Patch-up time

Print edition : September 26, 1998

Looking towards the high-stakes round of Assembly elections in November, the BJP is seeking to promote conciliatory measures within the party and with regard to other parties.

IN the Assembly elections that are due in November in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Mizoram, the stakes are high for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition Government at the Centre. The elections are of particular significance to the BJP for they will prove to be an acid test for its new president, Kushabhau Thakre, whose laid-back style has caused unhappiness within the party. Any setback in the elections would entail fresh trouble for the party and endanger the stability of the Government. The Congress(I) is unlikely to pass up any opportunity to topple the Government.

Thakre's indecisiveness has begun to take its toll on the party organisation. Although party office-bearers were appointed in June, Thakre has still not allocated work to them. While four general secretaries were recently assigned charge of the States that are going to the polls, he has postponed the allocation of specific tasks until after the proposed Cabinet expansion at the Centre. There are deep apprehensions in the party that it may not be able to overcome the anti-incumbency factor in Rajasthan and Delhi, where the BJP is in power. The leadership is aware that although senior leaders will campaign in the elections, their efforts alone will not turn the tide of public opinion in favour of the party.

In order to gear up the party machinery in Delhi, a training camp for the Delhi unit was held at Jinjholi in Haryana on September 12 and 13. Union Home Minister and former BJP president L.K. Advani asserted at the camp that on core issues such as Article 370, a uniform civil code and Ayodhya, the party still retained its original positions. He said: "Those who taunt us saying that we have dropped our core issues are obviously wrong." This was obviously an effort aimed at retaining the party's committed voters. However, Advani also conveyed his anxiety about the winnability of most of the aspirants for the BJP ticket.

While claiming that the BJP would win the elections, Advani appealed to party workers to move on together and have unflinching faith in the leadership. Evident in the appeal was his concern about the strife between the factions led by Delhi Chief Minister Sahib Singh Verma and Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister Madan Lal Khurana. The party has taken a deliberate decision not to project either of them for the Chief Minister's post. Khurana has threatened to contest the Assembly elections.

The party is taking utmost care not to damage its image further before the elections. It played down the dissension in the Keshubhai Patel Ministry in Gujarat by not accepting the resignation of State Industries Minister Suresh Mehta. Sources indicated that the party would, however, take action against Suresh Mehta if he persisted with this threat of resignation after the elections.

BJP president Kushabhau Thakre.-SANDEEP SAXENA

The Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), the economic cell of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which has publicly differed with the Government on economic policies and questioned the appointment to key positions of bureaucrats who are known to be anti-swadeshi, has softened its stance towards the party. The SJM's steering committee includes RSS joint general secretary K.S. Sudarshan (he is tipped to be the sarsanghchalak after Rajendra Singh, the ailing RSS chief), Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh founder Dattopant Thengdi, and BJP general secretary K.N. Govinda-charya. The SJM's attack on the Govern-ment after a steering committee meeting was seen as Sudarshan's attempt to send across a message to the BJP. Sudarshan, who is entrusted by the RSS with the responsibility of dealing with the BJP, has chosen the SJM forum to convey his displeasure with the Vajpayee Government. Sudarshan is closer to Advani than to Vajpayee, and he wields tremendous influence in the decision-making process of the BJP and the Government it heads.

The BJP realised that the SJM's frontal attack could harm the Government's image. The SJM, launched in 1993, includes many persons who do not subscribe to the Sangh Parivar philosophy. The BJP feared that the use of the SJM forum by such persons to attack the BJP would create confusion in the party. Therefore, BJP members who are also with the SJM sought to engage themselves in damage control. Rajya Sabha MP and SJM steering committee member Mahesh Chandra Sharma announced that the BJP was not responsible for the economic problems. He said: "It is a coalition Government and the legacy that it has inherited has to be blamed. The authors of this legacy were P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh." Sharma said that the Government had no option but to be part of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and accept its rulings. The Government can reverse the decision to join the WTO only if there was public support for such a step, he said. "That is what we are aiming at through the Swadeshi Chetna Yatra from September 17 to October 2."

ALTHOUGH the BJP has had a respite from the threats from its alliance partners, the party is yet to learn the art of running a coalition government. Its leaders have often betrayed the confusion prevailing in the party on the question of using Article 356 in Bihar. Thakre, who only recently said that the Centre would not dismiss any State Government, including the one in Bihar, under Article 356, has since revised his stand. He now holds that Bihar is a fit case for invoking the Article. Advani, who shared Thakre's view on the need to impose President's rule in Bihar, however, said that the Centre would act in this regard only after "wide consultations". Vajpayee said that a decision on Bihar would be taken soon.

Moderates in the BJP fear that dismissal of the Bihar Government would provoke similar demands from other allies. All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary Jayalalitha has been pressing for the dismissal of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Government in Tamil Nadu. Although BJP leaders have said that the situations in Bihar and Tamil Nadu are not comparable, they know that they would find it difficult to explain its differing positions with regard to the two States. Although not as vociferous as Jayalalitha, Biju Janata Dal leader Naveen Patnaik has demanded the dismissal of the Congress(I) Government in Orissa, and the Haryana Lok Dal has urged the sacking of the Haryana Vikas Party Government in Haryana.

The BJP is not confident of continued support from the AIADMK. While Vajpayee held out the olive branch to the DMK and even declared his readiness to take the DMK's support if it was offered to him, Defence Minister George Fernandes met Jayalalitha in Chennai on September 16; the meeting was intended as an antidote. The presence of Vajpayee and Advani in Chennai for the rally organised by the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) was, however, a shrewd political move, which would help the BJP keep Jayalalitha in check.

The BJP is still not prepared to disown Jayalalitha, as is evident from its cautious response to her attack on Advani at the AIADMK rally in Tiruchi on September 15 (see separate story). Vajpayee advised her not to air grievances against allies in public, while Advani denied that he had promised action, as asserted by her, against the DMK Government after the Coimbatore blasts. In this climate of mistrust, the proposed expansion of the Union Ministry could have the much-needed reconciliatory touch. It is likely to enhance the AIADMK's representation in and occasion the entry of the MDMK into the Union Government.

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