For a coherent agenda

Published : Jan 10, 1998 00:00 IST

The United Front is beset with problems at the organisational and ideological levels. The future of secular government in India could depend on their early resolution.

"PRE-POLL surveys," says United Front spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy acidly, "are even worse than astrological predictions." His ire is perhaps understandable. Although a series of surveys have suggested that the United Front will lose seats to both the Congress(I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), experience shows that such psephological exercises have been uncharitable to India's third front groupings. In the run-up to both the 1991 and 1996 elections, pollsters had wrongly forecast that the BJP would be the only party that would approximate a majority in Parliament. In the historic 1989 elections, surveys had correctly forecast the final numbers of seats, but were spectacularly incorrect in their assessments of where the Congress(I) would do better than elsewhere. But attacking psephologists is unlikely to aid the United Front. Its inability to put together a coherent agenda is acquiring alarming dimensions. Unless concerted action is taken, the United Front will have no one to blame but itself for the consequences.

The United Front's problems are in one sense mysterious. In several key States, the Front's constituents appear positioned to put up a determined battle. Front convener and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu inaugurated his campaign on January 1 by participating in the Janmabhoomi campaign at Kuntloor village. The campaign, which centres on the creation of grassroots-level civic infrastructure through people's participation in state-initiated programmes, has won the enthusiastic endorsement of the people. Besides, as Chandrababu Naidu pointed out, his Government has succeeded in taking Andhra Pradesh to the fifth position in terms of industrial investment, from the 22nd position it was in just two years ago. Similarly, in States as diverse as Tamil Nadu and Jammu and Kashmir, the United Front's regional constituents seem set to retain their commanding positions. Even Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta's current troubles with the Central Bureau of Investigation may not translate into sharp electoral reverses.

THE United Front's real problems lie at two levels, organisational and ideological. First, the Janata Dal's inability to weld its inner-party fractures threatens to erode sharply its share of parliamentary representation. The personality conflict between former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and Union Minister of State for Textiles R.L. Jalappa threatens to undermine the harvest the Janata Dal should have reaped from the disastrous performance of Ramakrishna Hegde's saffron-sympathetic Lok Shakti in the Karnataka Legislative Council elections. Jalappa's January 2 announcement that he is considering resigning from the Janata Dal and retiring from politics is obviously ill-timed. Coming as it does in the wake of the Janata Dal's split in Orissa and the creation of political space there for the BJP, such bickering is wholly inexplicable. Navin Patnaik's decision to abandon his father Biju Patnaik's legacy and ally himself with the BJP is, according to poll surveys, likely to cost the United Front several seats.

As several analysts have pointed out, the Janata Dal's internal feuds are largely the outcome of its inability to put together a concrete programme of economic and social alternatives. The failure is nowhere so evident as in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The task of combating the BJP, the United Front's raison d'etre, has largely been left to the Samajwadi Party's Mulayam Singh Yadav. Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's first meaningful discussion on the situation in Uttar Pradesh with his United Front partners took place not in Lucknow, but in Bangalore on December 30. Gujral's extraordinarily weak-kneed response to the breakdown of the BJP-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance Government in Uttar Pradesh illustrated the Janata Dal's singular lack of will to recreate itself as a meaningful force in the State.

COMMUNIST Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet's attack on Gujral in the party organ People's Democracy addressed the leadership crisis in the Janata Dal. "It is most unfortunate," Surjeet wrote, "that in this overall fight against the forces out to disrupt the unity of the United Front, the Prime Minister is not fulfilling the proper role expected of him." Gujral's repeated visits to Punjab, where he may contest the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat with the support of the Shiromani Akali Dal, which has an alliance with the BJP, is illustrative of the malaise. His interest in the State was not mirrored by any similar initiative in Uttar Pradesh. Gujral was also reluctant for too long to drop Union Ministers representing Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), despite vigorous pressure from both the Left and his own party. He asked the two Ministers on January 3 to resign voluntarily from his Government only after the Core Committee of the United Front mounted further pressure and wrested an assurance from him. Rather than focussing on building a role for the United Front constituents in Bihar, for example by supporting Mulayam Singh Yadav's ongoing campaign there, Gujral has chosen to flirt with the RJD, failing even to reject the offer of a seat from Laloo Prasad Yadav.

Gujral's flirtation with the RJD is particularly curious given Laloo Prasad Yadav's abusive diatribes against both the Left and several key United Front leaders. It is even more bewildering if one considers the collapse of the former Bihar Chief Minister's efforts to put together a "secular front" of anti-United Front forces, ranging from the Congress(I) to BJP sympathisers. Laloo Prasad's much-hyped launch of the secular front on December 20 rapidly unravelled. Although its launch was attended by an entertaining array of leaders, ranging from BSP supremo Kanshi Ram, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha's votes-for-cash scandal suspect Shibu Soren and former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, its success, from the outset, seemed unlikely.

Laloo Prasad's meeting with the breakaway Orissa Janata Dal leader Dilip Ray, whose formation is planning an alliance with the BJP, left no real doubt that the "secular front" was in fact an articulation of its members' desperation. As Surjeet pointed out, it was more than a little amusing that the Bihar leader wanted to form a front with "the same Congress(I) which is responsible for the present crisis".

The inevitable soon followed. Less than a week after the Front was formed, BSP vice-president and former U.P. Chief Minister Mayawati publicly advised Laloo Prasad to "confine his perceptions to politics in Bihar and not make comments in respect of Uttar Pradesh." The former Bihar Chief Minister's efforts to bring about a rapprochement between the BSP and the Samajwadi Party, she said, were absurd. The BSP had already announced its intention to contest all 85 seats in U.P. independently, on the logic that multi-cornered contests would suit its candidates. The same day as Mayawati put down the secular front idea, the Congress(I) joined in that party's rejection of the idea. At a meeting with Congress(I) president Sitaram Kesri, Laloo Prasad was told that he could only be offered "support from outside". Since any discussion of the possibilities of the "secular front" forming a government would not be dissimilar to the proceedings of a science fiction writers' club, this offer was somewhat mystifying.

By January 1, it was clear why the RJD-sponsored front had failed to take off. As an entity, it sought both to strengthen Kesri's position by enabling him to claim that he had found new regional allies and to allow the RJD to occupy some of the space vacated by the Congress(I). But the entry of Sonia Gandhi made the first part of this agenda increasingly unattractive to the Congress(I) and propelled a rejection of efforts to allow Laloo Prasad a large proportion of seats in Bihar. A visibly irritated Laloo Prasad left Kesri's office refusing to answer questions on Sonia Gandhi's role in the Congress(I), saying only that propaganda against her was the work of "fascist forces". Journalists, he said, were wrong in seeing a personality clash between Kesri and Sonia Gandhi. The secular front, he however conceded, would take "some more time" to materialise.

The collapse of the "secular front" idea, however, should be of little consolation to the United Front, in particular the Janata Dal. The formation's failure to lay out a clear agenda of economic empowerment for the poor during its period in office can in large part be attributed to pressures from the Congress(I). What is less forgivable is the failure of key leaders to take meaningful initiatives to build the formation in the North, and to prepare for battle against the BJP's fundamentalist politics. Sadly, the formation appears largely unable to shake off a certain defeatist mentality and layers of sloth. Much will now depend on the individual initiatives of State level leaders, notably Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh. Although Mulayam Singh has repeatedly said that he will campaign as a constituent of the United Front, the absence of vitally-needed allies in Uttar Pradesh and the pressures imposed by BSP-Congress(I) alliances in several States, are working to force him into some kind of a rapprochement with Sitaram Kesri's apparatus.

The real dangers of the emerging situation appear to be articulated only by the Left. At the CPI(M)'s Calcutta Polit Bureau meeting on December 20, several leaders expressed concern over the emerging situation. The fractures in the Janata Dal, the emerging alliance between the Congress(I) and the BSP, as well as the impact of the RJD initiative on Bihar were discussed. Most important of all, lines of action to address the BJP's new regional alliances, and the march of key Congress(I) figures into the right wing grouping, were discussed.

Two days later, the meeting of the party's Central Committee decided that the party's principal campaign would be against the BJP. The combination of Hindu reaction and a corrupt, opportunistic politics, Surjeet later told journalists, was the "most reactionary option before the people". "The BJP," he said, "represents big business, feudal elements and landlords who wish to see an authoritarian set-up which keeps the people divided on religious-sectarian lines." The CPI(M) will campaign for the defeat of both the Congress(I), which initiated policies that empowered the BJP, and the Hindutva party.

The key issue now before the Left is the possibility of the CPI(M)'s participation in a future government. Both the Communist Party of India, which is represented in the U.F. Ministry, and the Forward Bloc, have been pushing their Left Front partner in this direction. The party, however, has adopted a cautious approach to the issue, over which there was considerable division in 1996. This time around, West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu's name has been widely projected as a possible Prime Minister, with such initiatives frequently originating from outside the organised Left.

The issues at stake were perhaps best articulated by Surjeet in an interview to The Hindu. He argued that the issue was not one of going "soft on the Congress (I)," but responding to the imperatives of the situation in States where the U.F. was weak. In 1969, he said, his party had supported Indira Gandhi to marginalise those who "wanted to take the country even further right." This did not, however, mean that 1969 would be replayed. "We will have to take a decision after the elections on the basis of the concrete situation then," Surjeet concluded with characteristic pragmatism.

How able the Left proves in saving the United Front, and particularly the Janata Dal, from the current crisis will soon become evident. The U.F. is scheduled to hold its first campaign rally in Hyderabad on January 19. The rally will be watched with interest. It will be preceded by the release of individual party manifestoes. Although proposals for a joint manifesto have been rejected, a basic pre-poll Common Minimum Programme is expected to be released. Most crucial of all may be rapid initiatives to select candidates, a process that is vital if the constituents are to have time to revitalise the often moribund local party units. In the process, a serious effort to resolve inner- party disputes, especially in the Janata Dal, will also be required. The future existence of secular government in India could depend on the execution of these tasks. That process will be a race against the clock.

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