Contradictions in an alliance

Published : Aug 05, 2000 00:00 IST

The Prime Minister's ability to manage the proprieties and demands of coalition politics has been put under severe strain in the course of the recent developments.

THE Supreme Court's rather blunt suggestion on July 21 that the Central Government seemed innocent of the norms of collective ministerial responsibility was a rebuke that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) could have done without, though the tendency for the partners in the coalition to go their separate ways on important political issues made it, in the eyes of many observers, an eminently deserved one.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, Defence Minister George Fernandes, Home Minister L.K. Advani and other leaders during the meeting of the NDA's constituents on the eve of the monsoon session of Parliament.

The NDA, having attempted a unique experiment of forging a 24-party ruling coalition at the Centre, perhaps believed that its partners would take time to adjust themselves to the requirements of the Cabinet system of governance, as they have varied backg rounds and ideologies with unique perceptions of issues and events. However, if recent events are any indication, time is not on the side of the NDA, since most of the partners seem determined to use every available opportunity to further their independe nt political interests. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's carefully cultivated image may have partly motivated the NDA partners to come together. But his political skills have been repeatedly put to the test during the course of the NDA's career in o rder to ensure that the image of his government does not suffer from the disparate compulsions of a diverse coalition.

The way the Bal Thackeray arrest drama was handled in New Delhi exposed the limitations of the Prime Minister's authority. Minister for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises Manohar Joshi, Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers Suresh Prabhu, and Minis ter of State for Revenue Banking and Insurance Balasaheb Vikhe Patil - all belonging to Shiv Sena - submitted their resignations from the Union Council of Ministers on July 19, when the possibility of Thackeray's arrest loomed large. Prabhu's letter said that he was quitting as he was unable to redress the genuine difficulties of his leader and fellow Shiv Sainiks in an hour of crisis in Maharashtra. The Prime Minister promptly rejected the resignations, evidently as they were seen as "loyalty demonstra tions" and Mumbai-centric political tactic.

Although the Prime Minister was within his rights in rejecting the resignations, most observers thought that he would have been better advised to accept them. The reasons cited by the Ministers for their resignations were narrow and partisan in their sco pe and seemed contrary to any notion of collective Cabinet responsibility. But the resignation drama and the spectacle of the threesome rejoining the Ministry after obtaining due clearance from their chief in Mumbai, caused serious damage to the image of the government. For nearly a week, the three Shiv Sena Ministers kept away from their offices to mark their protest.

Obviously, the Shiv Sena's demand for Central intervention to stop Thackeray's arrest found little support within the Cabinet. The resignations were intended as an act of protest against the Centre's unwillingness to issue a directive to the State govern ment, restraining it from placing Thackeray under arrest. The Shiv Sena even forced the postponement of a crucial meeting of the NDA on July 24, by threatening a boycott. The Shiv Sena leaders had earlier stayed away from the meeting of NDA leaders, held at the Prime Minister's residence, to decide the agenda of the ensuing Parliament session. BJP apologists, however, suggested that the meeting was postponed only because of a perception among its membership that it would be improper to hold the meeting on a day Parliament was paying homage to Rajesh Pilot and other members who had passed away. The BJP spokesperson, M. Venkaiah Naidu, attributed the postponement to a throat infection contracted by Vajpayee, only to correct himself later with the asserti on that the leader had not been indisposed.

The NDA meeting, if held regularly, could provide a mechanism to air grievances and differences within the coalition. Held customarily on the eve of a Parliament session to brief all the allies, including those not represented in the Cabinet, about the g overnment's agenda and approach to issues, the NDA meeting could help evolve a consensus within the ruling coalition on a range of issues. However, no serious discussion takes place at such meetings, which are gone through almost as a ritual. The result is that individual constituents of the NDA feel at liberty to talk in public about any issue, thus exposing the multiplicity and diversity of interests and identities within the government.

The leader of the Shiv Sena Parliamentary Party, Anant Geete, hoped that the Prime Minister would reconsider the Ram Jethmalani matter and reinduct him into the Cabinet. The manner in which Jethmalani had been removed from the Cabinet disappointed the Sh iv Sena, on whose support he was elected to Rajya Sabha. Though none of the other NDA constituents was critical of the Prime Minister's decision to drop Jethmalani from his Cabinet, the Shiv Sena made its displeasure public.

THE Prime Minister's move not to take even the NDA constituents and the BJP into confidence over the resignation of Jethmalani shows that he was not unduly concerned in this instance about the proprieties and demands of coalition politics, even when it w as an issue that affected his government's image. In practice, the Prime Minister's most intensive consultations take place within a narrow circle, which comprises Home Minister L.K. Advani, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, and the Ministers of s tate, Arun Jaitley and Arun Shourie, whom he consult before taking key decisions.

Although Defence Minister George Fernandes is also thought to be a member of this privileged group, the Prime Minister apparently does not give much weight to his views. Samata Party president and Fernandes' associate, Jaya Jaitly, was involved in an uns eemly spat with Minister for Sports S.S. Dhindsa and Minister of State for Revenue Dhananjay Kumar over the Income-Tax Department's attempt to raid her house in connection with the investigation of assets held by cricketer Ajay Jadeja, who has had a long -standing friendship with Jaitly's daughter.

Jaya Jaitly used the Defence Minister's residence to hold a press conference in which she made allegations against the Income-Tax officials, who met her in connection with the abortive raid. The Prime Minister had to ask Fernandes to restrain Jaya Jaitly , and request Dhindsa and Kumar not to react to her statements. Clearly, leaders of major constituents in the NDA do not feel the need to project an image of cohesiveness before the public, if their own personal stakes are high.

The Prime Minister's proclivity to limit access to him to a chosen group became clearer in the aftermath of Jethmalani's resignation. Arun Jaitley became the Minister of State holding independent charge of Law, Justice and Company Affairs, apart from Inf ormation and Broadcasting. The Minister of State for Planning, Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances, Arun Shourie, has been entrusted with the additional portfolio of Disinvestment, earlier looked after by Jaitley. The former Minister of State fo r Law and Justice, O. Rajagopal, a BJP veteran from Kerala, now has to be content only with Parliamentary Affairs, as Jaitley is a Minister of State with independent charge.

Arun Jaitley played a substantial role in mitigating the immediate damage caused by Jethmalani's revolt, through his deft handling of the issue in Parliament and outside. He has since emerged as the Prime Minister's key crisis manager. He sought to re-es tablish the "cordial relationship" between the executive and the judiciary by calling on the Chief Justice of India (CJI), Justice A.S. Anand, immediately after the latter had cut short a visit to London and returned to New Delhi. Jaitley initiated a pro cess of consultation with him over the appointment of the Chairman of the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTP) and the CJI cleared the name of the government's nominee, recommended earlier by Jethmalani.

The Prime Minister had another taste of the complicated coalition recipe, when the MPs from West Bengal belonging to the Trinamul Congress met him to demand the imposition of President's Rule in West Bengal following an outbreak of political violence in a few districts of the States. The Railway Minister and leader of the Trinamul Congress, Mamata Banerjee, endorsed the demand, in view of the deteriorating law and order situation in the State. The Prime Minister is inclined to discourage any such demand for Central intervention in States ruled by Opposition parties, a stand grounded on the reality of the NDA's lack of majority in the Rajya Sabha which means that it will not be possible to secure endorsement in the Upper House for such a move. But such demands continue to be made within the coalition, thus putting his ability to manage such contradictions under severe strain.

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