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New strains in the alliance

Published : Jun 09, 2001 00:00 IST

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The BJP's relations with its allies in the NDA have come under increased strain following the Manipur fiasco and the vacillation on the issue of readmitting Mamata Banerjee into the alliance.

THE resilience the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre has displayed in the face of crisis may just be deceptive. On May 21, the government was on the brink of collapse after the Samata Party threatened to review its support to the A.B. Vajpayee government citing the latter's failure to save the Ministry headed by Radhabinod Koijam in Manipur. The Bharatiya Janata Party, however, managed to stave off a crisis in the coalition by placating its ally, although the State had to be put under President's Rule.

When Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee quit the NDA and withdrew support to its government following the Tehelka disclosures in March, analysts thought it was perhaps the beginning of the end of the Vajpayee government. After her party's defeat in the West Bengal Assembly elections, Mamata has shown keenness to prepare the ground for an honourable return to the NDA. She has not sent a letter to President K.R. Narayanan informing him of the withdrawal of support to the government; nor has she informed Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi about the party's decision to leave the NDA. She met Vajpayee on June 1, under the pretext of submitting a memorandum on the alleged rigging of elections by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal. Significantly, the NDA and the Trinamul Congress have not ruled out a patch-up.

The Prime Minister's reply to a question at a press conference in Manali, where he was holidaying for a week, that there was no proposal to facilitate the Trinamul Congress' return to the NDA was misinterpreted to mean that he did not need its support. His reply was factually correct, as there was no such proposal in place. But the Prime Minister's special emissary, who deals with Mamata Banerjee, Sudheendra Kulkarni, was engaged in facilitating her return. "It is for the Trinamul Congress to decide whether to return to the NDA or not. Any effort to strengthen the coalition is welcome," he said.

Indeed, the BJP's rout in the May 10 Assembly elections in four States would in the normal course have discouraged prospective allies from considering an alignment with the NDA. But the Rashtriya Lok Dal, which has two members (Ajit Singh and Alam Amir) in the Lok Sabha, is all set to join the NDA, with Ajit Singh likely to get a Cabinet berth in the ministerial reshuffle planned by Vajpayee before the monsoon session of Parliament in mid-July. The initial opposition by Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Choutala to Ajit Singh's entry now seems to have been muted; Choutala now claims that it is the Prime Minister's prerogative to choose his Council of Ministers.

The BJP's decision to woo Ajit Singh, on the pretext of offering support to his demand for carving out a separate State of Harit Pradesh from Uttar Pradesh, stems from political compulsions. With its political prospects in U.P. fading, according to present indications, the BJP is perhaps eyeing Ajit Singh's support base in Western U.P. ahead of the 2002 elections. The NDA leadership has also got positive feelers from rebel Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) group led by Ranjan Prasad Yadav, which has three representatives in the Lok Sabha. Although the group's support would not make any significant difference to the NDA's strength in the Lok Sabha, both Samata Party's Nitish Kumar and the Lok Janshakthi leader Ram Vilas Paswan are in favour of it, perhaps with the aim of destabilising the Rabri Devi regime in Bihar.

HOWEVER, the NDA's ability thus far to bounce back may appear to be fortuitous if one examines the factors that were at work in each of these crucial events which had a significant bearing on the stability of the coalition. The Manipur crisis has blown over, but it has left deeper strains in the BJP-Samata relationship at the Centre than one would have expected. The Samata Party leader and former Defence Minister George Fernandes boycotted the NDA meeting, citing his preoccupation with the party's emergency national executive meeting. He thus conveyed his displeasure over the BJP's reluctance to issue a whip to its 26 MLAs to support the Radhabinod Koijam government, when it faced a trust vote in Imphal. Twenty-four BJP MLAs voted against the Koijam government, leading to its downfall in the 60-member House, despite party president Jana Krishnamurthy's assurance at the meeting of the party's central office-bearers in Mussoorie of the BJP's support. There was no clue as to whether a whip was issued, and by whom, but obviously the party's leaders acknowledged it could not be enforced considering the intensity of factionalism and the anti-Koijam feeling prevalent within the party.

The Prime Minister's explanation that the BJP had no control over its MLAs, many of whom had defected from other parties, failed to convince Fernandes, who was authorised by the Samata Party to take a decision on continuing its support to the Vajpayee government. Nothing short of an assurance that the BJP would sacrifice its claim to form the government in Manipur, despite having a majority, could persuade Fernandes to relent. "Why should there be a threat to the Centre for something done by the local faction leaders in Manipur?" he asked after meeting the Prime Minister on May 22.

Padmanabha Acharya, who is in charge of the BJP's political affairs in the northeastern region, was more candid. Explaining the instruction issued to the Manipur unit not to stake its claim to form the government, he said: "We could not have Manipur and lose Delhi; without Delhi there would be no Manipur either."

In this short-term analysis, the BJP was not only willing to risk a split in the legislature party, with many MLAs leaving the BJP, but would even back the imposition of President's Rule for a limited period, if it satisfied the Samata Party. Even as the Government considered the imposition of President's Rule on the basis of Governor Ved Marwah's report, the uncertainty over securing the Congress(I)'s support for the ratification of the measure in the Rajya Sabha stared it in the face.

ACCOMMODATING Mamata Banerjee again in the NDA can be problematic for the party. No doubt, the BJP has managed to break the Trinamul Congress, by enticing former Minister of State for External Affairs Ajit Panja with an offer of a Cabinet berth. Mamata Banerjee is under tremendous pressure, post-election, within the party to return to the NDA. The Congress(I) is also keen to keep the Trinamul Congress in its fold. After meeting Vajpayee on June 1, Mamata Banerjee met Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi as well, sending mixed signals about her intentions. Will the NDA's keep its doors open for Mamata Banerjee's return, despite strong opposition to inducting her into the Cabinet?

Not only is Nitish Kumar unwilling to hand over the Railway portfolio to Mamata Banerjee, but senior Ministers like Advani are against her reinduction. "We need her party's support in the Lok Sabha, but the government cannot risk damaging its image by taking her back" seems to be the dominant view within the coalition.

Mamata Banerjee obviously has no choice but do a balancing exercise to gauge the mood of her party workers and her constituency back home in West Bengal on her choices. But it appears that the NDA may equally be under pressure to seek her support, if there is a challenge to its strength in the Lok Sabha in the near-future.

Mamata Banerjee was careful not to criticise the BJP or Vajpayee during the election campaign. And she did not mind waiting for half an hour at the Prime Minister's residence for an audience with him on June 1. But her detractors in the NDA may not forget her 'betrayal' in the wake of the Tehelka crisis, when she deserted the NDA to ally with the Congress(I).

Subtle re-alignments are likely in the next few months, with factions in the States setting the political agenda at the Centre. In a sense, the Vajpayee dispensation will have to watch out increasingly for signals emanating from the States, if it were to provide some sort of coherence and stability to the coalition.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 09, 2001.)

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