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Pulls and pressures

Print edition : Apr 04, 1998 T+T-

The days leading up to the swearing-in of the BJP Government were marked by hard bargaining by some of the party's allies.

IMMEDIATELY after the Election Commission formally notified the results of the Lok Sabha elections and informed President K.R. Narayanan about it on March 10, the President began a consultative process to constitute a new government. The Election Commission had earlier announced that the new Lok Sabha would be constituted before March 12, and the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies, which had emerged as the largest combination of pre-election allies but had fallen short of a majority in Parliament, were under the impression that the numbers game would begin on or after March 12. The initial public statements of leaders of the Congress(I) and the United Front seemed to indicate that they would endeavour to prevent the BJP from coming to power.

Thus, when the President invited BJP Parliamentary Party leader Atal Behari Vajpayee for a discussion on government formation on March 10, BJP leaders were taken by surprise. Vajpayee was holding talks with the alliance partners when the President's invitation was received. Vajpayee read out the contents of the letter to newspersons. In his letter, Narayanan offered his felicitations to Vajpayee on his election as the leader of the BJP Parliamentary Party. He gave Vajpayee the first opportunity to let him know whether he would be able and willing to form a stable government which could secure the confidence of the Lok Sabha. The President noted that the BJP had emerged as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha and the political formation that it headed was the largest combination of pre-election allies.

However, when Vajpayee gave a written undertaking to the President that he was in a position to form a stable government that could command the confidence of the House, the President asked for documents to support the claim that the BJP and its allies had strength of 252 seats. The BJP had hardly expected the President to insist on documentary proof of its parliamentary support.

Only a day earlier, the leaders of the BJP and its allies had met at Vajpayee's residence in New Delhi to discuss the contents of the National Agenda for Governance, a programme of action for a government of the BJP and its allies. It did not occur to any of the BJP's strategists that they should secure formal letters of support from the leaders of the allies. The BJP took the support of its pre-election allies for granted, when it publicised the letters of support given by the post-election allies and some independents. With the assured support of 12 more MPs - either independents or those belonging to post-election allies - the saffron alliance was seemingly in a position to secure 264 votes.

In the belief that the process of securing letters of support from the alliance partners would be a mere formality, Vajpayee decided to get back to the President on March 11 with the letters. But trouble arose when four of the BJP's five allies in Tamil Nadu - the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the Janata Party and the Tamizhaga Rajiv Congress - did not send in their letters. (The fifth ally, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), had sent its letter of support by facsimile to the President and a copy of it to Vajpayee.)

Unable to secure all the letters, Vajpayee postponed his meeting with the President to March 12. Anxiety was writ large on the faces of BJP leaders as AIADMK general secretary Jayalalitha, who was coordinating the actions of the smaller parties in her alliance in Tamil Nadu, continued to hold back although she had repeatedly made public statements right up until March 9 to the effect that her party and its allies would offer "unconditional support" to a Vajpayee-led government. The BJP was also concerned that the perception of a misunderstanding with a major alliance partner would not bode well for its claim to form a stable government.

A senior leader in charge of party affairs in the southern States said that the delay had been occasioned by the fact that Jayalalitha was unwell on March 11. All of March 12, BJP leaders in Delhi desperately tried to contact Jayalalitha in Chennai, but she was incommunicado. More ominously for the BJP, she persuaded the MDMK to withdraw the letter of support it had faxed to the President.

The first indication of the reasons for the delay in the despatch of the letters from Chennai came from Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy. Appearing on television, Subramanian Swamy said that Jayalalitha had requested the BJP to appoint him Finance Minister and TRC leader Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthy Home Minister. Subramanian Swamy said that BJP leaders had refused to concede the request. Subramanian Swamy's references to the demand for the dismissal of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Government in Tamil Nadu in the light of the February 14 Coimbatore blasts seemed to indicate that a commitment on that was a "pre-condition" for the AIADMK's "unconditional" support for a BJP-led government.

Although some sections in the BJP were in favour of conceding Jayalalitha's "demands", Vajpayee and party president L.K. Advani were unwilling to appease her beyond a point. The BJP refused to concede Jayalalitha's request on ministerial appointments, and were not quite so categorical on the demand for the dismissal of the DMK Government. It was for this reason that the AIADMK and the PMK said that they would not join a BJP-led ministry.

BJP leaders were nevertheless optimistic that the letters of support would arrive in Delhi with a special messenger on the morning flight from Chennai on March 12. What they did not know was that the letters of support had already been despatched to Delhi: they were in the custody of a senior AIADMK leader who was waiting for a nod from "Amma" in Chennai so as to deliver the letters to the President.

After waiting for nearly two days, Vajpayee virtually gave up his efforts: he met the President at 7.30 p.m. on March 12 and furnished a list of 240 MPs from whom he had letters of support. The names of the three MDMK MPs who had withdrawn their letters of support, however, figured in this list. In effect, as on March 12, Vajpayee had the support of only 237 members of the Lok Sabha, considerably short of a majority. Vajpayee, therefore, did not stake his claim, but left it to the discretion of the President to decide whether he could be invited to form a government. The President then announced that he would begin consultations with leaders of the other political formations without dismissing the BJP's claim.

Meanwhile, Subramanian Swamy stepped up his efforts to widen the gulf between Jayalalitha and the BJP. He accused the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) of blocking his appointment as Finance Minister - for which, he claimed, he was eminently qualified, given his teaching experience in Harvard. Ramamurthy suggested that the BJP was paying the price for taking its allies in Tamil Nadu for granted.

Subramanian Swamy refused to concede that the AIADMK-led grouping's alliance with the BJP had broken down or that it would have to explore other alternatives. He, however, said that he believed that the door was open for talks with the Congress(I) and that he expected Congress(I) leaders to open channels of communication with Jayalalitha in the changed political context. Subramanian Swamy envisaged a grand alliance, which would include the Congress(I), the AIADMK and its allies, all the United Front constituents except the DMK, the Tamil Maanila Congress and the Telugu Desam Party, a few other minor parties and some independents. Senior Congress(I) leader Sharad Pawar was reportedly in touch with Jayalalitha, seeking her support for a Congress-led government.

In their meetings with the President, leaders of the Congress(I) and the U.F. reportedly sought four days' time to hold consultations and explore the possibility of forming an alternative government. This in effect gave the BJP and the AIADMK an opportunity to patch up. But even on March 13, Jayalalitha showed no signs of relenting. She denied that she had insisted on the allotment of key portfolios for her allies or the dismissal of the DMK government in Tamil Nadu as a pre-condition for extending support.

However, she accused the BJP leadership of displaying a "negative attitude" when she raised issues that were of importance to Tamil Nadu at a meeting of the BJP and its allies in New Delhi on March 9 (see separate story). BJP leaders, in turn, wondered why Jayalalitha had not raised the issue when she addressed newspersons and expressed her total and unconditional support to a BJP-led government after the meeting. They said that while all her demands could be negotiated, the manner in which she had raised them - on the eve of the President's invitation to Vajpayee to form a government - was somewhat mystifying. "We expected her to behave in a mature way," a senior BJP leader from the South said.

Finally, on March 14, Jayalalitha announced her decision to forward the letters of support to the President. Relieved, the BJP prepared to send a senior emissary on behalf of Vajpayee to meet her on March 15 in Chennai. Senior BJP leader Jaswant Singh, who met her in Chennai on March 15 and showed her a draft of the National Agenda, succeeded in persuading her to drop her demand to give Subramanian Swamy a ministerial post; he also got her to agree to the AIADMK, the PMK and the TRC joining the Ministry.

The draft of the National Agenda incorporated, even if only in somewhat vague terms, all her publicly stated demands.

WHAT explains the turnaround by Jayalalitha? AIADMK leaders in Delhi explained that she was persuaded to fall in line and support the BJP in view of the adverse criticism in the media holding her responsible for blocking Vajpayee's assumption of office as Prime Minister.

Jayalalitha's decision that the AIADMK and some of its allies would join the Ministry was prompted by the knowledge that the President was unlikely to invite Vajpayee to form a government unless these allies, which command a combined strength of 27 MPs in the Lok Sabha, were ready to join the Government.

On March 15, after Jayalalitha announced in Chennai that the AIADMK, the PMK and the TRC would join the Government, the President contacted the AIADMK's Parliamentary Party leader, G. Swaminathan.

He indicated that only if all the constituents of a coalition participated in the government would the coalition remain cohesive; he further indicated that his decision on whether to invite Vajpayee to form a government would hinge on this.

Shortly after receiving her confirmatory message, the President appointed Vajpayee Prime Minister and set March 19 as the date of the swearing-in of the government. He also asked Vajpayee to seek a confidence vote in the Lok Sabha by March 29.

Significantly, the President did not consider it necessary to insist on a commitment from the Trinamul Congress, a member of the BJP-led alliance, that it would participate in the government. The Trinamul Congress has only seven MPs in the Lok Sabha, whereas the AIADMK-led combine has 27 members.

In a communique issued on the night of March 15, in which he detailed the consultation process he had initiated since March 10, the President referred to Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's reported remarks to newspersons that the party did not have the numbers to form a government.

He also took into consideration the Telugu Desam Party's stand - ascertained in a telephonic discussion with its leader N. Chandrababu Naidu - that the party would remain neutral during the vote of confidence.

It was these two factors that finally convinced the President that a Vajpayee-led Government would be able to secure the confidence of the House.