IN taking a decision that the 12 MPs of the Telugu Desam Party would remain neutral when Atal Behari Vajpayee moves a vote of confidence motion in the Lok Sabha, N. Chandrababu Naidu, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and convener of the United Front, has insisted that the TDP would remain equidistant from both the Congress(I) and the BJP. But it is obvious that the scale was tilted in favour of the BJP, because if the TDP MPs abstain from a vote of confidence, the BJP can win the vote and remain in power.
Chandrababu Naidu had reasons to be displeased with his party's performance. Opinion polls predicted that the TDP and its allies would win 20 of the 42 seats in the State, but when the results were in, they had only 15, of which the TDP's share was only 12. Chandrababu Naidu perhaps felt that with just 12 seats, his party would not have as much clout in national politics as it did the last time around; but the final party position, which left the BJP and its allies 21 seats short of a majority, was such that the role of the 12 TDP MPs suddenly became crucial at the national level.
The difference between the current position and the position after the 1996 elections was that in 1996 the U.F. constituents together won about 170 seats, against the Congress(I)'s 140. The arithmetic of the Lok Sabha at that time was such that it was feasible to prevent the BJP from coming to power. Chandrababu Naidu, in fact, played an active role in the formation of the U.F. He travelled to Chennai and Guwahati, met newly elected Chief Ministers M. Karunanidhi and P.K. Mahanta, and bound them to take a united stand against the BJP. The BJP, which was invited to form the government, could not secure the support of any of the regional parties and had to bow out after 13 days. This time a newspaper baron who has come to play a big role in Telugu Desam affairs reportedly advised Chandrababu Naidu not to repeat what he did in 1996. Apparently it was after this that Chandrababu Naidu decided to adopt the policy of equidistance from the Congress(I) and the BJP.
The TDP interpreted the fractured electoral verdict this time as a vote for change, and this is the logic behind its policy of equidistance from the Congress(I) and the BJP. "The people seem to prefer Vajpayee for Prime Minister. Why not give him a chance?" was the refrain at a meeting of the TDP Politburo.
Does the TDP's stand indicate in anyway that the party is soft on the BJP and there has been a change in its attitude towards communalism and communal forces? Chandrababu Naidu found it difficult to give satisfactory answers to such questions and reportedly sought party leaders' opinion on other ways to prove that its policy of equidistance from the BJP and the Congress(I) is genuine. Politically it is important for the TDP that its new policy is not seen as supporting a BJP-led Government even indirectly. The TDP and its U.F. allies won nine of the 15 seats in the Telengana region, where the voting was held a day after Romesh Bhandari dismissed the Kalyan Singh Government in Uttar Pradesh. The TDP won only three of the 21 seats for which polling was held in the first phase, on February 16, before the development in U.P. The TDP analysis is that this change in the electoral outcome was because a larger portion of the votes of the minorities were cast in favour of the TDP rather than the Congress(I) after the development in U.P. It is necessary for the TDP's political survival that the minorities back the party in both Andhra and Telengana regions in the next Assembly elections, which are due in December 1999.
Chandrababu Naidu's decision seemed certain to lead to fissures in the U.F. He was unhappy at the way CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet spoke at an early stage of possible U.F support for a Congress(I)-led government.
As a corollary to his change of attitude towards the BJP, Chandrababu Naidu had categorically ruled out any support to a Congress(I)-led coalition at the Centre. The TDP Politburo endorsed this stand on March 4, but he was in no hurry to announce it, particularly after it became known that the 12th Lok Sabha was to be constituted only on March 12.
A BJP Government at the Centre that survives because of the TDP's "neutrality", and a Congress trying to stage a comeback in Andhra Pradesh, could together make for unpredictable political scenarios in the months to come. Chandrababu Naidu may well be required to take some hard decisions.