Persisting worries

Print edition : September 12, 1998

The BJP continues to be plagued by problems in spite of the lull in its conflicts with its coalition partners at the Centre.

ON the surface, the Bharatiya Janata Party appears to have got a respite from the belligerence of its partners in the coalition that rules at the Centre. However, this could well turn out to be the calm before the storm, for both the BJP and its allies are playing the waiting game, unwilling to rock the boat at the present stage. Besides, from the BJP's point of view, the apparent peace is made an uneasy one by criticism from its own sister organisations.

In August, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) acted out the role of a potential destabiliser, with its leader Jayalalitha threatening to review her support to the coalition. However, she backtracked, faced with the threat of isolation within the AIADMK-led front in Tamil Nadu, while the BJP also shifted to a conciliatory mode. Two of the AIADMK's allies, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), refused to toe Jayalalitha's line and confirmed their unconditional support to the BJP whether the AIADMK continued to support it or not.

Reacting to the AIADMK's threats, BJP vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy said that his party could secure the support of any political group that believed in the coalition's National Agenda for Governance, thus indicating that the AIADMK was free to leave the coalition if it desired to do so. Fundamental to the BJP's ambiguous stand was its fear that any hurried action to remove Jayalalitha from the alliance would result in boosting her popularity in the State.

Even as the BJP managed to contain the immediate challenge from the AIADMK, it faced a siege within. The Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), which is a part of the Sangh Parivar, dubbed some of the Centre's economic policies as "anti-people and anti-swadeshi" and urged the Government to "review and retrace" them. The SJM criticised the "consistent contrasts and inconsistencies" between the BJP's commitment to uphold the principle of swadeshi, made in its manifesto and in the National Agenda for Governance, and its actions.

The forum, which includes senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leaders such as K.S. Sudarshan, Madan Das and Dattopant Thengdi, warned the Government against giving in to "vested interests and business lobbyists as the previous governments did" and asked it to refrain from "compromising with national interests". The SJM protested against the deal that the Government struck with Suzuki of Japan with regard to Maruti Udyog Ltd, and the Exim policy, besides expressing its disagreement with several other decisions made by the Government. These, it said, related to the "retention, promotion and recognition of bureaucrats who are habituated to compromise national interests, the constitution of economic and trade advisory councils consisting of persons who are hostile to the very idea of swadeshi, and the sudden announcement that 100 per cent foreign investments would be permitted in the tobacco and liquor industries."

The SJM's attack on bureaucrats was in response to the continued retention of officials such as Montek Singh Ahluwalia and N.K. Singh in important positions in spite of their perceived anti-swadeshi line. The SJM's all-India organiser, Muralidhar Rao, pointed out that the two recently constituted advisory panels of economists and industrialists, headed by the Prime Minister, did not include any proponents of swadeshi. He said that the Government should appoint a bureaucrat with proven "integrity and commitment to the nation" as the member-secretary of the two bodies. The BJP rejected this demand on the ground that Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, in his capacity as the head of the panels, would take care of the swadeshi angle.

The SJM also deplored the Centre's decision to award a major project of the Neyveli Lignite Corporation Corporation to the Italian firm Analdo, which, it alleged, had no experience in manufacturing steam turbines. Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd was one of the bidders for the project.

However, the BJP does not appear to be unduly worried about the 15-day Swadeshi Chetna (awakening) programme that the SJM plans to hold between September 17 and October 2. The SJM is expected to launch an attack on the Centre's policies from this forum. K.L. Sharma, the BJP spokesperson, said that the SJM had a right to launch its own programmes and added that the Government would consider the forum's criticisms. S. Gurumurthy, a senior SJM leader, told Frontline: "The Chetna programme is our annual event. As the BJP's friends, we have every right to criticise the Government. Only friends can bring to the notice of the Government its mistakes."

The SJM's attack on the Government follows a similar attack launched by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which held Home Minister L.K. Advani responsible for the failure to bring the Kashmir situation under control. The VHP had given Advani six months' time from the date of his appointment to bring peace to Kashmir. Ironically, Advani was hailed by Organiser, the Sangh Parivar's mouthpiece, as the "second Sardar Patel in the Home Ministry".

Although the critical noises from the Sangh Parivar are certain to have an adverse effect on the Government's image, they appear to have been made with a definite purpose. The BJP continues to suffer from the constraints of running a coalition government, but its sister organisations in the Sangh Parivar are not restrained by such compulsions. They appear to be keeping their distance from the Government in order to demonstrate that the Sangh Parivar and the Government are separate identities and that the Parivar is not necessarily responsible for the Government's failures. However, whether this strategy of blaming the Government's failures on coalition constraints is a sound one and whether it will help the BJP win elections is not clear.

According to the BJP's critics, the fact that the SJM's attack is aimed at the Prime Minister himself points to strong resentment within the Sangh Parivar against his style of functioning. The SJM is unhappy that Vajpayee set up the two panels of economists and industrialists allegedly to sidestep Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, who was initially the choice of the swadeshi lobby. Critics trace the differences to an intra-party rift. According to observers, if Vajpayee is seen as anti-swadeshi it would deprive him of the support the party gave him when it chose him as the unanimous candidate for the Prime Minister's post. It is believed that Vajpayee's critics in the party have succeeded in sowing the seeds of conflict between him and the Sangh Parivar, which would in turn influence his succession, whenever the need arises. Whether Advani will succeed in winning the confidence of the Parivar is yet to be seen.

THE rift in the Sangh Parivar has come into the open at a time when the BJP is gearing itself to face Assembly elections in three States and Delhi in November. Rajasthan, one of these States, is proving to be a nightmare for the BJP. The party was routed here in the Lok Sabha elections.

For its part, the Congress(I) has sought to gain political mileage from the fact that 14 MLAs came into its fold after defecting from other parties, although only a few of them belonged to the BJP. Even those BJP MLAs had defected from that party after their unsuccessful revolt against Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in 1996. They had not resigned from the party earlier because they did not want to lose their Assembly membership under the anti-defection act.

Although Shekhawat's Government enjoys a comfortable majority in the Assembly, his nearly five-year tenure at the helm has raised questions about his ability to form a government after the November elections in the event of the BJP failing to get a majority. Shekhawat is no doubt a tall figure in Rajasthan. However, his standing in the party has suffered a setback, with many State leaders clamouring for "collective leadership" in the State unit and in the Government. The party has decided to fight the elections under Shekhawat's leadership but without projecting him as the chief ministerial candidate.

THE BJP's relations with its other allies at the Centre are less than cordial. The Samata Party's George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar are under tremendous pressure from the party's Bihar unit to get the Centre to dismiss the Rabri Devi Government. Both Fernandes and Nitish Kumar appear to have made it clear to the BJP leadership that their continuance in the Ministry would become untenable if President's rule is not imposed in Bihar. But on September 5, Thakre ruled out the imposition of President's rule in Bihar, or any other State for that matter. The BJP chief said the law and order situation in Bihar was "explosive", but added: "The Vajpayee Government will not impose Article 356 on any State as it is the right of the people to change a government."

For her part, Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee put pressure on the Centre to order a probe into the corruption charges made against persons close to the Government in West Bengal. Perhaps to keep her in good humour, Advani acted on her petition and asked Union Home Secretary Balmiki Prasad Singh to examine a recent Calcutta High Court judgment on irregularities committed in the tendering process for the Rs. 318-crore Bakreshwar power plant.

The Biju Janata Dal, which is reeling under internal turmoil, is also under pressure since its participation in the Union Government is seen to have brought little benefit for Orissa. Besides, the BJP's State unit leader, Joel Oram, recently declared that in the event of the BJP-BJD alliance securing a majority in the next Assembly elections, the BJP would like to appoint one of its party members as Chief Minister. Oram's remarks were met with strong protests from BJD leaders since until now BJD leader and Union Minister Naveen Patnaik was projected as the chief ministerial candidate.

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