Reluctant rallyists

Print edition : April 28, 2001

The rallies planned by NDA constituents in the wake of the Tehelka expose as a show of solidarity with the BJP and the Samata Party end up exposing the fissures in the ruling coalition.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party's travails as a consequence of the Tehelka expose may well have just begun. The sprinting away of Mamata Banerjee from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) stable may not be the one and only fallout of Tehelka for it. Other alliance partners, though not as forthcoming in the matter as the Trinamul Congress owing to their own political compulsions, are equally ill at ease with the NDA leadership over the issue. This has been revealed by the fact that one constituent after another has abstained from the anti-Tehelka rallies held in the first fortnight of April, which the NDA had called with much fanfare to counter the mounting Opposition challenge. The initial bravado started fizzling out at rally after rally, and the obvious question before the NDA now is, "can the Centre hold?" And the response of those who did attend the anti-Tehelka rallies reminded one of Yeats' lines, "...the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

The rallies, planned by NDA constituents as a show of solidarity with the BJP and the Samata Party, only ended up exposing the fissures in the vulnerable conglomeration. The NDA coordination committee had announced on March 25 that the Prime Minister would address anti-Tehelka rallies in Mumbai, Bangalore, Lucknow and Bhubaneshwar between April 1 and April 15, and reply to the Opposition's charges. It was also decided that over 50 NDA leaders would address such rallies in major cities across the country.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee along with NDA leaders (from left) Naveen Patnaik, Murli Manohar Joshi, L.K. Advani, Prakash Singh Badal, George Fernandes, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, Om Prakash Chautala and Ram Vilas Paswan at the Virat rally in New Delhi on March 25.-ANU PUSHKARNA

The Prime Minister flagged off the rallies at a big show at the Ram Lila grounds in the capital on March 25. The Delhi rally was a reasonable success, in the sense that leaders of most NDA constituents, including the Shiv Sena, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), the National Conference (N.C.), the Lok Janshakti, the Janata Dal (United) and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) were present, besides the Chief Ministers of NDA-ruled States and important BJP and Samata Party leaders. The notable absentees were leaders of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). The DMK has till date not explained its absence at the rally. However, DMK leaders informally agree that it would not be prudent on their part to be defending persons accused of corruption in defence deals until at least an inquiry exonerates them, because fighting corruption is the DMK's main plank in the Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu. "How can we attack Jayalalitha if we are seen defending those involved in corruption at the Centre?" asked a senior DMK leader.

The TDP has taken refuge in the argument that it is not a formal member of the NDA and its support is "issue-based". "We are not a member of the NDA. We have never participated in its meetings, so there is no question of participating in the anti-Tehelka rallies," the party's leader in the Lok Sabha, Yerran Naidu, said. He further said that until the cloud of suspicion surrounding the Tehelka episode was cleared, the party would have nothing to do with the issue. "The TDP is by conviction committed to transparency. Since this issue has come up, it would be better that this is clarified totally through a high-level probe. The TDP never supports corruption," he stated. The TDP kept away from all anti-Tehelka rallies.

Telugu Desam representation was conspicuously absent even at the NDA rally held in Hyderabad on April 4, which was addressed by Union Home Minister L.K. Advani and former Defence Minister George Fernandes of the Samata Party. No TDP leader was at the airport to receive these leaders. Senior TDP leaders disclosed that party leader and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu was of the opinion that the fallout of Tehelka was "NDA's baby" and the TDP would have nothing to do with it. It is learnt that the Chief Minister turned down the invitation to attend the rally at Delhi on March 25. The TDP is waiting for the inquiry committee report before taking a decision on its relationship with the ruling alliance.

Senior TDP leaders admit that there are other reasons too for the TDP to be unhappy with the NDA. One of the most important of these relates to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Farmers in Andhra Pradesh, who are already in the throes of a crisis because of inadequate procurement of paddy from the State, will be pushed further to the brink when the full impact of the WTO hits them. That would be the time for the Chief Minister to take a close look at his relationship with the NDA. Also significant here is the fact that his erstwhile United Front allies, now in the newly floated People's Front, are continuously in touch with him. Since farmers' issues are the main plank of the People's Front, Chandrababu Naidu may find the Front politically more correct than the NDA when the time comes, Front leaders feel.

Yet another important NDA ally, the Shiv Sena, though present at the Delhi rally, has now turned around and assumed a tough posture. The NDA rally that was to be held in Mumbai on April 8 and was to be addressed by the Prime Minister himself had to be called off because Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray did not approve of it. Since then, Thackeray has been critical of the Prime Minister on various occasions; he even penned an article indirectly criticising Vajpayee for not taking action against the "tainted PMO officials".

Yet another NDA constituent, the Janata Dal(U), too took a stand not to go out of its way to associate with the anti-Tehelka campaign. The April 5 rally of the Prime Minister in Bangalore was boycotted by the Janata Dal(U) much to the embarrassment of the NDA. Ramakrishna Hegde, Janata Dal(U) leader and former Union Minister, even announced that he was "dissociating" himself from the NDA in protest against the fact that the "tainted" George Fernandes continued to be its convener. The party has also taken a serious view of the fact that Hegde was "insulted" by the NDA. He was first invited to one of the NDA meetings immediately after the Tehelka expose, but the invitation was withdrawn later when he demanded the resignation of George Fernandes. The party viewed this as an "insult of the entire party" and demanded that the Prime Minister ensure that such behaviour was not repeated. Hegde continues to boycott all NDA meetings since George Fernandes continues as its convener. Certainly not a very happy state of affairs for an alliance that is already in a state of animated suspension.

Although the representatives of most of the NDA constituents barring the DMK and the TDP were in attendance in the March 25 rally, the leaders of different parties chose not to talk much of Tehelka but focus on issues that suited them more. While Farooq Abdullah waxed eloquent on those responsible for causing riots and arson in the country and how they needed to be punished, Naveen Patnaik concentrated so hard on speaking good "Queen's" English that his meaning was lost in the jargon. Lok Janshakti leader Ram Vilas Paswan chose to dwell at great length on his achievements in the Telecommunications Ministry and how it became a model for the rest of the NDA government. Sharad Yadav detailed the plight of farmers.

Interestingly, the Janata Dal(U) chose to describe the anti-Tehelka rallies that it attended, like the ones in Delhi and Lucknow, as "farmers' rallies". It explains its boycott of the Bangalore rally as a "decision of the State unit". Senior party leader M. Raghupathi, describing the "democratic functioning" of his party, said: "Our State units have full freedom to decide on the course of action in their respective States. We never impose our decision on them."

The BJP, however, thinks nothing of these "small differences". Party president Jana Krishnamurthy confesses that "there was initial dismay" but says that it has now been overcome and "the alliance is as strong as ever". "The Tehelka episode has not taken a toll on the alliance at all," he says. It was this initial dismay that made the Trinamul Congress leave the NDA in a huff, but "it has not affected others at all", according to Krishnamurthy. "They are all with us. Together we will face the consequences of the Tehelka crisis," he says. He, however, admits that Shiv Sena and the DMK had "certain reservations" about the matter, but irrespective of that they have expressed "full support for the NDA government and to the leadership of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee". As for the TDP, he says it is not a formal member of the NDA and its support is from outside. "The government and the alliance is intact. We will last the full five-year term with Atal Behari Vajpayee as Prime Minister."

These brave words notwithstanding, the tumultuous nature of the alliance and the undercurrents of resentment that surface every now and then make one doubt whether the NDA can indeed hold itself together.

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