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Print edition : April 27, 2002

The growing intolerance within the BJP to other viewpoints in the National Democratic Alliance, makes it difficult for the party to sustain the NDA - irrespective of how the crisis over Gujarat is resolved.

SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN V. VENKATESAN in New Delhi

SOMETHING that cannot be replaced - the element of mutual trust - was lost within the ruling coalition at the Centre on April 12. Addressing a public meeting in Panaji that day, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee began with an aggressive denunciation of "jehadi" Muslims. But then, seemingly carried away by the monotonic ideological commitments of his audience, he broadened the attack. Muslims as a rule are not amenable to live in peace with other faiths, he said, and wherever the community was present in significant numbers, there was a problem of terrorism. The violence in Gujarat was undoubtedly terrible, but without the Godhra atrocity, it would simply not have occurred. And it was necessary in this context to identify who was responsible for Godhra and hence for the entire cycle of violence.

Just days earlier, in a pretence of agonised introspection at the Shah Alam refugee camp in Ahmedabad, Vajpayee had lamented out loud that he did not have the "face" to go abroad after the insensate violence and brutality of Gujarat. In Panaji he showed that travel is the best form of education as also of overcoming any undue sense of mortification. He in fact opened his speech with references to the marvels of temple architecture in Cambodia, where he had been just a few days earlier. And implicitly he challenged other faiths to match the record of religious tolerance of ancient Hindu dynasties, which in Vajpayee's ersatz view of history, fought bitter conflicts but never destroyed places of worship.

Atal Behari Vajpayee at the BJP National Executive in Panaji.-SEBASTIAN D'SOUZA/AFP

Vajpayee's locutions represented a categorical endorsement of the action-reaction theory that had been propounded by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in seeking to rationalise the violence in his State. It was, if anything, more cynical than anything that the disagreeable Chief Minister of Gujarat has said, since it purported to place the origins of the cycle of violence not as recently as the Godhra outrage, but in the medieaval desecration of temples.

Coming after the poetic anguish of his brief holiday in Nainital and the revelations of a scarred conscience at the Shah Alam camp, Vajpayee's Panaji speech suggested a man prone to unpredictable and uncontrolled mood swings. It also showed an alarming fickleness of political commitments that for the Bharatiya Janata Party's many partners in the ruling coalition known as the National Democratic Alliance, was akin to a breach of faith.

Just days before the BJP National Executive was to meet in Panaji, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, whose Telugu Desam Party is by far the BJP's single most important ally, explicitly asked for a gesture of accountability for the violence in Gujarat. Joining the consensus within the Opposition, Chandrababu Naidu indicated that Modi had effectively lost the moral right to continue and should be replaced.

There was some scepticism initially about the timing of Chandrababu Naidu's move. Close to 40 days had elapsed since the violence in Gujarat began. And if Modi's resignation seemed warranted at the time that Chandrababu Naidu pressed for it, it would have been so on any one of those preceding days of mayhem.

As spokesmen for the party were anxious to explain, the TDP's concern was to live up to its role as a responsible partner of the ruling coalition at the Centre. It was willing to give the BJP a great deal of leeway in finding methods of stopping the violence in Gujarat. Beyond a point, though, it would insist on the appropriate norms of political accountability. K. Yerran Naidu, the leader of the TDP in the Lok Sabha, had been part of a parliamentary delegation that visited Gujarat for an assessment of the situation. And it was partly on the basis of his advice that Chandrababu Naidu spoke to Vajpayee shortly after he returned from his educative tour abroad. Shortly afterwards, the TDP formally adopted a resolution calling for Modi's resignation.

Although certain elements were clearly bristling at this demand, the initial response from the BJP remained non-committal. But once the National Executive session began in Panaji on April 12, the mood rapidly turned bellicose. Modi went through the charade of offering his resignation to the party's highest decision-making body, only to be applauded for the manner in which he had handled the Gujarat situation. Far from being asked to resign, he was advised to dissolve the State Assembly and call early elections.

The NDA partners had been kept in relatively quiescent mood by Vajpayee's oft-repeated expressions of distress over the previous month. But the brusque dismissal of the demand for Modi's resignation, coupled with the emphatic manner in which Vajpayee himself had shed all contribution, left most of them incensed. The Politburo of the TDP, meeting the next day in Hyderabad, deplored the BJP's refusal to replace Modi as Chief Minister and just stopped short of condemning the stratagem that had been devised, to dissolve the Assembly and call early elections in the troubled State. This was, it said, nothing but "a covert attempt to clothe narrow and partisan ends with the legitimacy of the democratic process".

As the BJP concluded its National Executive meeting in Panaji on April 14, it was keeping up a public appearance of equanimity. Prime Minister Vajpayee maintained that he would be willing to put to test his strength in Parliament. He also advised Chandrababu Naidu to make a personal visit to Gujarat for an assessment of the situation there before pressing his insistence on a chief ministerial change.

BJP president Jana Krishnamurthy, meanwhile, asserted that it was part of the rules of engagement of the NDA that no constituent party would intervene in the internal affairs of another. He did not cut much ice with the claim that the violence in Gujarat is an internal affair of the BJP, when it has earned India international infamy and attracted the adverse attentions of the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom and the disparagement of the military dictator in the western neighbourhood.

Besides the TDP, Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress, Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janashakti Party, and sections of the Janata Dal (United) and the Samata Party were beginning to be concerned about the mood of truculence within the BJP. The Samata Party went through the deep embarrassment of repudiating its spokesman's demand for the removal of Modi within hours, leading to that official's resignation in deep umbrage. The BJP had, in that brief interval, turned its focus to the Samata Party's most vulnerable spot - George Fernandes' stewardship of the Defence Ministry with its procurement scandals and multiplying fissures within the higher command of the armed forces. That, it turned out, was sufficient to ensure a rapid capitulation.

With Om Prakash Chautala's Indian National Lok Dal also expressing itself in favour of Modi's ouster, the BJP was reduced to a desperate search for potential allies. Part of the damage from the withdrawal of any one or a combination of constituents, it was calculated, could be mitigated by winning over fresh adherents. Jayalalithaa's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was identified as a prospective new entrant into the NDA, though only at the cost of the departure of M. Karunanidhi's Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam. An early commitment of support was also received from the Bahujan Samaj Party, just when the NDA seemed to be lurching towards terminal crisis. But clearly the price to be paid, was a reciprocal arrangement in Uttar Pradesh, by which the BJP props up the BSP's Mayawati as Chief Minister.

Shortly before leaving Panaji, Vajpayee gave a broad hint that the arrangement had nearly been clinched. But if finally implemented, the mutual accommodation with the BSP would run the serious risk of deepening schisms within the BJP. Illustratively, the moment active negotiations with the BSP began, sections within the BJP which had been clamouring for precisely such an accommodation began to express their opposition. And in an ironical reversal, the faction associated with former U.P. Chief Minister Rajnath Singh, which had most loudly affirmed its intention to sit in Opposition, began to warm to the idea of again exercising authority within the State.

While party managers plunged into their complicated arithmetic, Vajpayee convened a meeting of the NDA coordination committee in Delhi, immediately on arrival from Panaji. With a wary eye cast on the parallel meeting of the TDP's Parliamentary Party in Hyderabad, the meeting held out one conciliatory gesture. The Gujarat unit of the BJP, it was informally intimated, would not press ahead with its intention of holding early elections. But on the question of a chief ministerial change, the NDA under duress deprecated the demand as an "interference in the democratic functioning of States" which could "completely distort the constitutional balance of federalism".

In Hyderabad, the TDP leadership received this news stoically, but insisted that it would not relent on its demand for Modi's dismissal. But then, in a tacit admission of the many contrary pulls and pressures that it has to work under, it insisted that the question of withdrawing support to the Vajpayee government had not even been discussed.

The TDP's dilemma is apparent. Like most other parties in the NDA, it is averse to the thought of elections at this stage. At the same time, its status as the BJP's numerically most significant ally gives it enormous influence in matters of financial allocation, personnel appointments and policy formation. While disturbed like most other parties are over the affront to political decency that is Gujarat, the TDP is not quite willing to travel that last mile in upholding its principles.

At the same time, an effort is evidently under way on the part of the TDP to distance itself from the BJP. Never comfortable to be within the alliance, the TDP had chosen to extend "external support" to the BJP, even though it had fought the last general elections in an explicit alliance with the party of Hindutva. The only element of reciprocity it demanded was to be granted the post of the Lok Sabha Speaker. The TDP's seeming disinterest in putting forward a nominee to fill this post since the death of G.M.C. Balayogi in a helicopter accident early-March, is a fairly transparent indication of its growing discomfort with the alliance.

THERE only remained the question of choosing the optimal strategy to pursue in the difficult circumstances that the TDP found itself in. The opportunity presented itself on April 15, when Parliament convened to complete the agenda of the Budget session after the customary break. The Opposition parties - with a historic though in the event ephemeral rapprochement having been effected between the Congress(I) and the Samajwadi Party - were united in their demand that no business would be transacted until Modi's resignation was secured. And as they stood up to press this insistence with the presiding officers in both Houses, they were joined by the leaders of the TDP.

Individual party viewpoints could not of course be differentiated in the bedlam that ensued in both Houses. The Opposition initially had evidently no use for a debate, since the case for Modi's summary ouster had been more than conclusively established. The TDP and the Trinamul Congress, it seemed, were inclined to enter into a parliamentary debate and give the BJP one more chance before taking a definitive stand on the issue of Modi's continuance.

These viewpoints too tended to converge soon when the Opposition itself adopted the demand for a substantive discussion in Parliament under Item 184 in the Rules of Procedure. This rule involves a vote after the debate is concluded and the possibility of the government being censured on the floor of Parliament, with all the attendant consequences. The BJP for its part was insistent that Gujarat had been discussed a sufficient number of times and that a further debate, if at all, could only be carried out under Rule 193, which does not involve a vote. The sudden reticence of the BJP on this score seemed curiously at odds with the confidence it had exuded at Goa, with Vajpayee expressing his optimism that the government would easily win a trial of strength in Parliament.

As the paralysis of Parliament persisted and worries started mounting about the necessary business that was being put on hold, Union Minister Pramod Mahajan sought to herd the recalcitrant allies into line. An adverse outcome of a debate under Rule 184 would entail the fall of the government, said Mahajan, and that was not in the interests of any of the parties involved in the NDA. This overture, again, was only partially successful. The TDP maintained its insistence on a debate and Modi's ouster, though it conceded that a parliamentary vote may not be necessary. A like stand was taken by the Trinamul Congress, which, however, thought an easier option was available in simply dismissing Modi and placing Gujarat under President's Rule.

WHATEVER the outcome of this particular impasse, it is obvious that mutual trust between the parties of the NDA has been a major casualty. The BJP itself is torn between competing demands. The impulse to recapture its old plank of Hindutva extremism, which it incorrectly identifies as the talisman which won it a succession of electoral bounties in the 1990s, is strong. At the same time, there is another section of the party which has, more accurately, identified the manifest incompetence of the government today as the single most important contributor to the setbacks the party has suffered. Having made a correct diagnosis, however, these elements are unable to prescribe an appropriate cure, since the famine of creative ideas within the party is acute.

Since the constructive course of reviewing the party's performance in authority and reassessing its policy priorities is ruled out, there is an overwhelming preference within to return to a programme of aggressive mobilisation around ritualistic symbols. Modi has, in this sense, emerged as the mascot of the BJP in the new circumstances, to the extent that Union Food Minister Shanta Kumar, a senior politician within the party and a former Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, was forced to issue an abject apology for remarks that to most reasonable observers seemed eminently well-placed. Shanta Kumar had said in an interview with a major national daily that if he had been in Modi's place, he would have resigned in a gesture of accountability for the mass killings that had occurred. He also tacitly criticised the plan to call early elections by saying that it was contrary to all notions of faith to count votes over dead bodies .

With some credibility, Shanta Kumar's remarks were initially read as serving a surrogate function for Vajpayee. This seemed an element in the deeply troubled Prime Minister's efforts to convince an unruly party flock that it had to uphold minimal norms of accountability if it was to retain political relevance. But Vajpayee's abrupt volte-face in Panaji altered this reading, rudely awakening the naive few who had believed in his innate political decency, to the realities of a recycled Hindutva agenda. In this new mood of intolerance, the BJP may be simply incapable of sustaining the broad and diverse alliances that it has struck over the last few years. And irrespective of how this crisis is resolved, the countdown to the demise of the Vajpayee government may clearly be under way.

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