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Looming threats

Print edition : Nov 15, 1997 T+T-

With the BJP enticing Congress(I) MPs and a section of the Congress(I) pushing for entry into the Government, learning the real lessons of the crisis in U.P. will be crucial for the United Front.

"THANK God we stuck by our principles," Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah said on October 21, hours after the United Front Government withdrew its recommendation to President K.R. Narayanan to put Uttar Pradesh under Central rule. He was perhaps expressing the gut sentiment of many regional constituents of the U.F.

But a fortnight after the confidence vote that kept the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in power in Uttar Pradesh, the 14-party Front has been pushed into a painful engagement with the consequences of its handling of the crisis. The encircling of Congress(I) MPs by the BJP has rendered the future of Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's Government more tenuous than ever before. With a section of the Congress(I) pushing for entry into the Government, learning the real lessons of the crisis in U.P. will be crucial for the alliance.

The initial signs gave U.F. supporters reason for optimism. At meetings of the U.F.'s Core Committee and Steering Committee on October 29, opinion was generally critical of Gujral's decision to call a floor test after the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) withdrew support to the BJP. At the Steering Committee, Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader and Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav attacked what he perceived as a lack of clarity on how the BJP's communal agenda ought to be addressed. The S.P., he said in a thinly veiled reference to Gujral, was let down by those very people who ought to have supported it unequivocally. Kalyan Singh's ability to indulge in horse-trading, Mulayam Singh argued, was built on the decision not to dismiss the Government. He said the right course of action was to dismiss the Government on October 19 itself, when the BJP-BSP alliance fell apart.

What surprised observers was that none of the regional constituents of the U.F., who might have been expected to oppose any use of Article 356, spoke in support of the Prime Minister. Gujral was left to wage a solitary defence in the Core Committee, against both Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Communist Party of India (CPI) leader A.B. Bardhan.

The Left leaders were joined by the Janata Dal's Sharad Yadav, who complained bitterly at not having been consulted on U.P. The raison d'etre of the Steering Committee, he pointed out, was to evolve a consensus on major issues.

State leaders, ranging from Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and U.F. convener N. Chandrababu Naidu to Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, appeared to endorse the Left position. The sole dissent to Mulayam Singh's arguments came from Bharatiya Kisan Kamgar Party leader Ajit Singh, and this was only over Governor Romesh Bhandari's handling of the crisis.

WHAT will explain the change in the regional parties' position? At one level, the stand taken by parties which have been at the receiving end of Article 356 reflects, perhaps, a maturing understanding of the seriousness of the communal threat. Some U.F. insiders believe that part of the answer may lie in the perception that Gujral's first reactions to the crisis were driven more by the interests of the Congress(I) than the U.F. itself. "Kesri's first reaction," argues one Left leader, "was not to call for the dismissal of the Ministry, but to call for the formation of a non-BJP government. He was evidently labouring under the illusion that he could push the BSP and the S.P. to back a Congress(I) government. What thoughts he had about dismissal came later, and by then it was too late." Gujral's decision to call for a floor test, he suggests, was prompted by a desire to buy peace with Kesri. However fair or otherwise this view might be, it has growing currency among the U.F. leadership.

If there were no fireworks at the meetings of October 29, it was because of Gujral's political marginalisation. Two important strategies for action emerged from the meeting. The first was a proposal to move the court, through a public interest litigation filed by an independent organisation, challenging the BJP's evident offer of inducements to legislators in return for their support. At the meetings, some people suggested that this might take the lines of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) votes-for-cash litigation (story on page 26), which, ironically, was moved by a BJP-affiliated organisation.

A suggestion from the Left for an official inquiry into what had taken place was, however, shot down, after Gujral pointed out that it would be illegal for any Central agency to investigate the affair without the consent of the State Government. Chandrababu Naidu separately called for a condemnation by the presiding officers of all legislatures of U.P. Speaker Kesri Nath Tripathi's partisan handling of the crisis. Sharad Yadav, in turn, demanded that the 12 BSP MLAs who defied their party whip be disqualified by Tripathi.

ON precisely how these understandings were to be translated into action, however, the U.F. was divided. A second round of meetings of the Core Committee and the Steering Committee on November 5 dealt with flaws in the Anti-Defection Act which enabled the BJP to win over Congress(I) dissidents to its ranks.

In essence, two suggestions were discussed. The first came from Sharad Yadav, who argued that the Act, having repeatedly proved ineffective in stopping unprincipled defections, ought to be scrapped. The Left, perhaps with more sobriety, argued for an amendment that would force any MPs or MLAs who defied a party whip to face disqualification.

Others in the Front, however, insisted that the issue was too complex to warrant prompt political action, and suggested that it be left to the Cabinet sub-committee that has been studying electoral reform, albeit with relatively little progress. Addressing a press briefing after the meetings, Information and Broadcasting Minister and U.F. spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy said that there was a need to maintain a "balance between dissent and indiscipline."

If Left party figures ended the day in disappointment, it was understandable: dithering does little to further the U.F.'s political agenda. Clarity of thought is likely to be vital in the weeks to come. On November 5, Congress(I) president Sitaram Kesri, who only recently launched a polemical attack on coalition politics, indicated that his party would consider joining the U.F. Ministry if invited. Although Kesri later claimed that he had been "misunderstood" by the journalists who spoke to him, there was little doubt that he was responding to rumblings in the Congress(I).

Several Congress(I) leaders privately argued that while out of power many Congress(I) MPs could be vulnerable to inducements, in the present case from the BJP. Since a long spell out of power had clearly rendered the Congress(I) internally unstable, joining the U.F. offered the party its sole chance of survival. This, in turn, implied a threat that fresh elections may be the outcome if it was refused entry into the U.F. Ministry.

Kesri's remarks came in the context of widespread rumours in New Delhi that BJP leaders had initiated negotiations with Congress(I) dissidents. In the wake of BJP president L.K. Advani's public proclamation that Congress(I) malcontents were welcome to the Hindutva formation, contact was claimed to have been made with former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and his aides, Pinaki Mishra, S.S. Ahluwalia and Matang Singh. Although Matang Singh denied the rumours, BJP leaders ensured that fuel was fed at regular intervals to the speculation. Shortly after a two-hour, closed-door meeting between Advani and former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on November 6, BJP functionaries let it be known that they were working for a national government, incorporating both Congress(I) dissidents and possible splinter groups from the U.F.

Whatever the truth of the BJP's claims, the propaganda has served its purpose. Apart from deflecting attention from the embarrassing state of its affairs, the speculation creates the illusion that the party is at striking distance of power. This chimera would be of obvious utility in the event of a crisis in New Delhi.

HOW might the U.F. mediate the twin pressures of the Congress(I) and the BJP? With the exception of the Tamil Maanila Congress and a small number of figures in the Janata Dal, the Front's constituents are united in the need to keep the Congress(I) out. Left party leaders have ruled out any power-sharing agreement with the party. "Kesri's statements have an element of panic about them," one CPI(M) leader suggests, "but that doesn't mean that the Congress(I) is necessarily about to split." In any case, the leader argued, Kesri's support to the U.F. was not the outcome of ideological conviction or benevolence, but simply a hard-headed appraisal of his party's electoral prospects.

Although the Front was scheduled to meet formally on November 10 to discuss the situation arising out of the BJP's predatory strategies, most leaders appeared opposed to joining hands with the Congress(I). At a meeting between Chandrababu Naidu and his Telugu Desam Party colleagues on November 6, the U.F. convener is believed to have endorsed the Left position. Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, for his part, ridiculed the idea as "totally impractical".

Whether the BJP's efforts to turn Parliament House into a stable will succeed should become evident in the next few weeks. How the Congress(I) responds to that situation, and what its impact will be on the U.F. Government, will also soon reveal itself.

Prime Minister Gujral's apparent conviction that his future rests in Kesri's hands has, paradoxically, led to a situation where the political future of both is more fraught with risks than ever before. Most important of all will be the U.F.'s ability to transcend the confines of political manoeuvring in New Delhi and build mass resistance to communal politics, particularly in U.P. CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Prakash Karat points out (see interview) that the political battle against the BJP cannot be conducted without popular mobilisation. Ensuring that the lessons of the events of October lead to such an action will be essential to the long-term viability of the United Front.