Uneasy unity

Print edition : April 25, 2003

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee with BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, Defence Minister George Fernandes and Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala at a rally held to mark the completion of five years in office of the NDA government, in New Delhi on March 29. - RAVEENDRAN/AFP

On completing five years in office, the NDA reaffirms its faith in Vajpayee's leadership and stresses the need for greater cohesion in the face of a stiff challenge from a rejuvenated Congress(I).

THE Congress(I)'s show of strength in Delhi from March 28 to 30 seems to have forced the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to undertake a stock-taking exercise. The NDA held a rally on March 29 to commemorate the completion of five years in office of the Vajpayee government. At the marathon "brainstorming" session that was held the next day, it was decided that since the multi-party coalition survived its full term in office under the leadership of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, he should continue to lead the alliance in the forthcoming elections, and that the coalition would face the elections as a "united, cohesive formation" whose guiding principles would be "consensus and consultation".

At the rally and the meeting that followed, speaker after speaker, including the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister emphasised the need for unity among the alliance partners. It seemed that the only challenge that the Prime Minister could throw at Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, who led a spirited attack against the NDA government at the party's three-day national convention, came in the form of this unity. Addressing the rally, Vajpayee ridiculed the Congress (I)'s slogan of "Congress ka haath garib ke saath" (the Congress is with the poor). He wondered how the "garibi hatao" slogan had made a comeback if poverty had been eradicated. The Congress(I)'s stand on forming coalitions continued to be vague, Vajpayee said. "We have managed to complete five years in office with a 20-party coalition. I bet the Congress can never do it," the Prime Minister claimed. In his speech, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani stressed that the coalition should appear as a "united, cohesive force" and said that once a decision was taken, the partners should not air their differences in public. He said that although at times political compulsions made them speak in different voices, it had to be avoided if the coalition were to appear as a potent political force.

The other dominant theme was the continuation of Vajpayee as leader. Listing the "achievements" of the Vajpayee-led NDA government, Advani said that few countries in the world would have seen a multi-party arrangement that had not only ushered in political stability but strengthened nationalism and the country's federal structure. He expressed happiness that the NDA government, which had been often faced with questions regarding its longevity in 1998, had come this far and hoped that it would continue to be guided by Vajpayee. NDA convener George Fernandes said that what the NDA government had achieved in five years could not be achieved by successive governments over the past five decades.

Indian National Lok Dal leader Om Prakash Chautala was among those who heaped praise on the Prime Minister, saying that there was "no alternative" to Vajpayee. "The Congress wants to project Sonia Gandhi, who has no idea about the enormity of problems faced by the nation, as the Prime Minister. No foreign-born person can understand the issues of this country," he said. He lauded the Prime Minister's project of inter-linking rivers, and likened him to the epic figure of Bhagiratha who, by the powers of his penance, brought the celestial river Ganga to the earth. The project would resolve issues such as the Cauvery dispute and the dispute relating to the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal, he said.

While hailing Vajpayee's leadership qualities, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader and Union Environment and Forests Minister T.R. Baalu wanted some action to be taken in Tamil Nadu where `illegal arrests' of NDA leaders, including Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko had been made. Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, who has been in and out of the NDA, lashed out at parties trying to break the coalition and expressed faith in Vajpayee's leadership. "We are with a coalition that has a future," she said.

However, the unanimity of views seemed limited to Vajpayee's leadership qualities. Differences prevailed over several issues and were aired freely in the brainstorming session. According to several NDA leaders, disinvestment, Ayodhya, Iraq and the arrest of Vaiko were some of the issues on which the BJP's allies expressed their displeasure. They revived the demand for a mid-course correction in economic policy, which had cast a shadow on the otherwise "excellent" trackrecord of the Vajpayee government. According to a senior NDA leader, the refrain of both NDA partners and BJP leaders at the seven-hour brainstorming session was that although divestment might be a very good policy in principle, it was sending the wrong political message to the people. It was felt that the government must emphasise on rural development in order to dispel the image that development projects were meant only for urban areas. BJP's Pramod Mahajan and Rajnath Singh shared the allies' opinion and said that the issue "must be handled with great care". It had "distorted people's perception, and a "mid-course correction" was necessary, they said. On the issues of Iraq and Ayodhya, the allies expressed their reservations. On Ayodhya, even BJP leaders felt that the leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad must be checked from making provocative communal statements.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who attended the meeting as a special invitee, said that it became difficult when the VHP targeted the BJP government.

HOWEVER, what raised the hackles was the detention of Vaiko under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and the Centre's affidavit in this regard before the Supreme Court stating that his speech came under the purview of POTA. T.R. Baalu expressed resentment at the fact that the Centre had "failed" to protect the "valued ally". He was backed by many of the BJP allies. "Baalu created a ruckus and it was solely because of his intervention that the government agreed to review its petition in the Supreme Court," an NDA leader said. Later, briefing the media, BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu said that the Law and Justice Minister Arun Jaitley had told the meeting that what had appeared in the media was not the government's stand. "We feel POTA is necessary for the country... at the same time, there has been misapplication of the Act in the case of Vaiko," he said. The NDA meeting was attended by Nitish Kumar (Samata Party), Prakash Paranjape (Shiv Sena), Sharad Yadav (Janata Dal-United), Prakash Singh Badal (Shiromani Akali Dal), Jharkhand Chief Minister Arjun Munda, Union Ministers Murli Manohar Joshi, Jaswant Singh, Sushma Swaraj and Ananth Kumar, among others. Another round of meeting with leaders of the DMK, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the MDMK and the National Conference was being planned, Venkaiah Naidu said.

The Vaiko episode has made many of the NDA constituents suspicious of the BJP's intentions. Many senior NDA leaders are of the opinion that the faux pas in Vaiko's case was not as simple as it appeared. They feel that the first affidavit filed by the Centre in the Supreme Court, which justified his detention under POTA, was a deliberate move by the BJP in order to drive away parties opposed to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam out of the coalition. "The BJP is cosying up to the AIADMK and it appears it would prefer to go along with Jayalalithaa at the time of the general elections. The Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP is already acting like an ally of Jayalalithaa. The BJP has already supported the Tamil Nadu government's religious conversion Bill. If they can continue sailing in two boats but together, fine, otherwise the BJP would not mind if the DMK and its allies walk out of the NDA," said a non-BJP member of the NDA. "This issue has opened the eyes of many NDA parties. They are getting restless, there is disquiet and apprehension," he said, but added that there was no talk of anyone deserting the NDA.

Meanwhile, yielding to pressure from the BJP's allies, the Centre approached the Supreme Court with a fresh affidavit on March 31 seeking to delete paragraphs from its earlier affidavit that accused Vaiko of being involved in activities banned under POTA. The new affidavit states: "Government of India fully supports the constitutionality of POTA but is of the view that the speech delivered by Vaiko... if properly interpreted and read in the entire context of the speech and the surrounding circumstances, does not attract the provisions of POTA." In the new affidavit, the Centre has sought the deletion of paragraphs 12 and 13 of the original affidavit which said that Vaiko was drawing support for the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the speech given by him "constituted an act of terrorism". The new affidavit states: "The contents of paragraphs 12 and 13 of the said counter-affidavit are based on a misapprehension of the stand of the government." Arun Jaitley said: "As far as Vaiko is concerned, the provisions of POTA have not been used rightly."

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor