Unstable equilibrium

Published : Jan 20, 2001 00:00 IST

The internal dynamics of the National Democratic Alliance, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party, appears largely unstable, with various groups speaking in different voices.

IN his musings from Kumarakom, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made an attempt to correct what he thought was a misleading description of himself in the media in the recent past. "Overnight I was transformed by a section of the media and the politica l class from a 'moderate' to a 'hard-liner'. 'Vajpayee Unmasked', they said, conveniently masking the fact that my long stint in public life is an open book. Worse still, a campaign was launched to create misgivings about me in the minds of the minority brethren," he wrote. Elsewhere in the musings, Vajpayee argued that the Indian people did not give their mandate to any party or coalition that did not follow a secular, inclusive and integrative agenda. "To think otherwise is to disparage our people's d emocratic intelligence," he reasoned.

None can deny the Prime Minister an opportunity to go beyond the narrow confines of his party, which has earned the epithet of 'communal', and seek a statesmanlike stature by holding aloft a secular image. As observers such as former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral have noted, it is the very intrinsic quality of secularism in the Indian people that has forced even communal parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party to appear to practise secularism.

This became apparent in the wake of Kumarakom. Perhaps motivated by Vajpayee's remark that the judicial route and the option of talks were complementary to each other in resolving the Ayodhya tangle and that talks were essential to create a congenial atm osphere to implement the judicial verdict, "whatever it might be", hardliners in the Sangh Parivar expressed a desire to open negotiations with Muslims. Vinay Katiyar, Member of Parliament and former chairperson of the Bajrang Dal, and Mohammed Hashim An sari, who had filed a case on the Ayodhya issue, said that if there could be a dialogue to solve the Kashmir issue, Hindus and Muslims could have talks to settle the Ayodhya dispute. However, Katiyar's initiative - he had even fixed January 13 as the dat e to start the talks, in Lucknow - failed to take off, as various Muslim groups rejected it. Both Ansari and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) backed out after initially welcoming the proposal.

The BJP National Executive, which met in New Delhi on January 4 and 5, had nothing to offer on either the proposed talks or on what Vajpayee had sought to clarify in his musings. The impression it created was that the debate in Parliament and the musings had served their purposes. The debate - despite a moral defeat for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government when the Opposition-sponsored censure motion was carried in the Rajya Sabha, where the ruling coalition is in a minority - helped Vajpay ee to strengthen his ties with the Sangh Parivar, by means of his pro-temple statements. His musings, on the other hand, were essentially meant to soothe some of his allies, such as the Trinamul Congress, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Dravida Munn etra Kazhagam (DMK), which had expressed their unhappiness over the Prime Minister's statements on the temple issue in Parliament and outside. That the allies treated the musings mostly as an after-thought is another matter.

The VHP, which had declared that it would announce during the Dharma Sansad during the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad a date to start the process of temple construction, deferred the announcement following distress signals from the BJP. By getting the hardliner s to go slow on Ayodhya, the Vajpayee camp appears to have brought home the point that the time was not ripe to precipitate matters. Vajpayee told the National Executive that his statements on Ayodhya were "well thought out".

Was it a strategy to test the potential of the issue as a campaign theme in the coming Assembly elections in five States - Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Pondicherry, Assam and West Bengal? While one section within the BJP feels that Ayodhya has outlived its electo ral utility, the hardliners apparently think that only a revival of the temple issue can save the BJP. The hardliners, it appears, have been told that the continuance of the Vajpayee government was essential to achieve the larger goals of the Sangh Pariv ar. They have been warned against any attempt to precipitate the Ayodhya issue.

The internal dynamics of the BJP and the NDA is largely unstable, if recent events are any indication. The relationship between the Prime Minister and Home Minister L.K.Advani - a subject of intense media speculation over several months - again came to t he fore with the expulsion of former MP J.K. Jain from the National Executive. Jain, who runs a television channel, launched a campaign to expose what he called the "black deeds" of Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. Jain sent leg al notices to the Prime Minister and others in the government complaining against a report, allegedly prepared by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), describing him as an agent of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan. The row between Jain and Mishra had taken an interesting turn with Advani and prominent leaders of the Sangh Parivar supporting Jain's stand and demanding Mishra's replacement. The Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) and the Home Ministry had also given a clean chit to Jain on the ma tter of alleged ISI links. However, the issue of a legal notice to the Prime Minister made Jain an object of attack, and Advani decided to play it safe. He counselled party president Bangaru Laxman to expel Jain from the National Executive.

Shortly afterwards, another Advani loyalist, K.N. Govindacharya, was "evicted" from the party's central office at 11 Ashoka Road, New Delhi, where he had been allotted a room when he functioned as party general secretary. Govindacharya is still a member of the National Executive, though he was dropped as a general secretary by Laxman when he took over as party president last August. Govindacharya, known as an ideologue, had then claimed that he wanted to go on study leave for two years, to do field work on the impact of globalisation. The exit of swadeshi supporters from the party headquarters is seen as an indication of the growing gulf between the government and the swadeshi lobby in the Sangh Parivar.

K.R. Malkani, another old hand in the party and the editor-in-chief of the party organ, BJP Today , was forced to retract his off-the-cuff remark - made in the context of the widespread protests in Nepal against an anti-Nepal statement allegedly m ade by film star Hrithik Roshan - that King Tribhuvan of Nepal had once offered to merge the country with India and that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was wrong in having rejected the offer. An embarrassed BJP disowned Malkani's remark. Malkani, who st ood by his remark, however, tendered an apology in view of the tense atmosphere in Nepal. The episode provided an instance of how senior party leaders and the government had different perceptions on sensitive issues.

VAJPAYEE had to deal with a resignation drama when Agriculture Minister and Samata Party leader Nitish Kumar tendered his resignation to Defence Minister George Fernandes, the leader of the Samata Parliamentary Party. (A previous occasion of this kind wa s when Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee "resigned" in protest against the hike in the prices of petroleum products.) Fernandes, unable to persuade Nitish Kumar to withdraw his resignation, forwarded it to the Prime Minister, who promptly rejected it. Nit ish Kumar's grievance was that his proposal for the merger of the party with the Janata Dal (United) was stoutly rejected by six of the party's 12 MPs.

The six rebel MPs, who held a parallel party meeting in Patna, however, swore allegiance to Fernandes and attended the party's National Executive meeting in Mysore. A split in the Samata Party has been averted for the time being with Fernandes ruling out any move for a merger with the Janata Dal (U) led by Sharad Yadav. However, the simmering differences on this issue may come out into the open any time, throwing the coalition into disarray. A split in the Samata Party would have been an embarrassment t o Vajpayee, as he might have had to accommodate the new faction too in the coalition. This would have led to other minor parties in the coalition demanding a share in the government. Already the Loktantrik Congress of Uttar Pradesh, a constituent of the NDA, is demanding a ministerial post, as a three-member party led by Ram Vilas Paswan (Jan Shakti) has been rewarded with a Cabinet post.

There are fissures within the NDA in Tamil Nadu that remain to be resolved, with the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) seeking the expulsion of the Tamizhaga Rajiv Congress, led by former Union Minister 'Vazhapadi' K. Ramamurthy. The PMK's demand has been reje cted by other partners, including the DMK, but it has obviously left the PMK unhappy. The TRC has no representation in the Union Ministry. It is too early to say what impact the PMK-TRC tussle will have on the NDA's prospects in the Assembly election rou nd.

The Shiv Sena made a public display of its dissatisfaction over the Prime Minister's announcement of a ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir by burning his effigies amidst his 76th birthday celebrations in New Delhi on December 25. Embarrassed by this, the Prim e Minister gave a general advice to all the NDA constituents to adopt more dignified ways of expressing their reservations about the government's policies.

The Sena's protest followed its leader Bal Thackeray's comment in the party organ Saamna that Muslims should be disenfranchised. Thackeray's diatribe, which is quite at odds with the National Agenda for Governance, failed to stir the conscience of other NDA partners. Bangaru Laxman dismissed the comment as a personal view. As the Sena is a key constituent of the NDA in Maharashtra and shares power at the Centre, Laxman's indifference was surprising, particularly in the context of his "Nagpur mess age" aimed at wooing Muslims.

The Trinamul Congress has revived its demand for the imposition of President's Rule in West Bengal, following the violent bandh it organised in the State (story on Page 36). An NDA team led by BJP MP Vijay Goel, which visited the violence-affected areas, endorsed the Trinamul demand. With the Prime Minister returning to the capital from his visit to South-East Asian countries on January 13, it appeared the Union Cabinet would consider the issue. Whatever the decision, it has the potential to divide the allies. Parties such as the DMK and the TDP have on earlier occasions opposed the imposition of President's Rule on any State, as a matter of principle; the BJP and some others look at the West Bengal situation as a qualitatively different one, with a se ction of the Congress(I) in the State backing President's rule. When an NDA delegation met Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill to press for free and fair elections in West Bengal, Gill told its members that he would intervene only after the election da tes were announced.

With the Election Commission announcing that Assembly elections to the five States could be held in April, attention is now focussed on the preparations for them. The media have apparently missed the import of what Bangaru Laxman told the National Execut ive on how to face elections. The party had to analyse the political situation and put together effective strategies, he said. "Where necessary, we have to begin the exercise of identifying potential allies. In the States that go to the polls we have imm ense opportunities to increase our strength substantially, and in some States we can even bid for power either on our own or along with our allies and friendly parties."

The BJP had harsh words to describe the performance of the Asom Gana Parishad-led government in Assam. Then whom does the BJP consider a potential ally there? In West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, can the BJP disown its existing allies and look for new ones? In Tamil Nadu, a chance meeting between All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary Jayalalitha and Rajya Sabha member Cho Ramaswamy, who is known to be sympathetic to the BJP, has led to speculations that the BJP-AIADM K alliance may be revived.

In West Bengal, undeterred by the lack of proof to back her allegation that there was a massacre of Trinamul Congress supporters at Chhoto Angariya village in Midnapore district, Mamata Banerjee has relaunched her campaign for a grand alliance (Mahajot) of all non-Left parties, including the Congress(I). While the Congress(I) was guarded in its response, saying that it would welcome an alliance with the Trinamul Congress minus the BJP, the BJP did not reveal its strategy.

The BJP, which had no reservations about including the Congress(I) in the proposed Mahajot, however, sought to derive political mileage from the Congress(I)'s reluctance to back any parliamentary resolution to impose President's Rule in West Bengal. The NDA's lack of majority in the Rajya Sabha is a major deterrent in its move to bring the State under President's Rule, as such a measure would have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament.

In Kerala, the BJP has no allies at present and has no hope of acquiring any before the elections.

What Bangaru Laxman left unsaid may probably be the subject of debate in the coming weeks.

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