BJP'S TURN

Print edition : April 04, 1998

After a spell of uncertainty, a government headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee assumed office in New Delhi.

NUMBERS served as the adhesive when ideology and shared political interests could not. Having won the largest block of seats in the Lok Sabha, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies were close to power and could make the kind of bid that no other formation seemed capable of. But that did not stop the hard bargaining. Albeit briefly, it seemed a likelihood that the BJP alliance would not quite get the numbers that it had seemed assured of, throwing open the process of Ministry formation to the influence of a multitude of political imponderables.

The anodyne for the ruffled sensibilities of the BJP's allies in Tamil Nadu was found and quickly applied. A semblance of transparency was restored to the process of Ministry formation, which had tottered precariously for a few days. However, when the discussions began on the specific business of allocating portfolios, the shroud of secrecy was pulled down again. And as the BJP alliance assumes office at the Centre, attention is focussed not so much on the individuals manning the specific Ministries as on the process by which the allocation of portfolios was arrived at.

Within a day of taking the oath of office as Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee felt called upon to issue a disclaimer. It was not the pressure of the BJP's ideological mentors in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) that had kept Jaswant Singh out of the crucial Finance portfolio, he said. Rather, his services were unavailable to the Cabinet on account of the simple demands of propriety. Although Vajpayee was keen to bring him on board with charge of the pivotal Ministry, Jaswant Singh had been reluctant to assume office shortly after suffering defeat in the Lok Sabha elections.

Atal Behari Vajpayee being sworn in Prime Minister by President K.R. Narayanan on March 19.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Similarly, Ramakrishna Hegde, who thought that he had ample claims to a weighty Ministry, was given the relatively lower profile of Commerce Minister. This again, Vajpayee was at pains to explain, was not on account of the coercive pressure that the maverick MP from Madurai, Subramanian Swamy, had brought to bear. Rather, Hegde's experience and authority were necessary to fulfil the demands of the job at a crucial stage in the global trade negotiations process.

The dual disclaimer constitutes a key moment in the career of the Vajpayee Ministry, which could define the authority that he will exercise as first among equals in the Union Cabinet. Portfolio distribution is considered a prerogative of the Prime Minister in the parliamentary model of governance. The principle in Vajpayee's case has been diluted to some degree because of the compulsions of coalition politics. But the requirements of regional balance in the Cabinet have set up another, quite contrary, influence. And in reconciling the two, Vajpayee has been forced to sacrifice certain interests that he holds dear. Neither has he, in the bargain, managed to placate sentiments within his own party.

THE Tamil Nadu contingent in the ruling group has been the disproportionate gainer from this conflict of objectives. Jayalalitha, general secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), had been the principal motivator of the electoral alliance in Tamil Nadu that upset all early forecasts to corner no fewer than 30 seats. As the acknowledged patron of a substantial bloc, Jayalalitha assumed the hard bargaining posture that other partners of the BJP had relinquished as a concession to the propriety of coalition politics (see separate story).

Vajpayee needed the participation of the AIADMK bloc in his Government rather than the infirm assurance of external support that Jayalalitha had reluctantly furnished. He proved willing to go a long way to obtain the needful. Tamil Nadu has been given no fewer than seven berths in the Council of Ministers, of which four are of Cabinet rank and one a Minister of State with independent charge. In contrast, the 60-member bloc from Uttar Pradesh has obtained a rather modest number of five Ministers, of whom only one, apart from the Prime Minister, figures in the Cabinet.

President Narayanan and Vice-President Krishan Kant with the Council of Ministers after the swearing-in.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Jayalalitha has also managed to extract substantial concessions in the allocation of portfolios. The Finance Ministry was an early demand of hers, as also Law. She obtained the latter for her nominee, M. Thambi Durai, and settled for the second rung position in the former. Indeed, so convinced was she that her bargain had borne fruit that her trusted lieutenant R.K. Kumar had gone to North Block to assume charge as Minister of State for Finance even before the formal allocation of work had been made through a Rashtrapati Bhavan communique.

Kumar will hold charge of the crucial Department of Revenue, as also of the Banking Division. Both these are portfolios that Jayalalitha is known to have a personal stake in. Another key appointment has not passed notice - R. Janarthanan, the AIADMK member from Tirunelveli, has been given charge of the Department of Personnel and Public Grievances, which exercises administrative control over the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The imperious chief of the AIADMK has effectively established a direct hold over the functioning of the two agencies - the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate - which are investigating several sensitive cases of political corruption. Her interest in the Banking Division has also been much remarked upon. If needed it could step up the tempo of investigations into the Indian Bank scandal which allegedly involves several of Jayalalitha's political adversaries in Tamil Nadu.

If the balance between regions is unreflective of the actual composition of the ruling group, there are ample indications that experience has not been an overt concern in the allocation of work. Two second-term members - Suresh Prabhu of the Shiv Sena and Anant Kumar of the BJP - have obtained Cabinet rank, while a fourth-term member from the BJP, Ram Naik, has had to be content with junior ministerial status. Again, the conflict between regional demands and party dictates has been resolved to the detriment of the BJP's interests, causing some disquiet within its ranks.

There has been an obvious insufficiency of key portfolios and a multitude of aspirants for each, as also a host of inflexible interests and insecurities at play. Certain of the participants in the BJP alliance, moreover, had the kind of power and inclination to bargain that could not be denied. Naveen Patnaik, with less than a year's experience in Parliament, now enjoys Cabinet rank, and for reasons equally made up of nostalgia and regional interest, he has been entrusted with the charge of Steel and Mines, which his father held as a member of the Morarji Desai Cabinet.

VAJPAYEE'S unhappiness at the hard bargaining was apparent in his decision early on March 19 to retain the Finance portfolio for himself. But this would have meant yielding the External Affairs portfolio in which he had a personal interest. Both by personal inclination and by factional conflict, he was unwilling to concede Hegde's claims for External Affairs, which had been advanced with a degree of fervour.

It was by all accounts with extreme reluctance that he assigned the Finance portfolio to Yeshwant Sinha, a relatively recent entrant into the BJP. Sinha's earlier stint at the job during the seven-month-long Chandra Shekhar Ministry was not a compelling qualification for the job. His track record had not been particularly distinguished, and his acceptability to the more influential industry associations and international financial institutions was far from assured. He nevertheless got the coveted position as a compromise between the demands of the influential swadeshi lobby within the BJP and the numerically more dispersed section that favoured the pursuit of a liberalisation agenda.

A section of the dignitaries at the swearing-in ceremony which was held in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The two other portfolios of Home and Defence, conventionally viewed among the more weighty berths in the Union Cabinet, presented their own problems. BJP hardliner Murli Manohar Joshi thought he had a valid claim to either, though he was willing to acknowledge L.K. Advani's precedence for the former post. The RSS top brass were keen to have him take on the lower-profile, but potentially influential, job of Human Resource Development. Joshi was eager to accommodate the wishes of his ideological mentors, but remained unconvinced that the HRD Ministry afforded him the prestige commensurate with his ranking within the party. The conundrum was resolved by entrusting Science and Technology - a portfolio that by tradition has been handled by the Prime Minister - to Joshi's charge.

THIS left Home open for Advani but did not diminish the ardour of the various partners to occupy the Defence Ministry. Surjit Singh Barnala of the Akali Dal was keen on the job while Hegde thought it a reasonable substitute for External Affairs. George Fernandes had played coy for long and finally agreed to come on board the Cabinet, but was insistent on a portfolio that would give him substantial policymaking powers in the economic sphere. His insistence was, in fact, equally matched by Vajpayee's keenness to deny him an opportunity to bring into play his well-known adversarial attitude towards foreign enterprise. But since the general perception was that Fernandes' presence within the Cabinet was indispensable, the Defence Ministry was considered the appropriate berth in which to accommodate him.

Tokenism demanded that Sikander Bakht, the BJP's seniormost Muslim member, should be given a more significant one of the residual portfolios. That took Industry out of the reach of the allied parties. Hegde's final assignment as Commerce Minister was a virtual banishment. It is a portfolio that has in the last two Ministries at the Centre been handled by junior Ministers. The rationalisation that is now offered, that global trade negotiations are at a delicate stage, does not quite conceal the fact that Hegde has paid the price for his early concern for harmony and accommodation within the ruling group. The unmistakable message - that nice guys finish last - will not be lost either on him or on other potential recalcitrants within Vajpayee's Ministry.

The bulk of the fresh claimants for ministerial berths could be from the BJP. The hard core of the party's membership is clearly unhappy at the disproportionate influence wielded by splinter groups and individuals within the Vajpayee Ministry. The presence of Buta Singh in the Cabinet and Maneka Gandhi, as a junior Minister with independent charge, is likely to be a standing provocation to several BJP heavyweights who have been denied ministerial positions. Their sense of grievance is only likely to be aggravated if there is a perceptible drift in the policy sphere from the inflexible core of the BJP's social and economic agenda.

FOR the moment, however, attention is focussed on the immediate future, when the new Government will have to face two significant challenges. The first will be a day after Parliament convenes, when the Speaker of the Lok Sabha is to be elected. A desultory effort at consensus has been under way, with the BJP expressing its willingness to concede the Deputy Speaker's post to the Opposition group if the precedent of having the presiding officer of the Lok Sabha from the ruling group is honoured. The United Front and the Congress(I) do not quite see things this way, and believe that the powers of arbitration that the Speaker has been conferred under the Anti-Defection Act make the position worth fighting for. This conviction is deepened by the conduct of the Speaker of the Uttar Pradesh legislature in the BJP's recent courtship of defectors in the State.

A section of the dignitaries at the swearing-in ceremony which was held in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Purno A. Sangma, Speaker of the eleventh Lok Sabha, offers the possibility of an implausible compromise between the BJP and the Opposition. But his willingness to contest is tempered by a reluctance to be the focus of political discord. The U.F. also mooted the possibility of fielding S. Jaipal Reddy, Janata Dal member from Andhra Pradesh. The former Minister for Information and Broadcasting is, however, disinclined to give up his accustomed and vocal presence in the Opposition benches and embarrassed by the prospect of confronting his electoral ally from Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu Desam Party, with an uncomfortable dilemma.

Sangma's meeting with Vajpayee on March 20 raised the prospect of a consensus nominee for the Speaker's post. This is also believed to have been the subject of L.K. Advani's telephonic conversation with newly anointed Congress president Sonia Gandhi on March 19. A section within the BJP, however, believes that seeking consent at this stage would be politically unwise. The precise numerical balance of the Lok Sabha will be tested within four days of the election of the Speaker, and this section believes that the hard questions this poses should be faced sooner rather than later.

Absenteeism and abstentions pose another serious imponderable for the Opposition group. The TDP has already communicated its uncommitted stance - its policy of equidistance - to President K.R. Narayanan. At least half of the Janata Dal's contingent of six in the Lok Sabha have been similarly equivocal, arguing that their mandate is to sit in the Opposition and not be part of an unseemly effort to cobble together a ruling arrangement in collaboration with the Congress(I).

In conjunction, these voices seem to hold out the assurance that the Vajpayee Ministry will clear its first hurdle. What would then follow, in a context of economic uncertainty, severe fiscal constraints, and untrammelled lobbying by the disparate elements of the ruling group, is quite another matter.

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