SURVIVAL STAKES

Print edition : August 29, 1998

Despite escalating acrimony in the ruling coalition at the Centre, the BJP, acutely aware of what is at stake, shifts from confrontation to a mode of caution.

PUSHED once again to the brink of political despair by a recalcitrant ally last fortnight, the Bharatiya Janata Party initially went on the offensive, concluding perhaps that that was the best form of defence. But the show of bravado died out all too soon and by the last week of August, the party had slipped into a by-now-familiar mode: survival at any cost.

All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary Jayalalitha's allegation that the owners of a "well-known group of publications" had "paid hefty bribes to persons very close to the Prime Minister" to get Enforcement Director M.K. Bezbaruah transferred out stung the BJP to the quick. Evidently concerned by the effect that her charges would have on the party's image, BJP spokespersons momentarily gave up their self-imposed restraint and deplored Jayalalitha's outbursts, which they said were "unbecoming of an alliance partner". Push had come to shove, and the BJP perhaps felt that it had for far too long been seen to be appeasing Jayalalitha and that it was time to assert itself.

BJP leader Pramod Mahajan went one step further: the former Political Adviser to the Prime Minister dared Jayalalitha to name him as the person who had taken the alleged "hefty bribes", and prepare to face legal action. Mahajan claimed that Jayalalitha's description pointed an accusing finger at him, for he was the only one to leave the Prime Minister's office in recent times, and that she should stop playing a "hide-and-seek game".

But even as it unburdened itself of such harsh words, the BJP was careful not to provoke Jayalalitha beyond a point. The party does not expect her to withdraw support to the Government until the Congress(I) is ready to muster the requisite number of MPs and stake its claim to form a Government. Nor does the BJP expect the Union Ministers belonging to the AIADMK to resign. In fact, the BJP came under pressure from its other allies, principally the Trinamul Congress, to ease out the Ministers of the AIADMK from the Vajpayee Ministry. Indeed, Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee went so far as to demand that the AIADMK be expelled from the Coordination Committee of the BJP and its allies and instead invite the AIADMK's principal adversary in Tamil Nadu, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, to attend the next meeting. However, the BJP seemed unwilling to precipitate a crisis, and by the last week of August, after the three-day meeting of its National Executive in Jaipur, the party seemed ready to gloss over the entire episode and concentrate for the moment on staying afloat.

Rather than drop the AIADMK Ministers, the BJP evidently wants to create conditions in which their continuance in the Ministry would become untenable. And although it claims on the one hand that the AIADMK will not withdraw support, it reckons that its Government will survive even if such support is withdrawn. BJP general secretary M. Venkaiah Naidu said: "If the Vajpayee Government is made to go, there is no alternative to elections". And in the party's calculation, no party wants to face elections at this juncture.

In the event of the AIADMK withdrawing its support, the BJP's strategy will be to continue to run a minority Government and leave it to the President to take a decision. Asked if the Government would resign if it was reduced to a minority, Venkaiah Naidu said: "Why should we resign and show our weakness?" The BJP anticipates a realignment of political forces in that eventuality: it appears willing to seek the support of new allies to make up the numbers.

The BJP feels enthused by DMK president M. Karunanidhi's statements on the desirability of the United Front taking a decision on supporting the Vajpayee Government if the AIADMK pulled out of the ruling coalition. It believes that certain other factors too could work to its advantage. One is the Congress(I)'s stand on the terms of reference of the Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency promised by the Action Taken Report on the Jain Commission Report on Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. During their talks with Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, Congress(I) leaders reportedly demanded an investigation of former Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao, V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar, apart from Karunanidhi. This demand, the BJP believes, would be a hurdle in the way of the Congress(I) seeking the support of the DMK, the Left parties, the U.F. and Chandra Shekhar. BJP strategists believe that the Congress(I) is unlikely to secure a majority even if it wins the support of the AIADMK and the Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha.

Besides, some of the other constituents of the AIADMK-led front in Tamil Nadu, such as the Tamalaga Rajiv Congress, the Pattali Makkal Katchi and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, are reported to have pledged continued support to the Government even if the AIADMK walks out.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee delivers his Independence Day address from the ramparts of the Red Fort. Faced with serious allegations of bribery at the highest levels of governance, levelled by a partner in the ruling coalition, the BJP responded with a few admonitory noises and then resumed business in an elaborate pretence of harmony.-V. SUDERSHAN

The BJP also sees the DMK's ally in Tamil Nadu, the Tamil Maanila Congress, as a potential ally, although there is little indication from the TMC of its willingness to extend its support. BJP leaders welcomed TMC leader S.R. Balasubramaniam's response to Union Minister of State for Personnel R. Janarthanan's complaint that he was kept in the dark in respect of the recent reshuffle of bureaucrats at the Centre. (Balasubramaniam reportedly said that the Minister of State for Personnel was not generally consulted or informed when the Centre transferred bureaucrats.)

THE political uncertainty on the eve of the National Executive meeting of the BJP from August 21 to 23 left party leaders largely unfazed; in their estimation, Jayalalitha would not press the button fast, and even if she withdrew support, the Vajpayee Government could survive in office for some months. The party appears to think that Jayalalitha's frequent recourse to the politics of brinkmanship had generated sympathy for the BJP with its other allies. If anything, there is a perceptible pressure to call Jayalalitha's bluff and risk losing her party's support.

Vajpayee with Union Home Minister L.K. Advani and BJP president Kushabhau Thakre at the party's National Executive meeting in Jaipur on August 23. The meeting steered clear of the contentious issues confronting the coalition, and blamed the Government's failures on the Opposition and the compulsions of coalition politics.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Although the BJP appears to be relieved that most of its other allies have stood by it in the face of the AIADMK's allegations in the matter of the transfer of bureaucrats, there is cause for anxiety on some fronts. The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in Maharashtra almost came unstuck after Ministers belonging to the BJP boycotted a Cabinet meeting in Mumbai on August 18. Although the stand-off was subsequently resolved at the State level, the signals it might have sent to the people about the state of the coalition may have a bearing on the Centre, according to observers.

The BJP's ties with the mercurial Mamata Banerjee are also not wholly sound. She initially criticised Bezbaruah's transfer, in the belief that it was carried out at Jayalalitha's behest. The Trinamul Congress was expected to join the Government in a proposed reshuffle of the Union Ministry, and the party was probably disappointed that the political uncertainty created by Jayalalitha's latest allegation had forced a delay in the expansion exercise. Mamata Banerjee has also been critical of the BJP's stand on the Srikrishna Commission Report and the Centre's failure to check prices.

The Samata Party is displeased that the Vajpayee Government has not dismissed the Rabri Devi Government in Bihar. Although the party's central leadership said that it understood the Vajpayee Government's difficulties in invoking Article 356, a campaign for the dismissal was stepped up under pressure from the Bihar unit. A Samata Party delegation led by Defence Minister George Ferandes met President K.R. Narayanan on August 21 and presented a memorandum claiming that the political and administrative machinery in Bihar had collapsed.

AIADMK general secretary Jayalalitha. In the opinion of Samata Party leader George Fernandes, Jayalalitha's manoeuvres are part of a deliberate design to disrupt the task of governance.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The party has also got the Centre to reject the report of the Durai Committee, set up by the United Front Government to inquire into the circumstances under which Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Joint Director U.N. Biswas sought the Army's assistance to arrest former Bihar Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav in the fodder scam case. Although the Calcutta High Court had exonerated Biswas, the Centre was contemplating going on appeal before the Supeme Court on the basis of the Durai Committee Report, which had recommended action against him.

The Samata Party also urged the Maharashtra Government to act on the Srikrishna Commission Report, but refrained from asking the Centre to take action against the State Government, which has rejected the report. Unlike the Trinamul Congress, the Samata Party is not in favour of expelling the AIADMK from the ruling coalition.

BJP leader Pramod Mahajan.-RAJEEV BHATT

The Akali Dal, which opposes the Vajpayee Government's decision to include Udham Singh Nagar district in the proposed Uttaranchal state, has not, however, carried its differences with the BJP to a breaking point. However, Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal's silence on the outcome of his talks with the Prime Minister is intriguing. The Akali Dal believes that it is best not to embarrass the Vajpayee Government over its demands at a time when it faces threats from the AIADMK. However, it is reportedly firm on its stand that it would oppose the proposed bill to create Uttaranchal if it included Udham Singh Nagar in the State. Further, Badal has demanded the setting up of another Commission of Inquiry to go into the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, on the lines of the Srikrishna Commission.

The Biju Janata Dal is wracked by dissidence, which threatens Union Minister for Steel and Mines Naveen Patnaik's hold on the party. The BJD does not have any serious ongoing dispute with the BJP, but it has not concealed its displeasure over the Centre's failure to announce a development package for Orissa, as promised. Although the BJP's other allies such as the Haryana Vikas Party and the Lok Shakti have no serious disagreement with the BJP at the moment, they too, like other allies, seem to have expressed the need for frequent meetings of the Coordination Committee to ensure prompt interaction and to evolve consensus on major issues. The Coordination Committee has met only twice since the coalition came to power, and even these two meetings did not help bring the allies together. The other parties that are offering support, such as the Telugu Desam, the National Conference and the Haryana Lok Dal, and some independents, are not part of the Coordination Committee, but they have extended issue-based support to the Government. The National Conference, for instance, has criticised the Maharashtra Government's decision to reject the Srikrishna Commission Report.

Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee.-SUSHANTO PATRONOBISH

THE BJP National Executive meeting steered clear of the contentious issues confronting the coalition. Party president Kushabhau Thakre blamed the Government's failures on the compulsions of coalition politics and on the Opposition; the Prime Minister, however, did not consider the AIADMK's threats to be serious. He rejected the demand for a CBI inquiry into Jayalalitha's charge about the payment of "hefty bribes", saying she had not given any evidence to substantiate the charge.

The political resolution adopted at the meeting lambasted the Congress' "efforts" to pull down the Vajpayee Government and form another Government with a disparate set of parties. There was no open criticism of the AIADMK, but a general plea was made for better coordination among the allies. Two more resolutions, one on Pokhran-II and the other on the economic situation, were adopted. The resolutin on the nuclear tests congratulated the Government on the "bold and decisive" step, suggested caution in any dialogue on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and asked the Government to bear in mind "national security concerns" and the "discriminatory character of the Treaty" before making India a signatory to any multilateral control regime. The meeting also urged the Government to review the unilateral moratorium on further nuclear tests, "if future developments jeopardise national strategic and security interests."

Samata Party leader Nitish Kumar.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The economic resolution gave expression to the party's concern over rising prices. Ironically, however, while Thakre blamed hoarders and blackmarketeers, the resolution attributed the inflation to the policies pursued by previous governments. The party suggested that the Government call a meeting of Chief Ministers "to facilitate the removal of controls on the movement of agricultural produce." The party's decision to move a resolution on the economic situation stems from apprehensions that inflation and the rising prices of vegetables would have an impact on the results of the Assembly elections due later this year in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi.

Virtually kicking off the party's campaign for the Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Vajpayee, who addressed a massive public meeting in Jaipur on August 22, said that the people had chosen the BJP after 50 years as they wanted a change in policy, attitude, approach and outlook. His Government, he said, was working and was stable and would complete its term.

It remains to be seen how the BJP will ensure change and stability, in the face of recalcitrant allies who support the Government.

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