Government by default

Print edition : March 21, 1998

WITH the task of President K.R. Narayanan rendered quite simple and non-contentious by the arithmetic and mixed-up politics of the emerging post-poll situation, Atal Behari Vajpayee's motley team (pulling in different directions even before they take the field) will have the first turn, no question about it. With the Bharatiya Janata Party & Friends commanding 252 seats (won by the BJP and its pre-poll allies), it will self-evidently be a minority government in the Lok Sabha which, when full, will have 543 members. It is also likely to be a hamstrung government despite the new Prime Minister's amiable face and conciliation skills, despite the absence of any viable alternative in the given political arena, and despite the saffron brigade's determination to consolidate its advantage, which must not be underestimated.

The simple arithmetic divide that defines and limits the nature of the twelfth Lok Sabha and will shape the future - and longevity - of the Central Government can be stated as follows: BJP & Friends 252 seats, Congress(I) & Allies 166, United Front 96, and 'Others' 23. (These figures will change marginally when all 543 seats are occupied in the Lok Sabha.) The first question is: will the arithmetic remain stable or will it prove volatile? The strategic goal of the BJP and of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the 'brain' or command centre of the whole endeavour, will be to convert minority into a 'working majority'. But how to do this? The P.V. Narasimha Rao Government model of the early 1990s will be tempting indeed: the realpolitik lesson the saffron brigade may have learnt from that 'successful' experience is that nothing needs to be considered a real obstacle if you are close enough to power, if there is no real alternative, if there are opportunist political leaders and groups and grasping Members of Parliament about, if you show the killer instinct. But will knowledge of the price Narasimha Rao eventually had to pay, in terms of reputation and legal consequences, for his 'success' deter the saffron brigade from following his example? The answer to this crucial question could come during the next few weeks.

But for now, when they will have to demonstrate that they have the arithmetic confidence of the Lok Sabha by surviving the confidence vote, BJP & Friends, a 15-party coalition, are likely to be spared any rigorous test of principle and managerial and manipulating skills. They are more or less guaranteed confirmation in the seat of power by a small but comfortable margin. The reason for this lies more in the politics of the situation than in its simple arithmetic. Led by the Telugu Desam Party, which has 12 members in the new Lok Sabha, an influential section of the United Front is dead set against any idea of supporting a Congress-led government at the Centre. For many of the constituents of the United Front, the Congress(I) remains the principal adversary in the crucial battleground of State electoral politics, although they cannot pretend any longer that the BJP is only a long-distance or 'national level' adversary. Therefore, for the TDP and its fellow travellers, abstention in any vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha seems to be the foreseeable political future. The TDP and other vulnerable parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Janata Dal, each with six Lok Sabha members, might also see an opportunity here to gain some leverage and even insurance against moves to destabilise their State governments. The basic rationalisation for abstention, an opportunist course of action, is that voting out the BJP will inevitably mean voting in a Congress(I)-led experiment. On the other hand, there are equally influential constituents of the United Front - led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party - who are determined to vote out the BJP-led regime at any time of day or night.

Who will win out within the time-span the developing Indian political process is going to allow the twelfth Lok Sabha? And what will that time-span be? There is no point even in attempting to answer the second question now (even if informed guesses may hover around the two year mark for the Lok Sabha and perhaps a shorter span for the Vajpayee minority government). As for the first question, the answer obviously depends on the relative political performance and response of each of the three fronts, more accurately of the various political parties that make up the three fronts.

The outcome of the twelfth general election suggests (see the accompanying analysis by V.K. Ramachandran and Vikas Rawal, the first detailed data-based analysis published of the BJP's State-wise performance in this election) the strengths and weaknesses of the BJP today. Overall, the saffron party, the party of the Hindu Right, has been able to advance and move towards Central power on the strength of a five percentage point gain (over 1996) in the popular vote share for the party, and a 12 percentage point gain for the 15-party front. This means outward expansion in a vast political space, essentially southward and eastward, and the establishment of new political and organisational beachheads. Some political analysts have spoken of a 'Congressisation' of the BJP as it has entered a new stage of political development. This time the BJP has reached out adventurously to make a crisscross of State-wise opportunist alliances that finds no parallel in the Congress' track record. But what stands highlighted overall is the limits of the BJP's growth in the political arena, the party's unimpressive performance in major battlegrounds of traditional strength, and the political costs that come with the new and extensively made gains.

In net, arithmetically as well as politically, the Vajpayee government will start out with what looks like an unenviable situation - within and without - and a staggeringly difficult job of political management, resolving contradictions, and governance. Some alliance partners - George Fernandes' Samata Party, Jayalalitha's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Mamata Bannerjee's Trinamul Congress - are openly opposed to the BJP's stand on Ayodhya, the Article 370 guarantee of a special constitutional status for Jammu and Kashmir, and a uniform civil code. Other partners, such as Ramakrishna Hegde and Navin Patnaik (not to mention leaders of the smaller parties who have made common cause with Jayalalitha), might find themselves more in agreement with the Fernandes position on such issues than with the BJP's minority-baiting stand. On the economic policy front, the BJP may be committed to liberalisation and 'reform' but George Fernandes has registered, more or less pre-emptively, his opposition to giving multinationals free rein in India. The decision by the AIADMK and the Trinamul Congress to extend support to a BJP-led government from the outside may be for leverage and bargaining, but aside from putting additional pressure on a minority regime and possibly sharpening internal tensions, this will tend to weaken the regime's credibility at the start.

All this must not lead to any sense of complacency among those who are clear that a BJP-led government will do a great deal of damage to India's secular democratic fabric and to civil society, that it will have serious disintegrative consequences for the people of India, and that it can lead to an RSS-led penetration of various branches of the Indian state. How precisely shaky and short-lived the Vajpayee regime will prove depends, in crucial measure, on the way the non-BJP parts of the political spectrum, and democratic, secular and progressive forces especially, rise to the challenge. The response must essentially be political, rooted in democratic and progressive mass mobilisation; there are no shortcuts in this fight against the Hindu Right.

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