After the Assembly round

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

The contours of national politics are shifting once again. An assessment of the scene and the prospects, in the light of the outcomes of the Assembly elections.


ON his last campaign swing just before the May 10 round of Assembly elections, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee pointedly sought to dispel the idea that the electoral process in the four States and a Union Territory could be construed as a 'mini-general election' or as a referendum on his government's performance. This was a pattern of behaviour curiously reminiscent of November 1998, when the Bharatiya Janata Party was routed in a number of Assembly elections in its traditional stronghold of the Hindi heartland. The insurance taken out against the possibility of another debacle had a little more credibility this time around, though. All the States that were going to the polls were outside the BJP's core areas of political influence. And it was considered to be seriously in the contest only in Tamil Nadu and Assam, where it was a junior partner in powerful regional formations.

Even so, the outcome has been chastening for a party that saw itself stepping into the growing breach caused by the decline of the Congress(I) as an all-India political formation. Of over 800 Assembly seats at stake in the elections, the BJP won the princely number of 11. Its partners in the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the Centre - the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu and the newly inducted Asom Gana Parishad in Assam - were decisively voted out of office. And even Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress, which could conceivably have come back into the NDA once the elections were concluded and the embarrassment of the Tehelka tapes disclosures became a distant memory, finished worse off in West Bengal.

These outcomes have, expectedly, led to a great deal of speculation about the longevity of the Vajpayee government. After the last major round of Assembly elections in November 1998, the first Vajpayee Ministry survived a mere five months. The Prime Minister himself seemed to acknowledge the new vulnerabilities of his coalition by suggesting while on his way back from a visit to Malaysia last fortnight, where he had been closely following the election results, that the BJP should start preparing itself for general elections. The remark was later modified to imply that the BJP should always keep itself in a state of electoral preparedness.

Vajpayee landed back in India to the kind of reception he could have done without. The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), an affiliate of the BJP in the larger Hindutva fraternity, was stepping up the virulence of its attacks on his government's economic policy. Again, the parallels with 1998, when the BJP suffered a virtual rebellion within its ranks in the immediate aftermath of the electoral rout, would not have brought much comfort to the embattled Prime Minister. Then, as now, the issue was economic liberalisation, in particular, the government's intention to open up the insurance sector to foreign investment and secure the passage of a Bill amending the patents law. The issue today is the government's recent decision to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in the defence industries. In a scathing indictment of the BJP-led government, BMS general secretary Hasmukhbhai Dave denounced its decision as "anti-national" and predicted its imminent collapse from the multiplying contradictions within.

This offensive followed one by BMS national president Dattopant Thengdi who had just a few days earlier at a public meeting in New Delhi referred to Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha as a 'criminal'. Thengdi had been irked by the Finance Minister's meanderings out of his area of jurisdiction, particularly his announcement in the last Budget speech that certain far-reaching amendments would be effected in the Industrial Disputes Act. But it is also rumoured that the succession of scams that have surfaced in the recent past - involving the stock markets, the telecom industry and the customs and excise machinery - has not left the Finance Minister untouched.

Vajpayee has been anxious to placate his agitated ideological minders in the Hindutva fraternity. Just prior to his departure for Malaysia he held a meeting with H.V. Seshadri and Madan Dass Devi, both senior functionaries of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He also sought to reassure the Finance Minister that he would not be left alone to face the barbs from the RSS. Later, at the National Labour Conference in Delhi, the Prime Minister launched a counter-attack with seeming conviction, asserting that the economic reforms process would be sustained and urging trade unions to accept the new spirit of the times. Implicitly, he is also believed to have conceded a major demand of the unions - that the ongoing deliberations of the National Commission on Labour will not be preempted by rushing into the labour law amendments proposed by the Finance Minister.

However, as he contemplates another phase of enforced absence from the political fray following a knee replacement surgery in June, Vajpayee cannot be in a very happy frame of mind. His inner circle of advisers, notably Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra and foster-son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya, remain in the RSS' line of fire. And in restoring the tattered relations between the government and the organisation to some semblance of viability, Home Minister L.K. Advani seems likely to assume a more central role.

It was Advani who represented the top leadership of the party at a meeting of the second tier of the party hierarchy at Jhinjhauli in Haryana to take stock of the election outcome. Madan Dass Devi was a special invitee. Advani reprised his familiar theme from the days that he was leading the party back to power from the wilderness into which it was cast after the Ayodhya demolition of 1992. The BJP, he asserted, had emerged as a front-ranking national party with a distinct ideological message. But now that it is in power it should ensure that it did not become like any other party. The themes of ideological purity, renewing the dedication of the cadre and expanding the base of the party were reaffirmed. Also dusted up in a new political incarnation was the Chennai Declaration from the party's National Council meeting last year, with its emphasis on flexibility, adaptability and self-renewal around a core set of principles.

Unfortunately for the BJP, these periodic exhortations from its ideological minders have not quite had an impact on its actual functioning in administration. As economic conditions turn inclement, a certain paucity of ideas on how to deal with the situation is increasingly evident within the government. How much longer they would want to sustain their association with the BJP at the risk of sharing a part of the blame for a rapidly deteriorating economy, is a matter that now must occupy the calculations of all the constituent parties of the NDA.

The DMK, of course, is likely to remain within the NDA for the simple reason that it would need a toehold somewhere to withstand the withering attack that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha is expected to mount against her political adversaries. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), numerically the largest of the BJP's partners, also has no immediate need to distance itself from the formation, since it has succeeded in maximising its leverage over the Centre to meet the interests of its government in Andhra Pradesh. The Akali Dal faces an Assembly election before March 2002 and would want every possible concession from the Centre for Punjab's crisis-stricken agriculture if it is to retain faith with the NDA.

Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala has begun exerting his clout to head off the prospective entry of a competitor for the agrarian Jat vote - the former Union Minister Ajit Singh, son of Charan Singh - into the NDA. Ajit Panja and other disgruntled elements within the Trinamul Congress are again likely to re-enter the Central government in defiance of the now-deflated Mamata Banerjee. Vaiko and his Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu similarly are unlikely to part company immediately, since they would have little political relevance otherwise.

Once the intricate political calculus is completed, the BJP-led government is likely to continue on the basis of a tenuous arithmetic in the Lok Sabha. The ultimate sustenance for the Vajpayee government then is the sheer unviability of any other combination in the context of the current composition of the Lok Sabha. But another eruption of the scandals that the NDA regime has now become famous for, or a rapid worsening of the economic situation, could induce the kind of bold decisions that arithmetic today discourages.

The attitude in the Congress(I) today is not to hasten the collapse of the NDA government but to wait for it to crumble under its own weight. Although among all the national formations the Congress(I) has been the biggest winner in these elections, it is still unsure whether its claim to being the single party in waiting for the putative right to govern has won popular endorsement. Among the factors that are giving it pause is the outcome of the byelection to the Shahjahanpur Lok Sabha seat, once held by party heavyweight Jitendra Prasada. Despite fielding Prasada's widow, the Congress(I) lost to the Samajwadi Party, though it had the satisfaction of seeing the BJP banished to a distant fourth position.

Uttar Pradesh, the fulcrum in Hindi belt politics, is right now the big lacuna in the Congress(I)'s strategic scheme, followed closely by Bihar. Add to that the uncertainties in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where the Congress(I) as the ruling party lost by large margins in the last round of parliamentary elections, and there is reason why it should not want to rush ahead with seeking to topple the Vajpayee government.

With Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh due before March 2002, the Congress(I) has drawn up an ambitious "mass contact programme" to revive its fortunes. Party president Sonia Gandhi is scheduled to embark on an extensive tour of the State and personally scrutinise the functioning of the organisation from the district level upwards. There is also some desultory talk about forging new alliances, though at current reckoning there does not appear to be any really viable option before the Congress(I).

Younger elements within the Congress(I) would like to mount a frontal challenge to the Vajpayee government on matters of policy. There is a palpable sense of disillusionment within the party over Sonia Gandhi's failure to appreciate how vital it is for the party to differentiate itself from the BJP on matters connected to mass livelihoods, national security and probity in public life. But the dominant clique has no use for this variety of mobilisational issue. And the return of Vincent George to his post as Sonia Gandhi's private secretary after a brief exile under the cloud of a corruption indictment, suggests that the inner coterie is not about to surrender its prerogatives.

Although it suffered a defeat in Kerala, the Left's stupendous triumph in West Bengal has made Third Front politics a renewed possibility. At its stock-taking meeting after the elections, the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) attributed the outcome in Kerala to a brute consolidation of communal and casteist parties on the side of the Congress(I)-led United Democratic Front. The Qaumi Morcha formed just after the Tehelka expose now comprises a rather modest number of parties - aside from the four Left parties, it has within its ranks only the Samajwadi Party and a badly diminished Janata Dal(Secular). But the CPI(M) Polit Bureau specifically mentioned that the doors of the Third Front were open for any party that might opt out of the BJP alliance. Estranged members of the briefly lived United Front government of 1996-98 were the obvious target. In the event that the TDP and the DMK feel impelled to part company with the NDA, they would have no option but to seek fresh moorings within the embrace of the Third Front.

The contours of national politics are clearly shifting once again. And the months to come could bring forth new combinations, new rationalisations and a fresh set of choices for the Indian voter.

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