More fissures in a front

Print edition : September 26, 1998

Differences between coalition partners Shiv Sena and the BJP manifest themselves yet again in Maharashtra.

TWO recent developments connected with the persistently uneasy equation between the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party, partners in the ruling coalition in Maharashtra, are significant. In fact, each of these may turn out to have been a watershed comparable to the boycott of the State Cabinet meeting by BJP Ministers on August 18.

The first of the events was BJP leader Pramod Mahajan's going public on September 8 with the statement that relations between the two parties had turned sour. The second occurred on September 9 and 10. Uddhav Thackeray, son of Bal Thackeray, who is widely seen as a possible heir-apparent of the Shiv Sena chief, travelled to New Delhi and met the "Big Two" of the BJP - Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani - in furtherance of a peace initiative.

Mahajan's negative statement with regard to the alliance is significant because no one in the BJP has contributed as much as he has to the cause of Shiv Sena-BJP solidarity. Uddhav Thackeray's mission to Delhi represented a clear departure from the pattern that has hitherto prevailed - of crises in the relationship between the allies being sought to be resolved, as the last resort, through deliberations at Matoshree, the Thackerays' Mumbai residence, with Mahajan as the seniormost BJP leader present.

The BJP's boycott of the Cabinet meeting signalled the party's strongest protest until then against what party leader and Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde has described as the "stepmotherly treatment" by the Shiv Sena. It would seem that the new-found "hawkishness" of the BJP has not left even Mahajan untouched, and that the Sena has come round to the view that Matoshree cannot any longer hope to call the shots.

The immediate provocation for Mahajan's statement was an article in the September 6 issue of the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, Saamna. The article, authored by Sanjay Nirupam, Sena Member of Parliament and executive editor of the Hindi-language eveninger Dopahar ka Saamna, blamed the approach of the BJP-led Central Government for the Tatas' withdrawal of their plans for the creation a domestic airline. More to the point, it accused Mahajan of having played a role in the "scuttling" of the airline project because of his supposed links with Jet Airways - a successful private airline which presumably viewed with trepidation the prospect of competition from a Tata venture.

There was no way that Mahajan, whose son is a Jet Airways pilot, could take this lying down. For one thing, Saamna has Bal Thackeray as its editor. For another, the Sena chief criticised the Centre's approach to the Tata project a day after the article was published, at a function organised by the Indian Merchants Chamber. That he did not mention Mahajan by name could not be taken as conclusive proof that he did not endorse the accusation made by Nirupam. In any case, it is a fact that the BJP leader responded overtly to the allegation only after Thackeray had said his piece.

Mahajan's assertion that Shiv Sena-BJP relations had turned sour was made in the course of a refutation of the allegation. Addressing the press, the BJP leader said that as a matter of principle he had all along opposed foreign investment in the civil aviation sector, that he had never pleaded the case of any airline either in Parliament or outside it, that he had no role to play in the Government's decision-making processes and that it was purely fortuitous that his son was working for Jet Airways and not for any other airline.

Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray.-VIVEK BENDRE

After Mahajan had spoken out, Thackeray expressed regret over the charge levelled by Nirupam. In fact, the September 10 issue of Saamna carried a box item expressing regret over the reference in Nirupam's article to links between the BJP leader and Jet Airways.

Uddhav Thackeray told Saamna in an interview published on September 13 that Vajpayee and Advani had approved his proposals for the holding of a winter conclave of top functionaries of the ruling alliance in Maharashtra and the establishment of a joint Shiv Sena-BJP office in Mumbai. He also claimed, without going into the specifics, that in the course of his discussions with Vajpayee and Advani, progress had been made towards the resolution of several differences between the Shiv Sena and the BJP.

That the Shiv Sena and the BJP continue to have differences is all too evident. The hope of inter-party harmony, expressed by Bal Thackeray after an accord of sorts was reached on several contentious issues at a high-level joint conference of the two parties in Mumbai on August 19, did not bear fruit. For one, the revised scheme for slum rehabilitation through the provision of free housing continued to provide occasions for confrontation.

The confrontation began with Mumbai BJP president Kirit Somaiya questioning the practicability, financial wisdom and perhaps the bona fides of the revised scheme, which was envisaged to be implemented by a public sector company, Shahi Punarvasan Prakalp Limited (SPPL). Housing Minister Suresh Jain of the Shiv Sena, who is the brain behind the scheme, responded in anger. This was followed by the BJP's boycott of the Cabinet meeting. The high-level conference took place the following day.

BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan.-SANDEEP SAXENA

The conference decided that the housing project would be referred to a review committee. Named as members of the committee were Chief Minister Manohar Joshi, Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde, Suresh Jain, Somaiya and Deepak Parekh, Chairman of the Housing Development Finance Corporation (HDFC).

Ten days after the conference, Suresh Jain told newspersons that he had been receiving anonymous threatening calls and that he feared for his life. He added that the powerful builders' lobby was opposed to the slum rehabilitation scheme, which could lead to a downtrend in the prices of real estate in Mumbai. Addressing newspersons in Pune on August 30, Munde wondered why Jain did not express his fear to Thackeray, Joshi or himself. He also criticised the Shiv Sena for "indiscipline".

However, it was Somaiya who again played the lead role in taking on the Shiv Sena. On September 4, he forwarded an "open letter" to the Chief Minister. The letter begins by noting that the BJP and the Shiv Sena had agreed at the August 19 conference that neither side would air its views on the controversial housing project before the media. It goes on to complain that Jain "has once again publicly expressed displeasure over the (review) committee's functioning and has indirectly attempted to picture the BJP as an agent of the builders' lobby."

The letter says that the Housing Minister had been critical of the BJP ever since the review committee was set up, that he had stated obliquely that the BJP was the main hurdle to the implementation of the scheme, and that he had alleged that there was a threat to his life from the builders' lobby. It states by implication that Jain had failed to deliver on the glowing promises he had made in July 1997 vis-a-vis the slum rehabilitation scheme.

Through the letter, Somaiya also asked the Chief Minister to reconsider the pattern of earmarking open plots for the housing scheme. "According to our information, several plots in prime areas have been dereserved for the scheme," the BJP leader said. He added that at the review committee meeting (of August 29) he had asked the Housing Minister to spell out which plots were available for construction. "But Jain chose to paint me as a villain."

Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde.-SANDEEP SAXENA

The differences over the SPPL's operations were eventually resolved at a meeting of the review committee (in the absence of Deepak Parekh, who was out of town) on September 6. The target for the number of houses to be built by 1999-end was slashed from two lakhs to 50,000. The meeting also decided that the SPPL would be a wholly government-owned company and not a 50-50 joint venture of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) and the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA).

But each of these two authorities would be required to lend to the Government Rs.300 crores, a sum equivalent to what would have been its contribution to the equity of the joint venture that had been envisaged. On the question of lands to be made available for the project, it was decided that open plots owned by the MHADA would be used. Besides, the Government would transfer some land in the eastern suburbs of Mumbai to the SPPL.

Both Joshi and Munde expressed their happiness over the accord after the meeting, the latter stating pointedly that it was a victory for the BJP. A day after the Indian Merchants Chamber meeting, Bal Thackeray reportedly told the press that "everything has been sorted out. They wanted that it be registered as a government company, so I told the Government to register it."

But even as the controversy over the SPPL seemed to be cooling off, the controversy over the aborted Tata airline began emerging.

Differences between the Shiv Sena and the BJP have manifested themselves in other ways, including the covert expression by Shiv Sainiks of the suspicion that the BJP had deliberately leaked to the press the contents of a letter that Finance Minister Mahadeo Shivankar wrote to the Chief Minister some months ago on the worrisome condition of the State's finances. Besides, a Shiv Sena delegation called on Munde, who holds the Energy portfolio, to protest against a recent hike in power tariffs.

As Uddhav Thackeray's report on his talks with Vajpayee and Advani makes clear, things are still far from hunky-dory so far as coalition solidarity is concerned.

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