The BJP gets another taste of coalition partner Jayalalitha's politics of brinkmanship as she demands and gets part of her pound of flesh with the dismissal of Buta Singh from the Union Ministry.
T.S. SUBRAMANIAN in Chennai V. VENKATESAN in New Delhi
BARELY a month after the A.B. Vajpayee Government won a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha by a slender margin, its stability was in question. New strains in the relations between the Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the coalition Government, and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, its principal alliance partner in Tamil Nadu which commands the support of 27 MPs, reached a flashpoint last fortnight. The AIADMK, one of whose Ministers was forced to resign on April 8 after a court in Chennai framed charges against him, virtually served an ultimatum on Prime Minister Vajpayee. Its general secretary Jayalalitha demanded that other Union Ministers who faced allegations - it named Buta Singh, Ramakrishna Hegde and Ram Jethmalani - should be removed if they did not resign. On the other hand, one of the three Ministers, Ram Jethmalani, who has been engaged in a war of words with Jayalalitha and her alliance partner, Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy, asserted that Vajpayee should stand firm against Jayalalitha, even at the risk of the AIADMK walking out of the coalition.
On April 19, Vajpayee asked Buta Singh, the Union Minister for Communications to resign which he did the next day. On April 17, the Supreme Court had ruled that the trial of Buta Singh, among some others, in the case of alleged bribery of some members of Parliament ahead of a crucial test of the P.V. Narasimha Government in the Lok Sabha in July 1993, could proceed.
Buta Singh, who had been charge-sheeted in the case, had initially refused to step down. He claimed that if his resignation was to be sought on the ground that he had been charge-sheeted in a case, three BJP Ministers - L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati - who were charge-sheeted in the Babri Masjid demolition case, should similarly be asked to resign. In response to the BJP's claims that the case against the three BJP Ministers was "politically motivated", Buta Singh said that the case against him too was "politically motivated" and the charges had not been proved.
On April 20, Vajpayee spoke to Jayalalitha on the telephone and, according to an AIADMK press release, assured her that he would "consider the points raised by her and take suitable action." He also wrote to her on April 19 to say that the points she had raised in her letter to him were being considered.
The Government, however, refused to yield to Jayalalitha's demand for the removal of Commerce Minister Hegde and Minister for Urban Development Jethmalani. An aide of the Prime Minister said: "There is no question of removing these two Ministers on the basis of allegations mentioned in Jayalalitha's letter; they do not face any charges in a court of law."
However, both Vajpayee and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani cautioned Jethmalani and Hegde against giving expression to public displays of wrangling among coalition partners.
Even so, on April 19, Jethmalini persisted with his tirade against Jayalalitha. In an interview to a televison channel, Jethmalani said that Vajpayee should "call her bluff." "The Prime Minister should not hesitate to tell Ms. Jayalalitha that enough is enough," he said. "If she wants, she can leave the Government." The Government, he claimed, would survive without the support of the AIADMK. He also rejected Jayalalitha's demand for the dismissal of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Government in Tamil Nadu. He said: "I do not see any legal basis for the dismissal of the Karunanidhi Government."
Jethmalani further claimed that in his opinion, Jayalalitha was "under duress". "It is clearly Dr. Subramanian Swamy who is pushing her into making all these wild demands," he said. And in a two-part article published under his name in a newspaper, he employed choice epithets against Swamy, calling him, among other things, "a venomous viper" and a "diseased insect."
The Prime Minister's silence on Jethmalani's outbursts against Swamy and Jayalalitha gave rise to speculation about whether the BJP was pursuing a contingency plan to identify potential friends in the Opposition camp whose support it could enlist in case the AIADMK withdraws its support. In the short term, however, BJP leaders were keen to work out a compromise with Jayalalitha at least until a clear picture emerged about the BJP Government's chances of survival at the Centre.
While working out the arithmetics of survival, the BJP had to reckon with the stand of some of its other alliance partners. Railway Minister and Samata Party leader Nitish Kumar said on April 19 that all Union Ministers who faced corruption charges should be dropped, and if that did not happen, the crisis might deepen.
THE stage was set for the confrontation on April 7, when a court in Chennai framed charges against Union Minister for Surface Transport and AIADMK leader Sedapatti R. Muthiah under the Prevention of Corruption Act. The same day Vajpayee rang up Jayalalitha and suggested that Muthiah resign; Muthiah did resign the next day, but Jayalalitha claimed that it was she who had asked Muthiah to step down to "uphold the AIADMK's lofty principle of maintaining probity in public life."
The charge against Muthiah, framed in the court of Special Judge-I S. Sambandham, was that he had amassed wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income between July 3, 1991 and October 31, 1994, when he was the Speaker of the Tamil Nadu Assembly. Charges were also framed against his wife, two sons and a daughter under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the PCA for abetment in the commission of the offence. (In February, the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption, Tamil Nadu, had filed a charge-sheet before Judge Sambandham stating that Muthiah had acquired assets worth Rs.45.74 lakhs in his name and in the names of his family members. On August 30, 1996, following raids on Muthiah's house at T. Kallupatti village and the houses of his relatives, the Madras High Court dismissed his anticipatory bail application.)
As he came out of the court on April 7, Muthiah told newspersons that the case had been "foisted" on him as part of a campaign of "political vendetta", and asserted, in response to questions, that he would not resign even if the Prime Minister asked him to. "I will explain to the Prime Minister that this is a foisted case," he said.
But barely a few hours later, the phone call from the Prime Minister to Jayalalitha ended Muthiah's 20-day ministerial tenure. Jayalalitha, who was at her bungalow at Payyanoor, 60 km from Chennai, when Vajpayee called, returned to Chennai that night and claimed in a press release that she had asked Muthiah to resign "to prove that the AIADMK has always upheld the ... principle of probity in public life."
Over the next 10 days, Jayalalitha gradually turned the heat on the Vajpayee Government. On April 15, after a meeting of the AIADMK executive committee in Chennai, she demanded that Union Ministers who had been charge-sheeted in corruption cases should resign or be removed by the Prime Minister. "I am not naming anybody, I am speaking in general terms," she said, and added that there could not be "one set of rules for Muthiah and another for others."
She further said that she had recommended to Vajpayee that C. Srinivasan, the AIADMK MP from Dindigul, be given the post that Muthiah had held; she even announced that Union Law Minister M. Thambi Durai would look after the Surface Transport portfolio until Srinivasan was sworn in in May. Besides, she claimed, M.S. Niraikuthalan (AIADMK) and N.T. Shanmugam (Pattali Makkal Katchi) would be made Union Ministers during the expansion.
MEANWHILE, some of the other alliance partners of the BJP were losing their patience with Jayalalitha's frequent recourse to the politics of brinkmanship. At a Lok Shakti rally in Bangalore on April 16, Hegde and Jethmalani unleashed a broadside against her. In an obvious reference to Jayalalitha's demands - before and after the formation of the coalition Government - Jethmalani said that these "pinpricks" would soon end. Without mentioning Jayalalitha, who was arrested in December 1996 on charges of corruption, he said, "When some people come out of jail, they become humble, chastened and responsible. Some others, however, become arrogant and irresponsible, and cannot distinguish between right and wrong."
Hegde too said attempts to give pinpricks to the Government would fail.
The next day, the three other AIADMK Ministers in the Union Ministry issued a statement in which they said that it would be "in the interest of the coalition Government if these Ministers refrain from making such remarks which will... endanger the coalition Government." They said that Jethmalani's remark about "some people" spending time in jail was "unwarranted" and did not "befit the stature of a Minister in a Government which has come into existence because of the untiring campaigning of our leader." Union Petroleum Minister Vazapadi K. Ramamurthy, who is an ally of the AIADMK, joined the chorus and denounced Jethmalani's and Hegde's remarks.
Jethmalani and Hegde later retracted their remarks. Jethmalani told a news agency that he had made the remarks after Doordarshan had quoted Jayalalitha as having said that he had been charge-sheeted. "If she says she did not make that statement, I will apologise to her." Hegde too denied having said anything about Jayalalitha that warranted such "angry and sharp comments." He told a television channel, "I said that people have brought this coalition into office with great faith and hope, and nobody should try to give pinpricks or problems." Advani reportedly spoke to Jayalalitha on the phone and mollified her. By the morning of April 18, it looked as if a tenuous truce was in place.
LATER that day, however, Jayalalitha raised the stakes further with a six-page letter to Vajpayee in which she demanded that the other Union Ministers who were "involved in criminal cases" resign or be removed, failing which Vajpayee should reinduct Muthiah in the Ministry. The Ministers whose resignation she specifically demanded were Buta Singh, Hegde and Jethmalani.
In her letter, Jayalalitha told Vajpayee that she had "requested" Muthiah to resign after the Special Judge framed charges against him because "the incident was viewed as a stigma." The resignation "was brought about keeping in view your ideals of good governance and clean administration", she told him. She regretted that while the resignation had been accepted with "alacrity" and forwarded to the President "within a few minutes", Vajpayee had failed to adopt "the same set of principles with regard to persons, who are similarly placed, if not placed in a worse position than" Muthiah.
Jayalalitha further said that she was "at a loss to understand" how Buta Singh could be allowed to remain in office "especially after the recent judgement of the Supreme Court."
Jayalalitha alleged that Hegde "had been found guilty by the Kuldip Singh Commission of Inquiry of misusing his office of Chief Minister of Karnataka to parcel out 110 acres of prime land in Bangalore to his son-in-law Manu Nichani." She claimed that the Union Cabinet had accepted the report of the Inquiry Commission and that the matter was pending with the Karnataka Lok Ayukta. She further alleged that a Corps of Detectives (CoD) inquiry conducted by the Additional Director-General of Police, Bangalore, had found Hegde guilty of "pocketing" a Rs.2.5-crore official commission given by a German telecom company to a public sector unit in Karnataka. She said that the Union Cabinet had in 1996 directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to file a first information report against Hegde and to move a Special Court to secure a letters rogatory to secure the German Government's assistance in the investigation. According to her, the prosecution of Hegde was imminent. "Having regard to the above facts," she said, "it is surprising" that Hegde was being allowed to continue in the Cabinet while a different yardstick was applied to Muthiah.
She trained her guns on Jethmalani also. She alleged that he "is reported to have made certain admissions under oath before a Metropolitan Magistrate Court in Bombay, with regard to the illegal receipt of 200,000 U.S. dollars while abroad, which amounted to violation of Section 8(1) of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act." She claimed that the Enforcement Directorate was reported to have suo motu initiated an investigation following which it had sought the Prime Minister's sanction to prosecute Jethmalani. "It is shocking ... that you, the Prime Minister, should allow Mr. Ram Jethmalani to continue to remain in the Cabinet while relieving Mr. Sedapatti R. Muthiah, who is involved in a case of far lesser gravity, and that too in a case foisted against him due to political vendetta." She added that some more members of the Vajpayee Cabinet were facing criminal charges - which was seen as a thinly-veiled reference to the criminal cases against Advani, Joshi and Uma Bharati.
She said that Vajpayee should adopt "a uniform policy/standard" by requesting his Cabinet Ministers "who are involved in criminal cases" to resign forthwith. If they did not do so, the Prime Minister should drop them from the Cabinet, she said. She concluded: "If however, you are of the view that accusations cannot take the place of proof and should not be the basis to oust the Ministers from their positions, then it is legitimate that the said principle is extended and applied to" Muthiah by "reinducting" him into the Cabinet.
A SENIOR BJP leader said in Delhi: "She has raised this demand only to pressure the Government to dismiss the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Government in Tamil Nadu. She will keep up this pressure. We do not think she will withdraw support to the Government on this issue." Asked whether her demand for the resignation or dismissal of Ministers who are involved in criminal cases was not a valid one, he said rhetorically that the BJP could in turn raise many such valid demands pertaining to her. Sources close to the Prime Minister said that although Jayalalitha had, on the face of it, demanded only the resignation or the removal of Ministers who had been tainted by corruption scandals, her "hidden demand" was the dismissal of the DMK Government, which Vajpayee and other senior BJP Minister were in no mood to concede. On April 19, the new BJP president, Kushabhau Thakre, also ruled out the dismissal of the Karunanidhi Government; he, however, added that the law and order situation in Tamil Nadu was "very bad" and that the assessment of a Union Home Ministry delegation that went to Chennai (see box) - that "the overall ... situation... had improved as a result of the steps taken" by the State Government - was incorrect.
The BJP suspected that there was a bigger conspiracy behind Jayalalitha's threat, as Subramanian Swamy met Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi on April 18. He also met President K.R. Narayanan and presented a memorandum of charges against Hegde, Jethmalani and Buta Singh, and requested the President to direct the Prime Minister to drop these Ministers, as well as Advani, Joshi and Uma Bharati.
A BJP leader in Chennai warned that the people would not forgive Jayalalitha if she created uncertainty about the Government's stability. He pointed out that her ally and partner in the BJP-led coalition, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), had maintained silence on the issue. The stand of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) indicated that it did not exactly toe Jayalalitha's line. According to him, Jayalalitha could not afford to destabilise the BJP-led Government because even the Opposition parties were not prepared to face fresh elections again. Besides, the Congress(I) and the United Front would not be able to cobble together a coalition Government.
According to AIADMK sources, what angered Jayalalitha most was that there was no positive response from the BJP leadership towards her demand that the DMK Government be dismissed. She felt that she was not being treated with the deference that she deserved. The sources conceded that Jayalalitha's "pressure tactics" would boomerang if they were carried too far.