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Against the odds

Print edition : Dec 27, 1997

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Central to the current problem of the United Front is the state of affairs within its principal constituent, the Janata Dal, which is now in the throes of its seventh split.

SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN

CALLING the Congress(I)'s bluff may have been the easy part. For the ruling United Front coalition, it is proving far more difficult to work out a credible electoral strategy and contain the growing fissures within itself. There is some consolation for it in the evident reality that all the three main forces that are in contention today face problems of roughly the same category, though of different dimensions.

Central to the problems of the U.F. is the state of affairs within the Janata Dal, now in the throes of its seventh and perhaps terminal split. Since the inauguration of the politics of the Third Force, the Janata Dal has played a pivotal role on the national scene. This role has been sustained over the years despite successive schisms, for the simple reason that the Janata Dal had a wider geographical base than any other single constituent of the Third Force. Uttar Pradesh and Haryana were the first two States to be lost to the Janata Dal on account of its inability to work out a feasible idiom of power-sharing between the leaders who banded together at its formation. For their own reasons, Bihar and Orissa seem likely now to go the same way. That would leave the party with only Karnataka as a solitary redoubt, a visibly tottering one at that.

The Janata Dal was established through the merger of various formations of a centrist and Lohia-socialist orientation with an anti-Congress(I) identity. The turbulence of the Ayodhya campaign reduced this aspect of the Janata Dal's identity to a relatively marginal strain as opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party was established as a higher priority. Recent events amply highlight, as in the case of earlier such schisms within the Janata Dal, the hazards of seeking a political identity in purely negative terms.

THE Orissa unit of the Janata Dal stands impaled on the party's two-pronged oppositional approach to national politics. And in a State where the religious minorities are not quite numerous enough to reward a consistent anti-BJP stance with their political allegiance, it is the anti-Congress identity that has prevailed in sections of the party.

An acute sense of political disorientation followed the death of the party's Oriya patriarch, Biju Patnaik. In a fashion that perhaps would do greater credit to the Congress(I), the Janata Dal had then anointed Biju Patnaik's apolitical son as his successor. Naveen Patnaik has now returned the favour in his own way by splitting the party and taking a substantial section of the State unit over into an alliance with the BJP. The rival grouping's alleged dishonouring of Biju Patnaik is among the reasons that have been cited for the split within the ranks. Stripped of the emotional rhetoric, the fundamental cause of the party's Orissa troubles is perhaps the organisational disorder to which it has always been prone, but was concealed by the towering salience of Biju Patnaik.

Without Biju's leadership, the Janata Dal in Orissa faces the prospect of emerging a distant third in the electoral contest, squeezed as it is between the Congress(I)'s more durable organisational network and the BJP's dramatic emergence, as was apparent from the 1996 elections. As the dissonances within the party accentuated, the BJP seemed to be orchestrating the chaos with perfect poise. For a while, it seemed as if a section of the Janata Dal would simply part company with the parent organisation and join the BJP. For public consumption, the leadership of the BJP in the State put out the signal that the party was unconcerned about these events and was proceeding with plans to put up candidates in all the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the State. The dissident section of the Janata Dal unit concurrently put out a message that its move to solemnise an alliance with the BJP had the endorsement of the Central leadership.

The agony ended four days after Naveen Patnaik's arrival in Bhubaneswar, after a conclave with Prime Minister I.K. Gujral. Obviously Patnaik's mind had been made up and not all the entreaties of the Prime Minister or his senior party colleagues could deflect him. Offering the political imperative of ejecting the "corrupt and cynical" Congress(I) Government as his reason, Patnaik announced that he would lead 29 of the party's 43 MLAs out and into a new political formation called the Biju Janata Dal. The new party would strike up the appropriate alliances to achieve its ultimate goal of removing the Congress(I) regime, while being mindful of the political legacy of Biju Patnaik.

WORSE was to come for the Janata Dal with the release on bail of its erstwhile president Laloo Prasad Yadav. His characteristic ebullience undiminished by the months spent in luxurious confinement for alleged complicity and worse in the defalcation of funds from the Bihar treasury, Laloo Prasad arrived in Delhi to a tumultuous welcome and did not lose much time in hurling barbs at prominent leaders of the Janata Dal who had insisted after his indictment that he vacate office. Aside from those induced by outside players, such as the Congress(I), Laloo Prasad's indictment was perhaps the most serious crisis that the U.F. had to confront through its unhappy tenure in power. And it was not a crisis that was faced with great distinction. One section insisted on grounds of principle that Laloo Prasad should go; another did the same out of pique against his often whimsical and autocratic ways; still another section argued that the question of culpability could not be prejudged at the stage of criminal indictment; and others obliquely suggested that a certain degree of indulgence for corruption in politics was an inescapable component of the struggle against the BJP.

Laloo Prasad dealt with the incoherence of the political response to his indictment by taking his flock into a distinct political entity called the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and anointing his wife as Chief Minister of Bihar. Far from baulking at this arrangement of convenience, the U.F. leadership connived at it. The few leaders including Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav who chose to identify the unsavoury deal for what it was now face the wrath of Laloo Prasad. Laloo Prasad has vowed to have them defeated from the Bihar constituencies that they now represent. With his formidable ability to recruit caste and community loyalties, he could well deliver on the threat.

Laloo Prasad's fulminations also drew attention to a glaring anomaly in the composition of the U.F. Ministry which has remained uncorrected ever since he engineered a split in the Janata Dal. Now hesitantly seeking to administer the corrective, the U.F. has met with a stinging rebuff. Shortly after the apex deliberative forum of the U.F. - the so-called Core Committee - urged RJD members of the Union Ministry to consider whether their position was tenable in the context of their leader's polemics against the coalition, Laloo Prasad himself ruled out any likelihood of his loyalists quitting the Central Government. Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, he said, was free to take any action he thought fit.

Characteristically, Gujral chose to do nothing. Indeed, his sense of indebtedness to Laloo Prasad was only deepened by an extraordinary request made to Food and Civil Supplies Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Yadav to sanction the procurement of sub-standard grain from Punjab for supply through the public distribution system.

THE Prime Minister's charm offensive in Punjab, of which the procurement decision was an essential component, was another aspect of the disarray within the U.F. Disregarding the fundamental rules of political association of the ruling coalition, Gujral has been unabashedly seeking an arrangement of convenience with the Akali Dal, which is an ally of the BJP in both the State and Central contexts. It is an incipient deal that has created deep disquiet on both Left and Right. Never quite happy with Gujral's conciliatory attitude on most issues, the Left partners of the U.F. have sharply attacked his recent overtures to the Akali Dal. For its part, the BJP has made it clear that it will not go along with its electoral ally on this decision and would feel free to field a candidate of its choice against Gujral.

An appropriate attitude towards the Congress(I) provided a troublesome sub-theme. The U.F. was initially torn between Mulayam Singh Yadav's belief that the Congress(I) could usefully augment his Samajwadi Party's electoral prospects in Uttar Pradesh and its own deeper convictions that the party that had brought down two governments could not be a reliable ally. The issue was finally put beyond the terms of futile debate by the Congress' choice of Laloo Prasad's RJD as an ally, and its ardent overtures towards the Bahujan Samaj Party, which in the ranking of political aversions represents the opposite extreme to Mulayam Singh.

AS the political machine shifts up a gear, it is not the clash of competing ideologies or programmes that has tended to dominate the scene, but the trading of vote banks. It is a process in which the U.F. has begun with an inherent disadvantage since most of its constituents are committed to non-tradable interests. As of now it is the Congress(I), with its infinite capacity to sell, and the BJP, with an unlimited capacity to buy, which are the cynosure.

The relevance of Third Force politics has often been questioned in the past, only to be reaffirmed in the electoral arena. The challenge this time around seems more exacting than ever before, partly because the U.F. suffers from all the disadvantages of incumbency. In retrospect though, the coalition's failure to utilise the tenure in power to push through a radical programme of social and economic reforms may well be judged the greater constraint.

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