Cracks in the coalition

Print edition : December 19, 1998

In the wake of its defeat in the Assembly elections, the BJP comes under increasing pressure from its allies.


THE Bharatiya Janata Party's rout in the recent round of Assembly elections has shaken the confidence of the coalition Government that it heads at the Centre. The BJP appears to be worrying more about the impact of the results on the Vajpayee Government than about the losses it suffered in Rajasthan and Delhi and its failure to stage a comeback in Madhya Pradesh.

Even though the general perception has been that the setbacks have made the party more vulnerable to pressures, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has since then tried to put on a brave face and be assertive in taking decisions. He has perhaps recognised that the election results were to a great extent a verdict against the Government at the Centre.

ON December 5, overruling objections from key allies, the Prime Minister inducted BJP MPs Pramod Mahajan, Jaswant Singh and Jagmohan as Cabinet Ministers. Pramod Mahajan and Jaswant Singh, who lost the Lok Sabha elections in March, were later elected to the Rajya Sabha. Jagmohan is the Lok Sabha member from New Delhi. Jaswant Singh was made Minister for External Affairs, Pramod Mahajan Minister for Information and Broadcasting and Jagmohan Minister for Communications. The Information and Broadcasting portfolio was held earlier by former Delhi Chief Minister Sushma Swaraj and the Communications portfolio by Buta Singh and later Sushma Swaraj.

Sushma Swaraj, who was elected from the Hauz Khas Assembly constituency, has since resigned the seat: on the Prime Minister's advice, she has retained the South Delhi Lok Sabha seat. Her followers were disappointed that she was not included in the Cabinet. Another former Chief Minister of Delhi, Sahib Singh Verma, also failed to make it to the Cabinet. Given the reduced strength of the BJP in the Delhi Assembly, it will be difficult for Verma to get elected to the Rajya Sabha. Before the elections, Verma refused Vajpayee's offer of a Cabinet berth, saying that he would accept the post only after Sushma Swaraj was elected Delhi Chief Minister. Verma goes back to being a college librarian, a post he held before entering politics.

The mini-expansion of the Cabinet has disappointed not only the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), but several of the BJP's allies. The RSS expressed reservations about the induction of Mahajan and Jaswant Singh, but allowed Vajpayee to exercise his prerogative. Mahajan and Jaswant Singh earned the RSS' wrath for towing an anti-swadeshi line.

As for the coalition partners, Vajpayee informed them that the present expansion involved only three Ministers, but he assured them that there would be another expansion after the winter session of Parliament to accommodate their nominees. However, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader Jayalalitha was upset about the "piecemeal" expansion overlooking her demand that more AIADMK MPs be given Cabinet berths. She also felt slighted that Vajpayee contacted Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) general secretary Vaiko and Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) president Dr. S. Ramadoss to assure them that their nominees would be included in the next expansion. Jayalalitha's grouse was that she was contacted only by Defence Minister George Fernandes.

ON the question of the Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker's post, the BJP was forced to retreat because its allies, particularly the AIADMK and the Trinamul Congress, refused to accept its nominee Rita Verma on the grounds that by convention the post should go to the Opposition. Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee expressed their support for the Congress(I) nominee, P.M. Sayeed.

At one point the BJP seemed inclined to support Samata Party nominee Abdul Ghafoor, an MP from Bihar, but Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee rejected the proposal. The BJP gave up its fight when faced with a united Opposition and accepted Sayeed as the consensus candidate. Thus the single largest party in the Lok Sabha does not have its representative as either the Speaker or the Deputy Speaker. Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi belongs to the Telugu Desam Party, which is not part of the BJP-led coalition: the TDP supports the Government from outside.

The BJP's relations with its allies have continued to deteriorate. On December 8, the Samata Party attacked the Vajpayee Government in the Lok Sabha and questioned the BJP's motives behind seeking to create a separate State of Vananchal in Bihar. To make matters worse for the BJP, 11 of its MPs from southern Bihar threatened to resign if the bill for the creation of Vananchal was not introduced in the current session of Parliament.

Mamata Banerjee criticised the Government's policy of disinvestment in the public sector and alleged that lakhs of people lost employment following the closure of eight units. To the BJP's discomfiture, the Trinamul Congress observed December 6 as a black day. However, the BJP drew comfort from the fact that she blamed the Congress(I) rather than the BJP for the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Similarly, Mamata Banerjee's decision to float the Progressive Alliance comprising groups which broke away from the Congress(I) has given rise to concern in the BJP. This is particularly so because she has stuck to her decision to leave the Coordination Committee of the BJP and its allies. The Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress (UPLC), a constituent of the BJP-led ruling coalition in U.P., the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA), the ruling Manipur State Congress, and the Sardar Congress of Gujarat are the other constituents of the Progressive Alliance.

Although the Progressive Alliance has declared that it would not disturb the political stability at the Centre and in States such as Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra where the BJP is in power, it has resolved to raise issues that concern ordinary citizens. Mamata Banerjee is the chairperson of the alliance, while the Energy Minister of Uttar Pradesh Naresh Agarwal, who belongs to the UPLC, is the vice-chairman. Suresh Kalmadi of the MVA is the convener. The Lok Shakti sent an observer to the Progressive Alliance's inaugural meeting on December 10.

THE BJP received a shock when Jayalalitha announced on December 7 that "the AIADMK front does not exist now" and that "a new front will be formed" at the time of the next election. The front consisted of the AIADMK, the MDMK, the PMK, the Tamizhaga Rajiv Congress (TRC) and the Janata Party and the BJP was in alliance with this grouping. Now Jayalalitha has announced that only her party's alliance with the Janata Party led by Subramanian Swamy was extant. Jayalalitha, however, said that the resignation of the two AIADMK Ministers in the Union Cabinet was "not on the cards" and that the AIADMK would not be the cause for mid-term elections to the Lok Sabha.

Newly inducted Union Ministers Jaswant Singh, Pramod Mahajan and Jagmohan.-ANU PUSHKARNA

Speculation that the AIADMK is preparing the ground for an alliance with the Congress(I) gained credibility when Congress(I) spokesperson Mani Shankar Aiyar met Jayalalitha in Hyderabad recently. On December 5, Jayalalitha felicitated Sonia Gandhi for the "decisive step on her part" to reserve 33 per cent of the Congress organisational posts for women.

The AIADMK took part in the Opposition-sponsored strike on December 11 to protest against the BJP's economic policies. On the same day, Jayalalitha accused the BJP of adopting a "divide and rule" approach with its allies in Tamil Nadu. She reacted sharply to State BJP general secretary L. Ganesan's observation that she did not approve of MDMK, PMK and TRC leaders interacting directly with the BJP leadership. She said that the MDMK, the PMK and the TRC "have devised their own individual pathways and I thought it would only sow seeds of confusion if they continued to assert that they are in the AIADMK front."

Union Petroleum Minister and TRC founder Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthy refused to be cowed down by Jayalalitha. Ramamurthy said on December 12: "The alliance is over." However, he added that he would continue to be in the BJP-led alliance even if the Congress(I) forms an alternative Government. Ramamurthy recalled that the MDMK, the PMK and the TRC did not support Jayalalitha's August 13 decision to withdraw support to the BJP-led Government. He said: "She has the right to say whether the AIADMK-led alliance continues or not. After she says that, we also have our right to say whether we are in the alliance or not."

THE BJP was acutely embarrassed when a group of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) MPs led by former Union Minister T.R. Balu met the Prime Minister on December 11 and urged him to withdraw an affidavit filed by Hari Singh, Under Secretary in the Department of Personnel and Training, before the Supreme Court. This affidavit contradicts an affidavit Hari Singh filed before the Madras High Court, justifying the DMK Government's April 1997 notification setting up three special courts to try the corruption cases against Jayalalitha and her former Ministers and certain bureaucrats.

The Madras High Court had upheld on November 3 the Tamil Nadu Government's notification and dismissed the writ petitions of Jayalalitha and others challenging the constitutionality of the special courts. Jayalalitha appealed to the Supreme Court, which said that the trial could get under way in the special courts.

In the affidavit filed before the High Court, Hari Singh had said that Section 3 of the Prevention of Corruption Act allowed the State Government to group cases for the purpose of notification and that the State Government would be in a better position to judge the State's requirements. In his affidavit before the Supreme Court, he stated that as more than one special court existed in Chennai as on April 30, 1997 only "the Central Government could have specified which of the Special Judges would try the case and such a power could have been/can be exercised by the Central Government only in consultation with the Chief Justice of the High Court. The Government is considering action in the matter in accordance with the law."

The most interesting aspect of the issue is that the Minister in charge of Hari Singh's department is R. Janarthanam of the AIADMK.

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