The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre celebrates three years in office, papering over serious discord within the multi-party coalition.
WHEN M. Venkaiah Naidu became the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party in July 2002, he held out a promise to function as a link between the BJP-led government and the people. The new president wanted the party to convey the achievements of the government to the people as, in his view, the failure to do so had caused a series of electoral setbacks to the party in various States. It may be too early to say whether the partypersons took his advice with due seriousness since then; however, with the government taking up this responsibility in all earnestness, Venkaiah Naidu can relax a bit.
After all, with the government's comprehensive plan to create awareness about its policies, programmes and achievements on the occasion of its completion of three years in office on October 13, the blurring of the distinction between party and government may be near-complete.
None can fault the efforts of the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting which is led by one of the more ambitious second-rung leaders within the BJP, Sushma Swaraj to publicise, as a routine exercise, the achievements of the government in various fields. Such an endeavour is an important component, according to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, in the overall strategy of governance and development. However, the official stamp on the party's quest for publicity in the face of a series of electoral setbacks in various States using the occasion of the government's completion of three years in office has raised questions about propriety and motives.
A formal press conference, organised by the I&B Ministry and addressed by Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani on October 13 in New Delhi to mark the occasion, made the government's intentions apparent. Advani, who proudly expounded the ruling National Democratic Alliance's (NDA) `coalition dharma' at the press meet, must have realised the emptiness of it all in the absence of other NDA leaders on the occasion.
Vajpayee was of course travelling abroad, but the non-participation of the other NDA partners was inexplicable. It sent across the message that the BJP's allies were not as happy as the BJP was about the NDA government's three years in office.
Advani's eagerness to arrogate to himself the authority to speak on behalf of the entire coalition in the absence of the Prime Minister was obvious. Advani did not see the need to call even Defence Minister George Fernandes to the press conference; he announced that the National Security Advisory Board would meet three days later to decide on the withdrawal of troop deployment a matter that would seem to come within the ambit of the Defence Ministry.
At the press conference Advani claimed that Vajpayee's feat of completing three years in his second term in office is a unique achievement; no non-Congress Prime Minister has been in office for half as long as this. Advani expressed the hope that Vajpayee will soon become the longest serving Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
It is debatable whether the BJP is justified in celebrating the stability of the government per se; but it is clear that this stability has been achieved by the party at considerable cost for the coalition at large.
In Advani's analysis, the stability has helped Indian democracy make three major gains. First, the success in the concept of a coalition government on the basis of a Common Minimum Programme and the norms of coalition dharma, due in no small measure to the experienced and enlightened leadership of Vajpayee who, according to him, commands unparalleled credibility and popularity amongst the supporters of the BJP and its NDA allies.
Secondly, he claimed, the NDA experiment has helped harmonise regional aspirations with a national outlook, by giving an unprecedented opportunity to regional parties to participate actively in governance at the Centre.
The third gain, according to him, is the strengthening of the principle of cooperative federalism, as is evident from the smoothest and most harmonious Centre-State relations in several decades, despite the fact that a large number of States are governed by parties that are in the Opposition at the Centre.
THE gap between Advani's claims and the reality was too obvious to be missed. Behind every gain that Indian democracy has purportedly made in the last three years lies the story of an intense power struggle within the BJP, the best example being Advani's own gradual ascendancy in the power structure. In this struggle, the many regional allies of the BJP with minuscule strength in Parliament allowed themselves to be used as sacrificial lambs by the bigger partner in the coalition, the BJP.
While the BJP did not gain further any strength in terms of electoral victories, its allies were reluctant to assert themselves over it, for fear of indirectly strengthening the Congress(I), their main adversary in many States. With the Congress(I) recovering lost ground in many States, the regional allies of the BJP appear to view the prospect of the further weakening of the BJP as an indication of their own diminishing prospects in their respective States. The allies' inability to force the Centre to dismiss the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat, despite strictures from the National Human Rights Commission and the Election Commission on its complicity in the post-Godhra riots, has been one glaring example of their passive role in the coalition.
True, there has been no extreme action during this period, such as the dismissal of a State government run by a party which is in the Opposition at the Centre. But this has nothing to do with the NDA experiment. Left to themselves, the BJP and its allies at the Centre would have liked to dispense with the State governments run by their adversaries.
The credit should therefore go to the strength of other institutions, such as the office of the President, laregely during the tenure K.R. Narayanan, and the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA finds itself in a minority.
However, in the recent past it has not been unusual to come across complaints of discrimination against the Centre by States ruled by parties in the Opposition at the Centre, for instance, in the matter of distribution of drought relief. Again, the Centre invited the charge of discrimination from Tamil Nadu, in its ongoing dispute with Karnataka over the sharing of Cauvery water (see separate story). The Centre's arbitrary decision to bifurcate Eastern Railways, placed West Bengal, which resisted it, in conflict with Bihar, which backed it. Certainly these are hardly instances of the cooperative federalism that Advani boasts of.
Advani's insistence at the press conference that Vajpayee will lead the coalition in the next Lok Sabha elections was perhaps intended to scotch rumours that he was preparing himself to do so in the post-Vajpayee phase. As revealed in recent weeks, there has been a systematic erosion of Vajpayee's authority in many policy and administrative issues. If Vajpayee called the Gujarat riots a blot on the nation, thus endearing himself to those who demand Modi's removal, Advani rushed to Modi's defence, complimenting him for the way he brought the situation "under control".
On the issue of disinvestment in the strategic oil sector, Advani displayed ambivalence by encouraging his Ministerial colleague Ananth Kumar to question Vajpayee's power to impose a decision at the September 3 Cabinet meeting to discuss the privatisation of public sector oil companies, such as Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL) and Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL). George Fernandes, Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi and Petroleum Minister Ram Naik soon sensed an opportunity in this controversy to endear themselves to the Sangh Parivar, which has attacked the reform process in this sector. When the trio met at Joshi's residence on October 2 to discuss the issue, the Prime Minister hit back at them in another forum. Without naming them, Vajpayee said blind criticism of disinvestment was incompatible with the facts.
At the October 13 press conference, Advani proved to be more ambivalent than he was earlier: he claimed there was nothing wrong in debating how to disinvest, but such debates should preferably be confined to forums within the coalition, rather than in public.
Advani's eagerness to be seen to being in sync with the Parivar, which opposes reforms in the oil sector on the ground that it threatens national security and abets competition, stems from the strident criticism by Sangh affiliates like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) about internal security failures.
With the VHP openly alleging that the Vajpayee government was being soft on terrorism, the Advani camp could not be oblivious to its electoral fall-out, as was revealed by the outcome of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections. The BJP's initial reaction to its rout in its fortress, the Jammu region, was that it was because it was an ally of the National Conference (N.C.) which lost power in the State at the Centre, and that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-backed Jammu State Morcha's entry into the electoral fray, despite some seat adjustments with the BJP, had created confusion among the voters.
The inference is that the BJP's ambivalence on the demand for a separate Jammu State alienated it from its traditional supporters, many of whom voted for the newly formed Morcha which cut into the BJP's vote bank. Whatever the reason, this was the first instance of the RSS directly entering the electoral fray through a front of its own, rather than through the BJP. This has shown that the BJP was incapable of registering an electoral victory even in its traditional strongholds if it was seen to be in opposition to the RSS. Secondly, compulsions of coalition politics at the Centre forced the Vajpayee government to ignore the demands of the Hindu Right to dismiss the Farooq Abdullah government in Jammu and Kashmir, and impose Governor's Rule. Instead, it continued to enjoy the N.C's minuscule support to it as an NDA ally, even while opposing it in the State.
The Vajpayee government has sought to overcome the perception that the BJP received a setback in Jammu and Kashmir by calling the very holding of the Assembly elections in the State a victory for Indian democracy, no matter which party won. The BJP sought to take the credit for holding the elections in the State, even though it was the Election Commission which went ahead with the polls, and ensured that it was free and fair.
But the electoral message from Jammu continues to trouble the BJP. The party is worried that a section of the Sangh Parivar is upset over the government's sudden decision to withdraw troops from the India-Pakistan border and redeploy it, apparently under pressure from the United States. If the Sangh Parivar articulates this discontent in the coming days, it could further embarrass the BJP. Hence, the Advani camp plans to take determined steps to bridge the gap between the BJP and the government on the one hand, and the various Parivar affiliates on the other, so that the disastrous electoral outcome in Jammu is not repeated. The BJP's move to defend Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray's outrageous suggestion that Hindus form suicide squads to counter terrorist strikes, by terming it as Thackeray's expression of anguish, rather than condemn it as an incitement to communalism, apparently stems from its need to keep its friends in good humour, so that they do not turn adversaries at the hustings.