The numbers game

Print edition : April 24, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

The BJP-led Government resorted to a variety of political ploys and stratagems in an attempt to survive the vote, but in the end it was paid back in its own coin by the BSP.

IN the end, it was a touch of Chanakyan deceit that undid the Government headed by the party of Hindutva. But under the circumstances, given the stakes involved and the nature of the opponent, the practitioners of the fine art of realpolitik - the leaders of the Bahujan Samaj Party - felt no qualms about the means they had employed to achieve their ends. On April 16, participating in the debate in the Lok Sabha on the Bharatiya Janata Party-sponsored motion seeking a vote of confidence in the Government, BSP leader Mayawati announced that the five MPs from her party would abstain from voting. The news electrified the Treasury benches, for the vote was proving to be a close race, and each vote in favour - and each abstention - seemed crucial, holding out the prospect of survival. The next day, however, in a deft about-turn, the BSP members voted against the motion, and the BJP-led Government lost the vote of confidence by a one-vote margin.

"Some deceit was required," said BSP president Kanshi Ram. "Otherwise they would have tried to split us." The less-than-subtle justification for the BSP's feint was of a piece with the manoeuvres that the political class as a whole employed in the run-up to the fall of the Government. According to Kanshi Ram, if his party had revealed its hand during the debate, the BJP would have, by means fair or foul, caused a split in its ranks, the way it did with the Uttar Pradesh unit of the BSP in October 1997, to ensure its survival.

In the forecourt of the Rastrapati Bhavan on April 14, Opposition leaders (from left) Indrajit Gupta, Aboni Roy, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Somnath Chatterjee, Sharad Pawar, Laloo Prasad Yadav, Arjun Singh, Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee. The delegation, which called on the President soon after the AIADMK withdrew its support to the Government, requested him to direct the Prime Minister to seek a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

While the BSP's ploy might seem to reflect a cynical worldview, the fact is that the machinations that were afoot in the national capital during the days leading up to the crucial trial of strength bordered on the Machiavellian. Clever ploys and intrigues are, of course, nothing new to Delhi's political world but the goings-on after the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam withdrew its support to the Government on April 14 seemed in some ways to plumb the depths. And it was the BJP which was to make the most signal contribution to this process.

Instead of accepting the Government's minority status in Parliament after the second largest party in the ruling coalition withdrew its support, the leaders of the BJP including Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee repeatedly asserted that the efforts to pull down the Government would fail and that its majority would be proved in the House as and when needed.

Seeming to offer a clue to the party's strategy, Pramod Mahajan, the Government's principal crisis-manager, said on April 14 that the ruling coalition would secure the support of a majority of the members present in the House. What was left unsaid was that the party was confident of ensuring that some sections within the Opposition would be persuaded to vote for the Government or abstain during the vote in order to ensure its survival. President K.R. Narayanan's directive on April 14 to the Vajpayee Ministry to seek a vote of confidence imparted a sense of urgency to the Government's efforts to implement this strategy.

At a meeting of floor leaders of political parties called by Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi on April 15, G.M. Banatwala, Murasoli Maran, Indrajit Gupta, Somnath Chatterjee, Sharad Pawar, Laloo Prasad Yadav and others.-ANU PUSHKARNA

THE "survival plan" chalked out by the BJP's crisis-mangers reduced all political questions to a numbers game. And, evidently, nothing - neither parliamentary norms nor commitment to a political ideology nor personal and organisational integrity - was sacred anymore. The hunt for MPs was taken up with zeal, employing entreaties, allurements and threats. Political office, sinecure positions and other material matters were offered to MPs; in some cases the threat of "exposure" was brought into play.

The BJP's persuasive powers seemed to be working, up to a point, as some parties and leaders performed amazing political somersaults. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the principal opponent of the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, "discovered" barely 24 hours after the AIADMK formally parted ways with the BJP that the saffron party's communalism was less dangerous than the "threat posed to the country by AIADMK leader Jayalalitha's corruption." Coming from a party that had been a founder-member of the National Front, the grouping of non-Congress(I), non-BJP secular parties that had spearheaded a principled campaign against the BJP brand of Hindutva communalism and identified it as the most serious threat to the secular fabric and the integrity of the country, it seemed to point to an inexplicable eagerness to clamber off the secular ideological platform for short-term political expediency.

As recently as February 20, DMK leader Murasoli Maran had attended the "People's Convention Against Communalism" organised by the Left parties and delivered a fiery speech branding the BJP's Hindutva politics as the "biggest threat to the country" which was "being advanced to do away with the country's social and cultural plurality". Maran himself discovered positive qualities in the BJP and especially in Prime Minister Vajpayee, whom he described as a person of "great vision and mild manners". Political compulsions in Tamil Nadu were evidently far more important for the DMK than the political ideology that it had championed for long. With this shift, the DMK broke ranks with the "Third Force" with which it had been associated for some years.

Jyoti Basu with Harkishan Singh Surjeet at a CPI(M) Polit Bureau meeting at A.K. Gopalan Bhavan in New Delhi on April 18.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

ANOTHER party that performed a similar acrobatic feat was the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) led by Om Prakash Chauthala, which had withdrawn support to the Vajpayee Government in February citing "irreconcilable differences" with the BJP. In its public prnouncements until April 15, the INLD made no secret of its eagerness to see the Government fall. Chauthala met Jayalalitha repeatedly before and after her party withdrew its support and goaded her on to take a more aggressive posture. In interviews to the media, Chauthala said that he would never go back to the BJP's side.

However, on April 16, barely 24 hours before the vote, Chauthala returned to the BJP's side and addressed a joint press conference along with Shiromani Akali Dal leader and Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal. The rationale he offered for this abrupt change of loyalty was that the "third force" was playing into the hands of the Congress(I).

Orissa Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang. After an hour-long wrangle in the Lok Sabha over the propriety of his being allowed to vote, he did cast his vote, which, given the margin of defeat of the motion, proved crucial.-EASTERN PRESS AGENCY

According to Chauthala, he had associated himself with the move to bring down the BJP-led Government in the belief that the Third Front would form an alternative government led by a "farmer" - like former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda. And since in his perception "nothing of this sort" seemed to be happening and since the Third Front seemed to be looking to the Congres(I) to provide the leadership, he had, he said, renewed his offer of "unconditional support" to the Vajpayee Government.

There were, however, reasons to believe that the transfer of political loyalty was far from unconditional. Sources in the BJP said that two factors had induced Chauthala to return: the BJP's crisis-managers had weaned away two of the four INLD MPs; and the BJP had expressed its readiness to accept some of Chauthala's demands - for instance, the demand to reduce the price of urea for farmers and to accept the INLD as the BJP's ally in Haryana, dumping the Haryana Vikas Party (HVP) led by Bansi Lal. Chauthala was also to be accommodated in the Union Ministry if the Government survived.

The BSP's about-turn of April 17 was far more dramatic and, in the final analysis, was a crucial factor in the fall of the Government. The final push for the change reportedly came after deliberations among leaders of the Congress(I) and the BSP, including Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. However, it was obvious that ever since the crisis in the Government manifested itself, Kanshi Ram had advocated voting against the Government while Mayawati argued in favour of helping the BJP survive by abstaining from the vote. Kanshi Ram now says that there was in fact no difference of opinion and that this perceived difference was a camouflage intended to mislead the BJP and foil its attempts to split the BSP. According to him, the party advanced the "Mayawati view" during the debate and the "Kanshi Ram line" at the time of voting.

National Conference MP Saifuddin Soz. In the end, it was his decision to go against his party's decision to support the Government that tilted the balance in favour of the Opposition.-NISSAR AHMAD

However, sources in the BJP claim that even before the AIADMK formally withdrew its support, BJP representatives, including party leader from Uttar Pradesh Lalji Tandon (who is considered to be close to Vajpayee), had approached Mayawati to seek her party's support. They proposed a renewal of the BJP-BSP alliance in Uttar Pradesh, and held out the inducement of a major say for the BSP in the administrative affairs in the State. Mayawati, who faces several cases relating to allegations of corruption, was apparently quite taken in by this offer. But Kanshi Ram would not agree to it; he asserted that reviving the alliance now would not be in the BSP's interest. Meanwhile, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh approached his political mentor L.K. Advani and scuttled the Vajpayee loyalists' proposal. By all indications it was this, taken with the Congress(I)'s overtures, that made Mayawati fall in line with the proposal to vote against the BJP-led Government.

After the vote, Mayawati said that the BSP had repaid the BJP in the same coin that the Hindutva party had used in Uttar Pradesh, when it split her party. But more than this urge to seek revenge, what seemed to have influenced the party's stand in respect of the confidence motion was a discussion with Congress(I) leaders, which seemed to point to the possibility of working out a political arrangement in Uttar Pradesh, which might include attempts to topple the Kalyan Singh-led Government and install a Ministry in which the BSP would have a significant say.

There were intimations of trouble also in the Janata Dal, with leaders such as former Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan expressing a keenness to bail out the BJP owing to his antipathy towards the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which was in the forefront of the effort to bring down the Government. At one stage of the head count, the BJP camp had taken for granted the support of two MPs of the Janata Dal, including Paswan.

BSP president Kanshi Ram. Unlike Mayawati, who initially seemed inclined towards bailing out the Government by abstaining from the vote, he all along favoured voting against the Government.-ANU PUSHKARNA

Even as some of the smaller parties vacillated between various positions, there were four constant entities - the Congress(I), the AIADMK, the Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha (RLM) and the Left parties.

While the Congress(I) and the AIADMK had begun working in tandem right after the tea party hosted by Subramanian Swamy, the Left and the RLM joined hands with these forces after the AIADMK withdrew its support to the Vajpayee Government. The Left parties and the RLM said that while they may have differences with the Congress(I) and the AIADMK, the BJP was their main enemy.

With the comings and goings of the smaller parties, the political fortunes of the Government - and of the Opposition - waxed and waned almost by the hour. On the day the AIADMK withdrew its support to the Government, the strength of the ruling coalition in the Lok Sabha came down from 276 to 258 - or 14 short of the 272 required for a majority in a House of 544. However, the very next day, there were indications that its strength would go up to 264 when the DMK dropped hints that it could not remain in any political formation that accommodated the AIADMK. On April 16, the second day of the debate on the confidence motion, with the formal announcement of support from the DMK and the INLD, the Government had the confirmed support of 268 members in the Lok Sabha. With the support of one nominated member the figure reached 269.

Indian National Lok Dal leader Om Prakash Chautala with Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal at a press conference in New Delhi on April 16, at which he announced that his party would back the BJP-sponsored confidence motion.-MANAS RAJAN

The Opposition had the confirmed support of 267 members till the BSP joined hands with it. But what ultimately tilted the balance was the decision of National Conference (N.C.) member Saifuddin Soz to oppose his own party's decision to support the BJP-led Government. Soz, who had attended the April 20 Convention Against Communalism, told Frontline that he had voted the way he did because he wanted to be true to the pledge he had taken that day to fight against communal forces. "It was this commitment that I displayed," he said. The N.C. leadership, he added, was straying from its "responsibility to fight the BJP". The parting of ways with the leadership was made complete on April 19, when the N.C. leadership expelled Soz from the party. The obsession with the arithmetic, rather than aspects of political morality, showed up even after the vote of confidence was taken up. An hour-long debate ensued on whether Orissa Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang, who was technically still a member of the Lok Sabha, was eligible to vote on so crucial a motion. Finally, Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi left it to Gamang's discretion and the Chief Minister voted against the motion.

In the final analysis, individuals like Soz and Gamang played as important role in the fall of the Vajpayee Government as senior leaders like Sonia Gandhi, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Jayalalitha and Kanshi Ram. As these leaders grapple with the ways and means to form an alternative government, it is clear that any political arrangement they work out will have embedded in it the seeds of instability.

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