Squabbles over seats

Print edition : August 14, 1999

The BJP and its regional allies are caught up in tussles over seat-sharing.

THE National Democratic Alliance (NDA) comprising the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies was born out of the compulsions of sharing power and the felt need to expand the political support base of the coalition following the dissolution of the 12th Lok Sabha. The BJP realised that one of the reasons for the collapse of the 13-month-old government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee was the reluctance of several smaller parties to support the Government or join the ruling coalition. The NDA was conceived of at that time in order to win over new allies, who may have been holding themselves back because they were suspicious of the BJP's dominance in the coalition and the likelihood of its trying to enforce its Hindutva agenda on the other constituents. In fact, in order to try and convince the non-BJP NDA constituents and new allies that the BJP would not pursue its own agenda, the BJP went so far as to decide that it would not release its own manifesto but subscribe to the NDA's common manifesto.

However, the BJP finds to its dismay that its show of evident readiness to dilute its Hindutva identity is not sufficient to win adequate number of new friends or even buy peace within the NDA. In State after State, the BJP finds that its authority as th e largest national party in the alliance stands considerably whittled; it has also come under pressure from its allies to concede more seats to the other constituents in the NDA.

In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the BJP has had to reconcile itself to playing the role of a junior partner in the Dravida Munnetra Kazh-agam(DMK)-led front. In a few other States, its quest for primacy in the allocation of Lok Sabha seats - or even get a r easonable share for itself - met with intense resistance from regional allies who felt no compelling need to concede too much turf in their pockets of strength. In some States, the BJP's local units refused to accommodate the allies' aspirations, but in Tamil Nadu the BJP went out of its way to offer the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) one of the six seats allotted to it by the DMK. MDMK leader Vaiko was initially displeased by the DMK's decision to give it only five seats, when another re gional ally, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, was favoured with at least seven seats (see box). The BJP, which felt that the MDMK was a valuable ally, offered it one of the seats allotted to it, but Vaiko politely declined the offer.

Vajpayee, Home Minister L.K. Advani, Kushabhau Thakre and other BJP leaders at a meeting of the party's election committee in New Delhi on August 2.-V. SUDERSHAN

The BJP units in most other States were, however, not quite in the same conciliatory mood. The central leadership of the BJP was acutely embarrassed by the stiff resistance from its Karnataka unit to the proposal to accommodate Chief Minister J.H. Patel within the coalition; the central leaders had earlier reconciled themselves to the entry of the Janata Dal group led by Sharad Yadav - which was subsequently named the Janata Dal (United) - into the NDA. Commerce Minister and Lok Shakti leader Ramakrishn a Hegde was sufficiently provoked to accuse the BJP units in Karnataka, Orissa and Bihar of being "greedy" for seats and warned that unless the BJP was more accommodative of its allies' interests, the allies would be constrained to desert it.

In Andhra Pradesh, the BJP unit rejected a proposal from Chief Minister and Telugu Desam Party president N. Chandrababu Naidu to have the 1994 Assembly election results (the BJP won only four seats) as the basis for determining the seat-sharing formula f or the Lok Sabha elections. The TDP (it is not a member of the NDA, but it extended support from outside to the Vajpayee Government) was not swayed by the BJP's argument that it was entitled to a dozen Lok Sabha seats and 45 Assembly seats on the basis o f the fact that it secured 18 per cent of the popular votes in the 1998 elections. Vajpayee, whose sights were set on securing a higher tally for the NDA in the Lok Sabha elections even if it meant giving up a few seats in the Assembly elections, was wil ling to consider the TDP's offer. Samata Party leader George Fernandes was despatched to Hyderabad for talks with Chandrababu Naidu. However, State BJP leaders felt that it would be impractical to have an alliance with the TDP for the Lok Sabha elections alone.

In Bihar, the Samata Party, emboldened by the coming together of the party with the Janata Dal (Sharad Yadav), demanded a higher share of the seats than it contested in 1998. In Orissa too, the BJP and the Biju Janata Dal, which contested as allies in 19 98 and fared well, have not been able to agree on a seat-sharing formula. In Himachal Pradesh, the BJP finalised an agreement with the Himachal Vikas Congress led by former Union Minister Sukh Ram, under which the HVC will contest the Shimla (Reserved) s eat and the BJP three other seats. BJP leader and former Chief Minister Shanta Kumar, who was displeased by the agreement, warned the leadership that the agreement would be suicidal for the BJP in the long run.

In Uttar Pradesh, a crucial battleground, the BJP decided not to concede any of the 57 seats it won in 1998 to its regional allies, even though the Loktantrik Congress Party (LCP) staked its claim to three of them. The LCP and the Jantantrik Bahujan Sama j Party (JBSP) have each sought 10 seats. The Samata Party, the Janata Dal (Sharad Yadav), Union Minister Maneka Gandhi and independent MLAs too are reportedly demanding their pound of flesh. In 1998, the BJP allotted to its allies only five of the 85 Lo k Sabha seats in the State.

The BJP released its first list of candidates for 138 Lok Sabha seats even before it finalised a seat-sharing arrangement with its allies. The party has by and large renominated those who won on the party ticket in 1998; however, this has led to severe h eartburning among some of its leaders. In Madhya Pradesh, five BJP members of the dissolved Lok Sabha have declined their renomination. They are Sumitra Mahajan (Indore), Uma Bharati (Khajuraho), S.C. Verma (Bhopal), Baburao Paranjpe (Jabalpur) and Vijay araje Scindia (Guna). While Paranjpe and Scindia opted out on health grounds, the others declined because of intra-party tussles. Sushma Swaraj, the party's official spokesperson and a member of the dissolved Lok Sabha, too has declined the party ticket for South Delhi. The names of the three senior BJP leaders - Vajpayee, Advani, and Murli Manohar Joshi - figure in the first list: they will contest from Lucknow, Gandhinagar and Allahabad respectively.

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