Post-poll scenarios

Print edition : March 07, 1998

With little prospect of the general elections giving a decisive verdict, government formation by any of the three major political forces will involve ideological compromises on an unprecedented scale.

NO electoral result could have been second-guessed to quite the same degree, but none could be more confounding in its implications than the outcome of the 1998 general elections. The common expectation is that the elections will throw up a hung Parliament with its arithmetic so delicately balanced that every political formation that aspires to governmental authority will have to perform hitherto unseen ideological convolutions to achieve that status.

Early expectations that the 1998 general elections would be a triumphant romp for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies went sour for a variety of reasons. First, the entry of an element of dynastic charisma into the contest on behalf of the Congress(I) meant that the seats tally the BJP was expected to reach had to be revised downwards. And second, the Congress(I), which had seemingly lost all sense of internal cohesion and ideological purpose, was magically restored to a semblance of a fighting force by the renewed benediction of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. This meant the extinction of one of the options the BJP had before it, that is, to split a demoralised Congress(I) after the elections and put together the numbers needed for a parliamentary majority.

The current expectation is that the BJP and its allies will finish at least 50 seats short of an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. Obtaining this number could be an uphill struggle considering the well-known aversion other parties have towards hitching their fortunes to the BJP. Yet this does not mean that an alternative arrangement will get off the ground with any measure of ease. The Congress(I), which is expected to achieve the second largest tally of seats, is likely to pose the closest competing claim to the BJP's in the matter of government formation. But its ability to attract allies is only marginally better than that of the BJP. The Congress(I) will in all probability invoke the spirit of 1996, when it extended unconditional support to the United Front coalition in the interests of keeping the BJP out of the ruling arrangement. The basic objective not having any of its relevance, the Congress(I) will demand that the U.F. return the favour of having sustained the U.F. Government for 18 months.

BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee at a campaign rally in Dhule, Maharashtra.-VIVEK BENDRE

That gambit is unlikely to be a winning one, in large part because the spirit of 1996 was vitiated by the Congress(I)'s own rather whimsical behaviour as the principal external bulwark of the ruling U.F. - demanding a change of leadership in the coalition on grounds that still remain unclear, and then pulling down a government on the basis of the spurious inferences of a farcical commission of inquiry.

AN equally serious hitch arises not so much from the record as the parties' assessment of their prospects. With only rare exceptions, the U.F. constituents confront the Congress(I) in all their areas of influence in a directly adversarial relationship. In a world where political favours are remembered and reciprocated, this should not be an impediment, since the Congress(I) sustained its support through the abbreviated tenure of the U.F. Government at the risk of diluting its oppositional stance in regional political contexts. It could, for this reason, deploy the argument that the U.F. should not be quite so fussy about a reversal of roles in the altered circumstances that the 1998 elections are likely to engender.

The argument is likely to have different degrees of appeal to the various constituents of the U.F. Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, which is locked in mortal combat with the BJP in the political arena of Uttar Pradesh, would have few reservations about joining the Congress(I) in a ruling arrangement at the Centre, if Mulayam Singh and his flock are assured of sufficiently weighty portfolios. He has made little secret of his interest in the top job, but would in all likelihood settle for a major Cabinet position. His engagement with the BJP is at a delicate juncture today, and he would want to retain a position of influence at the Centre to neutralise the disabilities he suffers on account of being out of power in the State. In breaking ranks with the U.F. and aligning himself with the Congress(I) in Maharashtra, where he has developed a few areas of strength in recent years, Mulayam Singh has clearly indicated that a closer arrangement in the post-poll context is a distinct possibility.

Other U.F. constituents are unlikely to play along with Mulayam Singh, for reasons of their own. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) has ruled out an alliance with the Congress(I) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) has gone further by threatening to abandon the U.F. if any such alliance is struck. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is yet to make a formal statement on the matter, but the bruises left by the offensive on the Jain Commission Report are so fresh as to make one redundant. Even if the Congress(I)'s demand for the eviction of the DMK from the U.F. Government was only a game of feint and manouevre, it culminated in the collapse of a Government. That alone makes a dramatic rapprochement in the aftermath of the elections an extremely remote possibility.

An additional piquancy arises from the fact that the DMK's electoral ally in the regional context, the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), is perhaps the most favourably disposed towards a deal with the Congress(I). The proximate causes of the TMC's alienation from its parent organisation vanished with the removal of P.V. Narasimha Rao from all leadership positions and the party's dissociation from Jayalalitha's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). An irritant has recently arisen from Sonia Gandhi's publicly expressed anger over the TMC's alliance with the DMK. But cordiality could be restored if the attendant rewards on both sides are of a sufficiently high order.

Releasing the United Front's manifesto, (from left) Janata Dal president Sharad Yadav, former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet and CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

A major imponderable is the role that Sonia Gandhi will assume for herself and her family in the post-election scenario. She could conceivably confine herself to nominating a leader for the Congress(I), who could then bargain with potential allies from a position of authority. Having exerted herself on a rather generous scale for the Congress(I), her predilections are going to be a strong influence in the bargaining stances that the party will adopt. Although her preferences are clear, she is unlikely to seek a drastic overhaul of the Congress(I)'s leadership hierarchy in the near future. Her interests remain focussed primarily on her family's interests and the compulsion to prevent any kind of an embarrassing excavation of Rajiv Gandhi's tenure as Prime Minister. For the rest, the concerns that drive her remain opaque and undefined. There could be well-justified reservations among the Congress(I)'s prospective allies about the nature of the influence that the reclusive and apolitical widow will bring to bear on political affairs.

ALREADY an influential segment, the Left parties could see a substantial accretion to their collective authority within the U.F. since other constituents are, with rare exceptions, likely to take substantial losses in the elections. The Left could actually increase its representation and in a worst-case scenario, maintain its strength. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) for its part will be, by a long way, the largest single party within the U.F., with an authority commensurate with that status.

The CPI(M), as also other parties on the Left, is committed to seeing the BJP kept out of authority, though it remains averse to any kind of an engagement with the Congress(I). Squaring this tricky circle is likely to prove a thorny issue. The veteran Marxist Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, has clearly said that as a partner of the U.F. his party is targeting a clear majority but would sit in opposition if it fails to make the grade. This is as clear as any formulation can get but it does not yet grapple with the specific complexities of the ongoing electoral process.

It is obvious that the Left will be called upon to underline the stability of a non-BJP arrangement at the Centre in the larger political interests. But any kind of an engagement with the Congress(I) could prove hazardous for the Left, for a variety of reasons. The gulf between the two parties on policy questions remains as wide as ever and it is not clear that from a chosen vantage point outside the Government the Left will be able to influence these in any significant degree. This would trap the Left into an embarrassing position of responsibility without power and enable the BJP to take over the entire Opposition space as its exclusive preserve. This is a dilemma that the Left parties are acutely aware of - the short-term compulsion of keeping the BJP at bay could quite conceivably engender longer-term consequences of a more difficult order.

Congress(I) president Sitaram Kesri campaigns in Calcutta on February 17.-JOY SHAW / AP

THE BJP, for its part, sticks to the refrain that it is fighting for a majority but will have little reservations about sitting in opposition in the event of failure. It made subtle overtures towards the DMK and the TMC, but these were suspended under the compulsion of the party's alliance with the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. Few other partners of the U.F. would seem amenable to the appeal of the BJP. The party's other option would be to challenge the regional parties to choose the party with the greater claim to a popular mandate. Having had some luck in softening the instinctive aversion of other parties to it in recent times, it could also pose itself as the lesser of two evils.

Spokespersons of the BJP insist that the party is not in the fray for fresh alliances at this stage. The question will be dealt with, if at all, only after all the results are in. And then, the party would be keen to accommodate every anxiety of its existing partners. The AGP, it concedes, looks the most promising among the U.F. constituents as an ally of the BJP. The TDP could be approached but only with the consent of the rival faction that the BJP is today in alliance with. And neither the DMK nor the TMC would be wooed at the risk of alienating Jayalalitha's AIADMK.

All these seem rather extravagant promises, since the proximity of power is known to induce a certain willingness to compromise. The BJP as a party has primed itself into the belief that it is close to power. Falling short at this stage will be a galling experience for it and could impel it in the direction of compromise and accommodation. The contention of viewpoints on the methods by which to seek these could accentuate the BJP's multiplying internal schisms. The party that seemed at one time the unqualified beneficiary of the process of fragmentation and reconsolidation within the Indian polity has had to dilute its ideological commitments in the interests of electoral success. But that has been at the expense of internal cohesion. Far from transcending the process of fragmentation, the BJP could soon be very much a part of it.

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