Contradictions and pressures

Published : Dec 23, 2001 00:00 IST

The deadlock and the debate in Parliament have shown up the divisions within the NDA.

THE Atal Behari Vajpayee-led coalition government has won the latest game of parliamentary numbers. The Congress(I)-sponsored motion seeking the removal of Ministers L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti was rejected 291 to 179 in the Lok Sabha on December 14. Yet, at the end of it all there are signs of a serious crisis of credibility and an erosion of Vajpayee's moral authority within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

For the first time since he returned to power in 1999, Vajpayee's aura as the leader of the coalition came under test. And he stood exposed, with some of the allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party, namely the Trinamul Congress and the Telugu Desam Party, v oicing their disagreement over the Prime Minister's stand on an issue that sets communal parties like the BJP and the Shiv Sena apart from the rest of the coalition.

Had the Prime Minister confined himself to a simple rejection of the demand for the resignation of the three Ministers, the allies would have had no complaints. Indeed, the political discourse around the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition on Dece mber 6 had appeared to be going on the same lines as in previous years. Last year too the Opposition parties had demanded the removal of the three Ministers. Vajpayee had then assured the NDA constituents that the government would not deviate from the Na tional Agenda for Governance (NAG). This seemed to have pacified the allies, some of whom felt that the law should take its own course in the demolition case and that nobody should be deemed guilty unless proven so. The Prime Minister then clarified that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ram Prakash Gupta had been clearly misquoted when he was reported to have emphasised that the BJP remained committed to the temple construction campaign. The allies were also satisfied with the Prime Minister's explanation t hat he did not intend to interfere with the Central Bureau of Investigation's (CBI) proceedings against the three Ministers and that the trial court was free to reach its own conclusion irrespective of what he felt about their culpability.

So, what prompted the Prime Minister this year to go beyond this position and refer to the building of a Ram temple at Ayodhya as an "expression of national sentiments" and say that the "task had remained unfinished"? Certainly, the Opposition's demand f or the resignation of the Ministers had not become any more shrill than it was last year. Although the Prime Minister clarified that he had not defended the demolition of the Babri Masjid and that what was significant was how the temple should be constru cted, the ruling coalition had suffered a serious strain.

Leaders of the Trinamul Congress and the TDP soon told the media that the Prime Minister should not have made such remarks. Telegu Desam leader K. Yerran Naidu, who termed the Prime Minister's remarks unwarranted, believed that they were bound to cause c onfusion.

Even as the Trinamul Congress and the TDP sought an explanation from the Prime Minister, Vajpayee went a step further and indicated on December 7 that he preferred the building of a temple at the disputed Ayodhya site. He talked about abiding by the cour ts' verdict on the issue, but explained that the courts could resolve the issue by permitting the building of the proposed temple at the disputed site. The Trinamul Congress, the TDP and the Indian National Lok Dal, all allies of the BJP, expressed their disapproval of the remarks, saying that they had sent a "wrong message" and that something needed to be done to correct the situation. They feared that such remarks would abet the growing communalisation in the country. But Yerran Naidu and Mamata Baner jee were hurt that Vajpayee, instead of distancing himself from his December 6 remarks, sought to amplify them. Agitated alliance partners like Mamata Banerjee demanded an urgent meeting of the NDA Coordination Committee to discuss the issue.

Embarrassed by the protests, Vajpayee realised that he ought not to have made the remarks outside Parliament when it was in session. He refused to be drawn into further discussion on the matter during interactions with the media, and reserved his clarifi cation to be expressed in Parliament. This helped Vajpayee to avoid the storm that had been expected at the NDA meeting held in New Delhi on December 10. Leaders like Mamata Banerjee were satisfied with the wording of the resolution passed at the meeting , even though it was factually incorrect. The resolution committed the NDA government to maintaining the rule of law and, in the matter of the litigation over the title of the disputed land in Ayodhya, to accepting and implementing the decision of the Su preme Court, "which is presently seized of this matter".

"The status quo must be maintained until the Supreme Court delivers its verdict," the resolution said. But there is no such title case pending in the Supreme Court. The title case is now before the Allahabad High Court. The BJP thus got away with a factually incorrect statement that does not really bind it to any commitment.

The resolution was also conspicuously silent on the controversial remarks made by Vajpayee on Ayodhya. Ironically, the resolution rejected the demands for the removal of the three Ministers, saying that the issue had no bearing on their constitutional du ties. Again, the resolution was silent on the Prime Minister having given a clean chit to the Ministers.

There is a feeling that the Prime Minister's remarks were perhaps intended to test the NDA allies' response to a bid by the BJP to pursue its own agenda. The aftermath of the Lok Sabha vote clearly brought this out, with BJP leaders vying with one anothe r to justify the party's position on the temple question, as if a ban on discussing openly controversial issues such as Ayodhya, the abrogation of Article 370 and the enactment of a uniform civil code was no longer relevant.

(The NAG, a set of guidelines for political conduct and a mutually agreed framework for policy action agreed upon by NDA partners ahead of the formation of the present government, is silent on Ayodhya per se. But the document committed the BJP and its al lies to national reconciliation and an end to divisions by declaring a moratorium on contentious issues. Through his remarks on the Ayodhya dispute, the Prime Minister violated that commitment. The NAG also promises genuine secularism and equality of all religions, besides efforts to create a riot-free order and an attempt at a consensual mode of governance.)

Home Minister L.K. Advani, meanwhile, suggested that ideology and governance had no relationship whatsoever and that one need not be apologetic about one's ideology. Put simply, it meant that the BJP, even while agreeing to keep certain controversial iss ues out of the NAG, had not abandoned its right to express its views on these issues. Party spokesperson V.K. Malhotra added a caveat by warning NDA allies that they should respect the BJP's sentiments the same way they expected it to honour theirs.

Mamata Banerjee and Yerran Naidu extracted a promise from the Prime Minister on the eve of the voting on the motion in the Lok Sabha that the government was committed to the NAG and that it would abide by the court's verdict on the Ayodhya case, but the Prime Minister stuck to his formulation that the construction of a Ram temple was an expression of national sentiments; he even compared it to the reconstruction of the Somnath temple immediately after Independence. The allies did not realise that there was no dispute about the Somnath temple and that the comparison was not apt. While Mamata Banerjee later said in Calcutta that the rebuilding of the Babri Masjid was equally an expression of national sentiment, it was clear that the Prime Minister had ta ken the allies for granted, and that he did not expect them to disagree with him beyond a point.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi also warned that the party would quit the NDA should the NAG commitments be violated. While the timing of Karunanidhi's statement was significant, the BJP was not incline d to take it seriously. "The allies have to say something," quipped an aide to the Prime Minister.

Indeed, there was nothing new in what the Prime Minister assured Mamata Banerjee and Yerran Naidu. The Prime Minister and the BJP have at least for the record been saying that they would abide by the NAG and the courts' decision on Ayodhya. The question, however, is whether the Prime Minister and the NDA government would connive at the violation of the NAG by the militant outfits of the Sangh Parivar. As the courts' decision on Ayodhya is not expected in the immediate future, the BJP does not stand to l ose anything by seeming to give up its professed stand that in matters of belief, the courts have no role.

What perhaps explains the Prime Minister's newly aggressive stand on Ayodhya is the changing internal dynamics of the BJP. The relationship between Vajpayee and Advani, which has been the subject of speculation in the media for some time now, seems to ha ve finally stabilised. Not only Vajpayee rose to Advani's defence in the matter of the demolition case, but Advani showed the courage to criticise even the CBI, which is under Vajpayee's charge, and which had filed the charge-sheet against him.

Also, a year after assuming power again, Vajpayee perhaps felt the need to consolidate his position within the Sangh Parivar, in order to prevent any possible challenge to his leadership from within the BJP and also the coalition. While the likelihood of Assembly elections being held in Uttar Pradesh in 2001 might have been a factor behind Vajpayee's temptation to use the December 6 opportunity to make such statements, so that the Sangh activists are fully motivated to face the electoral challenge ahead , the Advani camp is equally happy that Vajpayee was compelled to defend Advani during the debate on the motion in Parliament.

In March 2000, the BJP's allies scored a victory over the BJP when they forced the BJP government in Gujarat to withdraw its order lifting the ban on participation by State government employees in the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Did the allies adopt a softer stand this time on a similar issue involving the question of secularism? It appears so. The reason may be the pressures the allies are facing in different States. The DMK, for instance, would not like to risk losing its pre sence at the Centre at this point, for Assembly elections are due early next year in Tamil Nadu. The Trinamul Congress, which is weighing the pros and cons of continuing in the Vajpayee Ministry at the Centre on the eve of the Assembly elections in West Bengal, perhaps has not found a big enough issue on the basis of which it could part ways with the BJP. The TDP, which supports the NDA government from the outside, does not face the prospect of an election in Andhra Pradesh in the near future, and ther efore has no compulsion to take a firm stand vis-a-vis the Vajpayee government.

DURING the week-long political drama, most of the NDA's allies, barring the Trinamul Congress, the TDP and the DMK, preferred to remain silent and refrained from articulating a stand with regard to the Prime Minister's remarks. Marumalarchi Dravida Munne tra Kazhagam leader Vaiko defended the three charge-sheeted Ministers in the Lok Sabha but chose to keep quiet on the Prime Minister's remarks. Samata Party leader and Defence Minister George Fernandes not only rose to the defence of the three Ministers in Parliament but refrained from questioning the Prime Minister for his remarks. So were other allies such as the National Conference, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the Akali Dal, the Biju Janata Dal, the Janata Dal (United) and the Jan Shakthi. Some of the allies showed the eagerness to coordinate their strategy in Parliament with the Trinamul Congress, the TDP and the DMK, by taking part in impromptu meetings convened by Mamata Banerjee, but unlike the Trinamul Congress and the TDP they did not hesitate to vote with the government. Although the professedly secular parties in the NDA as a ritual distance themselves from the BJP's stand on Ayodhya, it is a moot question whether they would function as a pressure group within the coalition to restrain the B JP.

With the various allies watching the BJP's next step, can Vajpayee continue to take them for granted? For how long the allies will bear with the situation for the sake of local compulsions is the big question.

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