalise on the incumbency disadvantage that it is inevitably going to suffer in the next electoral contest. The trouble with this argument is that environmental factors are unlikely to remain fixed.

The Congress(I)'s effort to restore its organisational viability in several States may alienate prospective allies and even some of its own factions. Coping with this wild dialectic of fission and fusion is the single most important challenge facing the Congress(I) leadership today.

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