To cement a coalition

Print edition : August 18, 2001

Atal Behari Vajpayee's offer to quit as Prime Minister might have earned him a reprieve from the dissensions that have beset the National Democratic Alliance, but an undercurrent of instability persists.

AS a political tactic, an ostentatious show of renunciation has been known to have mixed results in the Indian political context. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who can with some justification claim that he is the only leader from outside the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to receive a popular mandate through the electoral process, did not need to cloak himself in the aura of abdication in order to establish his credentials for the leadership of the fractious coalition that rules today. But he has since found it a useful device to silence challenges to his authority.

Atal Behari Vajpayee presiding over a meeting of the National Democratic Alliance in New Delhi.-

At the meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Party's Parliamentary Party on July 31, Vajpayee made an unusual request to Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan, for an opportunity to speak. The immediate context was the carping criticism that was being levelled against Communications Minister Ram Vilas Paswan for allegedly ignoring the demand of BJP MPs for inclusion in the telecom advisory committees. It is not unusual for BJP forums to be the arena for venting petty political jealousies. But Vajpayee had clearly had enough. He told the stunned MPs that as Prime Minister, he took the responsibility for his ministerial colleagues' action: "I feel I have not been able to manage and discipline the NDA. I have grown old. People also say I am unwell and, therefore, I should retire. But rather than wait for people to say I should retire, I have myself decided to step down." He then walked out of the meeting.

A shocked BJP was left groping for explanations for their leader's rather impetuous gesture of renunciation. An obvious explanation was that he had been deeply offended by Shiv Sena member Sanjay Nirupam's allegations in the Rajya Sabha the previous day, about the culpability of top officials of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) in the Unit Trust of India (UTI) scandal. Nirupam pointed to a trail of suspicious telephone calls between senior officials in the PMO, including one who had been transferred to the Planning Commission, leaving nobody in doubt about his identity. He also hinted at the involvement of Ranjan Bhattacharya, the Prime Minister's foster son-in-law. The list of calls made from or to mobile phone numbers made available to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Nirupam argued, made it clear that most of the murky investment decisions of UTI were made on the instructions of top officials and power-brokers based in Delhi.

The Shiv Sena, which did not expect the Prime Minister to respond the way he did, was soon under intense pressure from the BJP. Sena chieftain Bal Thackeray telephoned the Prime Minister immediately to distance himself from the allegations, even though Nirupam claimed that whatever he had said in Parliament was with due clearance. The Sena MP also thought that the Prime Minister was overreacting, since there was no suggestion of his own culpability. Thackeray's peace initiative with Vajpayee came after George Fernandes' mediation. Following his meeting with the former Defence Minister, Thackeray agreed to endorse Vajpayee's leadership publicly, though he made no commitment regarding the Sena's participation in NDA meetings.

Thackeray's overtures failed to satisfy Vajpayee. The NDA meeting held on the morning of August 1 adopted a resolution which pledged the coalition to work as a "solid phalanx" under Vajpayee's leadership. The coalition also decided to evolve a code of conduct "to ensure adherence by all (member-parties) to the canons of coalition politics".

A four-member group, comprising NDA convener George Fernandes, Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran, BJP leader Sikander Bakht and Union Minister of State for Water Resources Arjun Charan Sethi, was asked to draft the code within the next few days. Buoyed by the support, Vajpayee declared in Parliament that the resignation chapter was "closed". The gathering clouds, he said, would soon dissipate.

If the NDA's solid backing emboldened Vajpayee to warn the Shiv Sena to behave itself, the ally from Maharashtra did not show any sign of being amenable to compromise (see following story). Thackeray asked his flock to keep away from the August 1 meeting of the NDA, and desist from any further participation in parliamentary proceedings. Shiv Sena Ministers were, however, exempted from these proscriptions, insofar as they had to exercise their ministerial responsibilities. A mellowed Thackeray later revoked the ban on parliamentary participation, sensing that he could not carry his confrontation too far in view of the inherent political risks to his own and his party's position in Maharashtra.

If the BJP were to abandon the Shiv Sena with its 15 MPs in the Lok Sabha, it could mean disturbing political equations in both Maharashtra and the Centre. Filling the void would involve enticing the Nationalist Congress Party's (NCP) eight Lok Sabha members, which is a difficult and uncertain proposition. For the Sena, too, parting with the BJP ostensibly over the UTI issue could yield political dividends with the middle class vote bank, but an NCP-BJP tie-up in the State could leave the Sena debilitated.

If disciplining the Shiv Sena and the wider NDA family was his main objective, Vajpayee seems to have had only limited success. The UTI is an issue which touches the middle class vote bank, vital to both the BJP and the Sena. Nirupam's allegations, despite his public apology, will retain their sting as long as the BJP continues to waffle over ascribing responsibility for the UTI mess where it belongs (see box). Despite the ardour with which they rose to the defence of Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, the BJP had to agree to the proposal from Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi, to refer the UTI issue to the Joint Parliamentary Committee already looking into the stock market crisis.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS) organ Organiser carried an article suggesting that MPs belonging to the ruling alliance should not be gagged on issues of public interest. "It is no act of indiscipline on the part of a Member of Parliament belonging to the ruling alliance to demand an inquiry into the conduct of an officer or a Minister," wrote Shyam Khosla, a staffer at the weekly. Khosla also recalled that when Feroze Gandhi had used the floor of the Lok Sabha to level serious allegations of misfeasance against a Minister in the Jawaharlal Nehru Cabinet, accountability was swiftly enforced through the resignation of the Minister. This was a veiled suggestion that Yashwant Sinha could be asked to quit, and that there was no need for the Prime Minister to stake his personal prestige on the future of an errant Finance Minister.

With the exception of this article, the RSS and the rest of the Sangh Parivar refrained from making any harsh comments on the government's handling of the UTI crisis. "It is the government's problem," was all that the leaders associated with the Sangh Parivar would say publicly. Privately, insiders complained that the Prime Minister had an inherent weakness when it came to people close to him. They recalled how the RSS Sarsanghchalak, K.S. Sudarshan, was recently asked by Advani to retract after he questioned the credentials of some of the officials in the PMO.

The Sangh Parivar also does not have credible explanations for the PMO's failure to check the background of Cyberspace Infosys, the shifty company that has caused much distress to the UTI, before the Prime Minister consented to inaugurate its operations at a well-publicised function in Lucknow.

It is unlikely that any norms to evolve "coalition dharma" can discipline the Shiv Sena. Whatever the norms that the NDA manages to evolve, Thackeray has publicly stated that he expects better portfolios for his ministers in Vajpayee's government, undoubtedly using the budgets at the disposal of the Ministries as his index. There is a feeling within the Shiv Sena that the heavy industries portfolio assigned to Manohar Joshi has no relevance, since most of the worthwhile units in the administrative control of the Ministry are facing disinvestment. Minister for Power Suresh Prabhu is also unhappy about the increasing role of the PMO in power projects.

Vajpayee's choice of a BJP forum to air his intent to resign was not accidental. It was seen as a clear message to his critics within the BJP. Dissent has been brewing within his party for long. A letter by Shatrughan Sinha, film actor-turned-BJP National Executive member and Rajya Sabha MP, complaining about the mishandling of various issues by the government and its effect on the BJP's image, was recently published in a news magazine. Although this manner of behaviour in the past was instantly labelled dissent, party president Jana Krishnamurthy has maintained an intriguing silence on this letter.

Krishnamurthy was at the centre of a confrontation with the government at the BJP National Executive meeting in New Delhi between July 27 and 29, when he called for norms to discourage the impression that allies could depart and return at will to the Council of Ministers. His remark was interpreted as being in conflict with the exercise of the Prime Minister's prerogative to choose his ministerial colleagues. At the core of the whole controversy is the inclination of the coalition partners to enjoy the fruits of power at the Centre and also retain the option of being part of the opposition space in the States.

Amid the uproar created by Vajpayee's resignation offer, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) resumed its participation in NDA councils on August 1, at the invitation of Fernandes. Despite reservations from the BJP and the senior partner in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Fernandes went ahead with announcing the readmission of the PMK into the NDA. He also seems to be preparing the ground for the return of Mamata Banerjee, even though a powerful section within the Samata Party and the BJP is opposed to this.

It is clear that Vajpayee would like to take both the Trinamul Congress and the PMK into his Cabinet to consolidate the NDA's numerical strength in the Lok Sabha. Krishnamurthy, who is obviously more concerned about the BJP's credibility, would like estranged allies to go through a cooling-off period of, say, six months, before they renew their vows with the NDA.

The PMK's brazen effort to return to the alliance, does not surprise other NDA members. Neither are elements within the BJP particularly offended, since the party has been rather undiscriminating in its choice of allies in recent times. It was after all that paragon of political rectitude in the Hindutva family, L.K. Advani, who paved the way for the admission of the Asom Gana Parishad into the NDA, without consulting the other constituents. There is an expectation that Vajpayee will go in for another expansion of his Ministry, probably after the monsoon session of Parliament, to accommodate the claims of Mamata Banerjee and the PMK.

Vajpayee's relations with the hardcore elements within the Sangh Parivar remain uneasy. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the BJP's Jammu unit have called for the dismissal of the Farooq Abdullah government in Jammu and Kashmir following the spate of recent attacks on civilians. Home Minister Advani came under intense attack from the Opposition, which sought his resignation. These elements are sceptical about Advani's decision to entrust the State government with more powers and forces to tackle militancy, particularly owing to the perception that the State government ought to be blamed for its inability to protect citizens. A self-interested section within the BJP is advancing the argument that if the Farooq Abdullah government is dismissed, Advani would be in the direct line of fire for whatever happens in the State.

Vajpayee's silence during the debate over the situation in Jammu and Kashmir is a clear sign that he may not like to be seen as defending Advani beyond a point. Widely regarded as the person around whom a challenge to the present leadership of the NDA could coalesce, Advani is also facing a serious crisis of credibility over events in the northeastern States.

Vajpayee's threat to quit might be subtly intended to let the Advani faction within the BJP know that he would not put up with alternative power centres emerging. Advani himself would like to wait for his opportunity to lead, rather than precipitate matters. It is right now in the interests of most major players in the BJP and the NDA for Vajpayee to continue in power. This is a contingent tactical advantage that Vajpayee could use to consolidate his position and quash all sources of dissent.

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