On tenterhooks

Print edition : April 04, 1998

The AIADMK almost stymied the formation of the Government.

IT was celebration time on Anna Salai in the heart of Chennai on the evening of March 19. A few hundred Bharatiya Janata Party workers had gathered near a busy traffic intersection. The movement was upbeat, for a BJP-led Government had come into being in New Delhi. Elsewhere in the city, some BJP workers celebrated the occasion by drawing temple chariots.

Amidst the excitement, it seemed to be forgotten that the BJP's electoral ally, the All India Anna Dravidia Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), had very nearly thwarted the formation of the Government. Between March 8 and 15, AIADMK general secretary Jayalalitha had performed a series of political somersaults. An ecstatic Jayalalitha left Chennai for New Delhi on March 8, declaring that her party would give "wholehearted support" to a BJP-led government from outside, and an angry Jayalalitha made the formation of that government almost impossible just three days later. She deliberately delayed the handing over of the letters of support to the BJP. On March 14 she alleged that the BJP's attitude towards her six demands relating to Tamil Nadu was "negative and distressing", that BJP leaders treated her and her allies as "inferior and second class citizens" and that there was a "north-south divide". She, however, pledged the support of the AIADMK and its allies to the BJP-led Ministry, specifying that none of their 27 Lok Sabha members would take part in the government.

The next day there was another volte-face. After a meeting with BJP leader Jaswant Singh, who came to Chennai from New Delhi, a smiling Jayalalitha declared that the AIADMK and two of its allies, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Tamilaga Rajiv Congress (TRC), would join the Ministry. The Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) had stuck to its decision to keep out, she said. She did not respond to a question whether Dr. Subramanian Swamy, president of Janata Party, another ally of the AIADMK, would be included in the Cabinet. By now it was clear that her demand that Swamy be given a weighty Cabinet position had encountered firm resistance from the top BJP leadership.

When Jayalalitha flew to New Delhi on March 8, she was highly conscious of her importance in the emerging dispensation. She and her allies had won 30 seats in the Lok Sabha (the AIADMK 18, BJP 3, PMK 4, MDMK 3, Janata Party and TRC one each). Her alliance was the biggest block supporting the BJP. However, according to AIADMK leaders, what rankled was the fact that no senior BJP leader had come from New Delhi to thank her for this "spectacular performance".

Her visit to Delhi was preceded by her discussions over the telephone with the Chennai district BJP president, Sukumar Nambiar. The 48-year-old U.S.-educated son of film actor M.N. Nambiar, had been chosen by the BJP leadership to be in touch with the AIADMKsupremo. There was no hint of the trouble to come.

L.K. Advani and A.B. Vajpayee with Jayalalitha at Advani's residence in New Delhi.-ANU PUSHKARNA

If Jayalalitha had declared on the eve of the AIADMK's silver jubilee conference at Tiruneveli in the first week of January that the AIADMK would take part in a BJP-led government, she now said that her party would only support the government from outside.

According to BJP leaders, she wanted Swamy to be made Union Finance Minister and TRC leader K. Ramamurthy Home Minister. Besides, they said, she demanded the dismissal of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Government in Tamil Nadu and hinted that she wanted the withdrawal of the corruption cases filed against her by the M. Karunanidhi Government.

Things, however, did not go her way in New Delhi. On March 9, she had separate meetings with BJP president L.K. Advani and Vajpayee. Later, Advani hosted a lunch for her at his home where Vajpayee and Sukumar Nambiar joined them. Vajpayee made it clear that Swamy would not be included in the Union Cabinet. This was not surprising, given the fact that Swamy had made several allegations against Vajpayee. She was also told that Ramamurthy would not be made Home Minister and that both Finance and Home would go to the BJP.

Jayalalitha then reportedly wanted the Finance portfolio to be split, with Revenue and Banking allocated to Swamy. That was also rejected. She was told that the BJP did not mind accommodating Swamy in any other position with a Cabinet Minister's status, but not in the Cabinet.

BJP sources said that yet another demand of Jayalalitha's was turned down. This related to the "creation of conditions" for the dismissal of the DMK Government. If the DMK Government were to be dismissed because the party did not do well in the Lok Sabha elections, by the same token the Shiv Sena-BJP Government in Maharashtra and by the same token the BJP Government in Rajasthan would have to go.

After her meeting with the BJP leaders, she demanded at a press conference that the Karunanidhi Government be dismissed because it had encouraged terrorism and "anti-national forces". She made this demand "not because the DMK-TMC alliance had lost the Lok Sabha elections but because the earlier DMK Government had encouraged the LTTE, leading to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, while now it was encouraging ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan) and giving a safe haven to religious fundamentalists." Jayalalitha said that Karunanidhi "ignored repeated warnings given by the Home Ministry, and his Ministers were hobnobbing with those involved with the terrorists."

Things did not go her way at the meeting convened by BJP to discuss with its allies the drafting of the National Agenda. She placed six demands related to Tamil Nadu: an assurance that the interim award of the Cauvery River Waters Dispute Tribunal would be implemented; nationalisation of all inter-State rivers; constitutional protection for 69 per cent reservation in Tamil Nadu; freedom to the States to fix their own percentage of reservation according to their requirements; 33 per cent reservation for women; and declaration of all 19 national languages, including Tamil, as the official languages of India. In addition, she wanted Tamil Nadu to be allowed to store water up to 152 feet in the Periyar dam, overruling the objections of the Kerala Government.

The BJP leaders refused to give an assurance on any of these; they were prepared only to discuss these demands in general. Their argument was that some of these issues needed constitutional amendments for which the BJP did not command the required two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha. Lok Shakti leader and former Chief Minister of Karnataka Ramakrishna Hegde bluntly opposed Jayalalitha's demand on the Cauvery. He also reportedly made light of her demand that Tamil be made an official language. If Jayalalitha was hurt, she did not show it then. An AIADMK leader said: "Hegde treated her like his daughter. This cannot be done in politics. She wanted to be treated as an equal."

An angry Jayalalitha returned to Chennai on the night of March 9, cutting short her visit; she was to return to Chennai only on March 16 after a BJP-led government was sworn in. It was significant that she did not launch any broadside at the BJP in New Delhi itself.

On March 11, when Vajpayee needed letters of support from all the allies of the BJP to be presented to the President, there was no word from the AIADMK and its allies. Vajpayee met Narayanan on the evening of March 12 and gave him a list of 240 MPs who supported him. This did not include the 27 MPs belonging to the AIADMK and its allies. When reporters asked Vajpayee whether he was being pressured to allot the Finance portfolio to Swamy, he said: "I am under no pressure, and I will not bend under any pressure." He added, "The AIADMK does not want to participate in the government but she (Jayalalitha) wants something for her colleagues."

Jayalalitha retaliated the same night in Chennai by issuing a statement reiterating the demands she made at the meeting in Delhi. She said: "We are expecting a favourable reply from BJP leaders on these demands. This is the reason for the delay in giving the letters of support and not the conditions on the dismissal of the DMK Government or the allocation of some portfolios to particular persons as the press has made out."

Then the BJP decided to get tough. Quoting unnamed BJP leaders, press reports on March 13 asserted that she wanted the Finance and Home portfolios for Swamy and Ramamurthy respectively, insisted on the dismissal of the DMK Government, and hinted that the cases against her should be withdrawn. Jaswant Singh asserted that it was wrong on her part to argue that she did not give the letters of support because the BJP had refused to include her demands in the National Agenda. The truth would be out when the Agenda was released, he said. He added that the problem was really over the allocation of portfolios and the AIADMK's allies had admitted this. "We will not succumb to pressure," he said.

BJP general secretary M. Venkaiah Naidu said: "Either Vajpayee will become the Prime Minister or there will be elections again." The import of the BJP leaders' observations was that her six-point demands were intended to camouflage her personal agenda. Jayalalitha was obviously stung by this offensive. Public resentment was building up against her because she had campaigned on the plank of "BJP for a stable government and Vajpayee for an able Prime Minister." She did not want to be seen as sabotaging the formation of a BJP government. On the night of March 13, Advani rang up Jayalalitha. It was made clear to her that Swamy would not be made Finance Minister. A BJP leader remarked: "Now that the issue of the dismissal of the DMK Government has come out in the open, she has no option but to yield."

She did yield the next day but not without a show of pique. She told a press conference that her party and its allies would support a BJP-led government from outside. She said: "Although we had asked for ministerial berths for Ramamurthy and Swamy, we are totally dropping the demand. We expect that the six demands pertaining to Tamil Nadu will be implemented. So we will send our letters of support, and support the BJP from outside." She said the decision to support the BJP Government was taken because "we do not want to lay ourselves open" to accusations that "we have been destabilising the nation and denying the people's mandate."

She described as "utter falsehood" the claim that she wanted the cases against her to be withdrawn. She declaimed, "Let Vajpayee and Advani touch their conscience and say if at any time I mentioned the cases against me and sought their assistance. I have been repeatedly saying that I will fight all the cases by myself and seek exoneration through the courts." It was also false to say that she demanded the dismissal of the DMK Government.

She alleged that Hegde was "obnoxious towards me," "mocked at me" and "made fun of me" when she wanted the 19 national languages to be made official languages. The BJP leaders allowed Hegde to veto any mention of the implementation of the interim award of the Cauvery Tribunal. "So how can we expect justice later on from them on this issue ?" she asked.

Some AIADMK and BJP leaders tended to blame the "misunderstanding'' on the manner of communication between Jayalalitha and Sukumaran Nambiar. The BJP's Chennai president, however, explained that "my role has been played up. She herself was directly in touch with Vajpayee and Advani. It was not as if I could concede her demands at the State and all-India levels." He declined to comment on the allegation that he did not convey properly to Advani what Jayalalitha had told him. State BJP general secretary L. Ganesan spoke up for him: "Sukumar Nambiar played his role well. He did nothing wrong. He was selected not only by the BJP but by her."

On March 15 Jaswant Singh flew to Chennai and assuaged Jayalalitha's feelings. She announced that the AIADMK, the PMK and the TRC would take part in the BJP-led Ministry and she would attend the swearing-in.

State BJP vice-president Dr. V. Maitreyan said, "The past is past. I would not like to go into the details of what allegedly happened in New Delhi during the meeting on the national agenda. All those who are in the Union Cabinet, whether they belong to the BJP, the AIADMK, the PMK or the TRC, are our Ministers. With this confidence, we expect the alliance to continue."

What is worrying the BJP is that "a Subramanian Swamy outside the Cabinet is more dangerous than a Subramanian Swamy inside it."

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