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A nationwide hunt for allies

Print edition : Dec 27, 1997 T+T-

As the BJP sets out to strike alliances in various States, it reiterates its Hindutva goals.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a single-minded approach to the mid-term elections to the Lok Sabha - strike alliances with more State-level parties and thus overcome what it calls the untouchability factor. The three-day meeting of its national executive, which began on December 19 in Bhubaneswar, provided its leaders an opportunity to evaluate the working of the strategy.

The BJP, which has stolen the stability plank from the Congress(I), claims that it is placed ahead of other major parties and groups in terms of attracting allies. The party exudes something of an exaggerated confidence about its electoral prospects; this is perhaps to attempt to counter the general feeling that the elections will result in a hung Parliament.

The BJP will try to capitalise on the failure of the United Front (U.F.) and the Congress(I) to provide a five-year Government after the 1996 elections. Party president L.K. Advani said in his opening address of the national executive: "Since the formation of the Congress(I)-backed U.F. Government, a Government whose tenure has been marked by perpetual instability and total uncertainty, the stability card has slipped out of the hands of the Congress and has become lodged with the BJP." He did not, however, explain how the BJP, which has a 13-day record in office at the Centre, can claim to offer a stable government on its own strength.

According to A.B. Vajpayee, whom the party projects as its candidate for the Prime Minister's post, stability, good governance, and liberalisation with a human face constitute the BJP agenda; in addition, the party's Hindutva goals will not be given up. "Our stand on Ayodhya remains the same," he said. "We will try to resolve the issue through consensus and dialogue or, if necessary, legislation by consensus. We are in favour of a national debate on these controversial issues."

Vajpayee also anticipated a "pro-BJP wave that would sweep the country from North to South, East to West..." Commenting on the reading that no single party or group will gain a majority, he said, "This view suits our detractors who are fast losing ground. The reality is reflected in the rapid expansion of the BJP's support base and the way we are breaking new ground." Nevertheless, it was apparent that behind this show of confidence, the party was acutely conscious of the need to find new friends in the South and the East, and expand its vote share in the North and the West.

The decision to hold the national executive in Bhubaneswar was based on the perception that the BJP will open its account in the Lok Sabha elections in Orissa this time. Orissa has 21 Lok Sabha seats. In 1996, the BJP came second in three constituencies and won more than one lakh votes in seven constituencies. The party has nine MLAs in the State.

The split in the Janata Dal in Orissa and the launch of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) by Naveen Patnaik, son of former Chief Minister Biju Patnaik, have brightened the BJP's prospects. In Bhubaneswar on December 19, Advani paid a courtesy call on Biju Patnaik's widow, Gyan and held talks with Naveen Patnaik.

Naveen Patnaik told Frontline: "The interests of Orissa are uppermost in our minds, and we have to ensure the defeat of the Congress(I), which is corrupt and inefficient." Communalism, he says, is hardly an issue in the State. The BJD, which has 28 MLAs, has been recognised as a separate group in the Assembly.

Janata Dal members say the BJD's decision to align with the BJP runs against Biju Patnaik's secular ideals. Janata Dal leaders believe that Naveen will meet the same fate as Ajit Singh and Om Prakash Chauthala. They now realise that the Janata Dal's decision to field Naveen from Aska after Biju's death was a mistake.

There was a big turnout at the BJP rally on December 20. The rally, which was addressed by Advani and Vajpayee, was meant to tell the Orissa electorate that the United Front had ignored Biju Patnaik, and that the BJP acknowledged his contribution to the making of modern Orissa.

ON the eve of its national executive meet, the BJP clinched an alliance with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu. Predictably, BJP leaders said that the alliance with Jayalalitha would not do any harm to the party's claim to carrying on a campaign against corruption. Defending the alliance, Vajpayee said that the charges against Jayalalitha were yet to be proved. "Once she is convicted, she has to suffer the consequences," he said. He added that the charges against Jayalalitha were not comparable to the charges that Laloo Prasad Yadav faces in Bihar.

"Our alliance with her will give us the much-needed political space in Tamil Nadu," said BJP ideologue K.N. Govindacharya, who has reportedly worked on a BJP-AIADMK alliance for years. He hoped that Jayalalitha would allot six seats to the BJP, and that they would include Nagerkoil, South Chennai and Coimbatore. Significanctly, the constituencies that the BJP speaks of contesting are constituencies where communal forces have been active in the recent past.

In Karnataka, the BJP hopes to improve its performance substantially. In 1996, it won six seats. State BJP leader B.S. Yediyurappa was not in favour of an alliance with either Ramakrishna Hegde's Lok Shakti or S. Bangarappa's party. He said, "We are likely to field candidates for all seats as our prospects have improved." However, the central leadership has hinted at a possible tie-up with Hegde.

Advani is to launch his election campaign from Kollam on December 26, underscoring the importance the party attaches to Kerala. However, State president M. Padmanabhan admitted that Kerala's well-entrenched coalition politics ensured that the odds were against the BJP. In 1996, the BJP secured about 7 per cent of the popular vote. This benefitted mainly the Left Democratic Front, since the BJP ate into the United Democratic Front's vote share. Although the BJP's plan to float a "Democratic Forum" to attract small parties has not met with any success thus far, it nurtures the hope that if the contradictions within the UDF sharpened in the coming days, some UDF constituents could be its future allies.

In Andhra Pradesh, the BJP hopes to cash in on what it sees as anti-Congress and anti-Telugu Desam sentiment. The rise of new parties in the State on the eve of elections has raised its hopes. The exit of N. Bhaskara Rao from the Congress(I), the launching of the Telugu Talli by D. Narayana Rao, and the dissensions in the ruling TDP have been interpreted by BJP leaders as signs of trouble in the two parties. According to BJP general secretary M. Venkaiah Naidu, an alliance with the TDP (Lakshmi Parvathi) was a possibility. The BJP is yet to win a parliamentary seat in the State.

In Bihar, the BJP is confident that the division of votes among the non-BJP combinations will help it and its allies. The party's Bihar unit president told the national executive that Laloo Prasad's release from jail would benefit the BJP as it could make the corruption cases against him a campaign issue. It sees Congress(I) leader and former Union Minister Krishna Sahi's entry into the Samata Party and the presence of a third front represented by the Janata Dal, the Left parties and the Congress(I) splinter group led by Jagannath Mishra as positive developments.

In West Bengal, its hopes of an agreement with Congress(I) rebel Mamta Banerjee's Trinamul Congress received a setback when Sonia Gandhi brought about a compromise between the two Congress(I) factions.

The BJP's strategy for the North and the West is aimed at consolidating its gains and adding to its strength. The party expects to repeat its performance in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi with its allies' help. In Uttar Pradesh, according to the calculations of State unit president Rajnath Singh and Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, the BJP will better its 1996 tally by winning 65-70 seats. This optimism stems from the disarray among the non-BJP parties since the dissolution of the Lok Sabha.

Rajnath Singh said the party stood to gain even if the Congress(I) and the Bahujan Samaj Party agreed to have seat adjustments with the Samajwadi Party. "We have regained the support of the upper castes and the OBCs after our power-sharing arrangement with the BSP broke down." Rajnath Singh sought to convince the national executive that the party's plank of political morality had not suffered because of the induction of the "so-called" criminal elements into the Kalyan Singh Ministry. When asked about the recent admission of Sanjay Singh, who allegedly has a criminal background, into the party, Rajnath Singh said: "Sanjay Singh's image is not very poor. He has requested us to give him the ticket to contest from Amethi. Considering his influence in the constituency, we are sure he will win the seat." He denied that Sanjay Singh was brought in to win back the Thakurs, who had turned towards the Samajwadi Party of late.

The BJP concedes that an alliance between the Congress(I) and the BSP may result in fewer Lok Sabha seats for it in Madhya Pradesh. Nevertheless, it expects to gain the Congress(I)'s traditional upper-caste votes. The Samata Party, the BJP's ally, has set its eyes on two seats, Balaghat and Mahasamund, which the Congress(I) won last time. But the BJP, which came second in both the seats, is in no mood to oblige. The party suffered a setback after Uma Bharati and four other State executive committee members resigned protesting against the composition of the committee, which, they said, consisted of Sunderlal Patwa loyalists.

The BJP does not forsee any serious problem in the western States. The party will continue the alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. The Samajwadi Party's plans to enter the electoral fray in the State does not appear to have unnerved the BJP. In Gujarat, the party hopes to improve its tally despite the alliance between the ruling Rashtriya Janata Party and the Congress(I). It won 16 out of 25 seats in 1996.

In Rajasthan, the support of Jats, a traditional vote-bank of the Congress(I), is crucial to the BJP. The BJP won 13 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats from the State in 1996.

The national executive made an appeal to the people not to allow cynicism to overshadow "the need to protect democracy from further damage." A resolution deplored the the Jain Commission's Interim Report, which in effect indicted the entire "Tamil people of Tamil Nadu" and cast aspersions on the Sikh community and on friendly neighbours. The resolution criticised Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, whose "dream Budget", it said, had given nightmares to everyone, including big industry that supported it.

Some of the strongest criticism was reserved for the Left parties. The resolution accused them of duplicity and of pursuing power without accountability.