Agendas and ambitions

Print edition : April 11, 1998

Although the Opposition is far from mounting a united challenge, the BJP will be constrained in its bid to consolidate its position owing to the pursuit of sectoral agendas by its partners in government.

ITS precarious majority of 13 in the Lok Sabha is only a partial indicator of the A.B. Vajpayee Ministry's prospects. The more crucial factors are likely to be qualitative in nature. As Parliament adjourned after a brief sitting in which it granted the Ministry a vote of confidence and adopted a motion of thanks for the President's address, the BJP-led Government seemed more secure than its slender margin of votes in the Lok Sabha indicated.

Nothing can be said with certainty in a context where a host of bit players could exert an influence over the fortunes of the Ministry. Each of these participants in the BJP alliance is, however, inhibited by a dearth of choices. Walking out of the alliance would mean surrendering the rewards of association with the ruling dispensation without any immediate benefits accruing from the other side. An alignment with either the Congress(I) or the United Front is ruled out for most constituents of the alliance owing to the adversarial presence of certain other parties ranged with the Congress(I) and the U.F. The Samata Party, for instance, cannot walk into an alliance that affords the Rashtriya Janata Dal any weight.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee arrives in Parliament on March 27.-AJIT KUMAR/ AP

At the same time, the state of gridlock that has seized the Opposition and prevented any kind of an engagement between its two main components, remains. Certain elements within the U.F. are receptive to the idea of active political collaboration with the Congress(I). Others remain lukewarm, but see association with the Congress(I) as a necessary evil in the struggle against the BJP.

If these factors should contribute to the internal solidarity of the ruling coalition, there are a number of fissiparous tendencies arising from the relentless pursuit of sectional agendas by the partners. Jayalalitha remains the most immodest in projecting these demands at the national level, though others are unlikely to lag behind for very long.

The unprecedented division of labour within the Finance Ministry is the first outcome of the BJP's compulsion to accommodate Jayalalitha's demands. Other monitory warnings by members of the Union Cabinet - Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthy's dismissive statement that the corruption cases against Jayalalitha would be taken care of by the Central Government, Rangarajan Kumaraman-galam's remark that the people of Tamil Nadu would soon be afforded their "relief" from the DMK Government - point to pressures within the ruling coalition that may not easily be contained.

One of Jayalalitha's key demands has been rejected by Vajpayee himself on at least two occasions - the last one being his reply to the debate on the President's address in the Rajya Sabha. The AIADMK leader, who was in Delhi that day, made it clear that she remained undeflected from her basic demand. She could prove accommodative on the question of timing, though the outer limit of her patience could be set by her own volatility and by the vigour with which the DMK administration in her State pursues the multiplicity of cases against her.

OF the many blocs that are conjoined in governance, only a handful could exert a decisive influence over the fortunes of the Vajpayee Ministry. The Samata Party and the Akali Dal are partners of relatively long vintage, which have stakes in regional politics that may necessitate a continuing alliance with the BJP. But the Samata is also impatient to regain a firm foothold in the politics of Bihar. Its eagerness to pursue the criminal indictment of Laloo Prasad Yadav in the animal husbandry scam may establish an uncomfortable asymmetry with the BJP's need to go slow on the investigations against Jayalalitha.

The Akali Dal, for its part, is likely to remain focussed on the agrarian economy of Punjab, perhaps even to the exclusion of the wider necessities of financial prudence. The Minister in charge of Food, Surjit Singh Barnala, is keen to offer a generous bonus to the farm sector in the food procurement season that has just begun. In the prevailing fiscal situation, this would almost axiomatically translate itself into an extra price burden for the consumer, with attendant political pressures from State governments.

Figures recently unveiled by Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha reveal a fiscal apparatus that has been strained by a legacy of miscued calculations over the years. This is a circumstance that hobbles the BJP Government at its moment of birth, and severely constricts its ability to respond to the sectional pressures it is subject to (see separate story).

This may not have been the fundamental concern behind Vajpayee's dramatic disavowal of any further part in electoral politics. Rather, it may be more accurate to read this as one of the flourishes that he is prone to, as a part of his oratorical style. And the context in which Vajpayee made clear his renunciatory intent - his reply to the debate on the President's address in the Lok Sabha - seems to suggest that he was overwhelmed not by the bleak fiscal situation, but by the deep-seated structural maladies in the political system. In particular, the Prime Minister seemed discomfited by the manoeuvres that he had been compelled to undertake as part of the process of assuming office.

Yet the eagerness with which BJP members sought to placate their leader seemed to suggest that there was considerable substance in pre-election speculation that Vajpayee's tenure in office was merely a stop-gap arrangement. The "mask" was a recurrent metaphor of the parliamentary debate as a characterisation of Vajpayee's role in the BJP. In throwing up his arms in despair at the state of political activity in the country, Vajpayee allowed the mask of equanimity to slip momentarily.

Significantly, Vajpayee chose to put his personal credibility on the line, rather than his party's image, as he sought to dispel apprehensions that his Ministry would be governed by an unstated agenda. Invoking his long years of political experience, he asked the Lok Sabha whether it appeared that a "hidden agenda" could be executed under his authority.

These possibly represent a precursor to growing discord within the BJP over its course of coalition government. Increasingly, as it goes along on the path of conciliation and accommodation, it is likely to run the risk of a collision with the inflexible core of its ideology. The room for manoeuvre is limited both in the economic and political domains - in the former by the hard realities of fiscal arithmetic and in the latter by the curious mesh of cross-ideological loyalties that underpin the ruling alliance. On various occasions in the past, the BJP has shown that it remains an unreconstructed advocate of an adventurist as the most convenient escape from these irksome constraints. If its ideological mentors prove true to form, then the BJP may soon be impelled into gambling away the promise of stability in a climactic effort to win the unchallenged status of India's ruling party.

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