The tussle within

Print edition : November 24, 2001

The RSS' responses to the political situation give credence to the general impression that the BJP's leadership in government has relegated the party organisation to a secondary position.

RASHTRIYA Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) spokesperson M.G. Vaidya's view that the prestige of the organisational wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party must be maintained on an equal footing with that of its legislative and government wings has attracted public attention on the irritants in the relationship between the BJP organisation and the government the party heads at the Centre. This remark, expressed in Vaidya's article in the RSS mouthpiece Panchajanya, comes in the wake of a perception that there is a lack of cohesion in the relationship between BJP president Jana Krishnamurti and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

At the National Council session of the BJP on the eve of its golden jubilee in New Delhi in October, (from right) former party president Kushabhau Thakre, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, party president Jana Krishnamurti and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani.-ANU PUSHKARNA

Although the article made no mention of the irritants in the relationship between the BJP president and the government, it seems to have a clear motive. Speaking to the media, Vaidya asserted that no one, not even Vajpayee, was above the BJP, and warned that if any political party failed to keep the prestige and status of its organisational wing it would perish just as the Congress party did. He said no political party could be an appendage of its own government. "The party has an independent role to play in the framing of policy and in the education and training of its cadre, and a dialogue between it and the government is essential," Vaidya maintained.

The timing of the article is significant. Through Vaidya's views the RSS appears to have expressed its concern that the BJP was no different from the Congress in terms of functioning, as shown by the way it changed Chief Ministers in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttaranchal. The sidelining of Jana Krishnamurti in making these changes, and in all major decisions taken by the party and the government in recent weeks, has strengthened the perception that the party was destined to play a secondary role to the government, with its senior leaders, including Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, occupying positions of power in the government. Vaidya also referred to the need for the party president to be a person who can inspire and motivate the workers. The inference perhaps is that Krishnamurti lacks the stature of Vajpayee and Advani.

Central to Vaidya's views is the belief that governments may come and go but the party will remain and that the party's concerns and aspirations should have a bearing on the government's functioning. Those who are in government, however, have different compulsions. For them the party may have been a stepping stone to power, but the uncertainty over completing the full term imposes upon them obligations that may not be shared by those who are concerned with the party's image and long-term goals.

The evolution of the relationship between the Congress and the government during the early years of Independence illustrates how the race for primacy between the legislative and organisational wings of the party influenced the course of political events. The lack of cohesion between Congress president Purushottamdas Tandon and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on the issue of fighting communalism resulted in Nehru taking over as Congress president in September 1951 after Tandon was forced to resign. Nehru's primacy over the Congress president meant a renewed thrust on secularism as a guiding principle of the party.

The BJP resents any comparison with the Congress because the BJP, its leaders claim, is the only democratic party in the country. Periodical party elections, regular meetings of the party's decision-making bodies, and primacy to the principle of collective decision-making are the criteria by which they judge a democratic party. However, a certain amount of friction between the party and the government has come to the fore in recent weeks, which shows the facade of democratic functioning as being false.

It is true that unlike the Congress, the BJP has resisted the temptation to combine the posts of party president and leader of the party's parliamentary wing, especially after it became the dominant partner in the multi-party coalition government at the Centre, in order to offer a semblance of democratic functioning and collective leadership.

Insiders who dismiss the apparent lack of cohesion between the party and the government argue that there is no clear motive for the party to destabilise its own government. They ridicule the suggestion that Home Minister L.K. Advani, who enjoys considerable support in the organisational wing, may be behind the perception of a gulf between the party and the government. "The question is not whether Advani has prime ministerial ambitions, but what he stands to gain if the Vajpayee government is destabilised. He cannot certainly hope to replace Vajpayee," said a member of the Sangh Parivar.

It is no one's case, however, that every case of friction between the party and the government has the potential to destabilise the government. To an inquisitive observer, such frictions underscore the difference in the perception of issues among senior leaders and the pressures they come under while seeking to resolve them.

The relationship between Jana Krishnamurti and Vajpayee has especially come under close scrutiny ever since Vajpayee snubbed Krishnamurti at the party's National Council meeting in New Delhi on October 21. Vajpayee deplored the party's failure to invite him for the symbolic flag-hoisting ceremony that preceded the function to mark the golden jubilee of the BJP's parent party, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.

Vajpayee's attempt to focus on the "communication gap" between the party and the government ended up embarrassing the party, and he later sought to play down the remark by suggesting that the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) was responsible for not communicating the party's invitation to him. The October 21 meeting, rather than help the party cherish the memories of the Jana Sangh years, ended up as a friendly debate on who among the senior leaders was the rightful claimant to the Jana Sangh's legacy. Curiously, Vajpayee, as the first president of the BJP in 1980, had sought to distance the party from the Jana Sangh's legacy and make it appear as a new party with new ideals.

The "communication gap" haunted the party again at its National Executive meeting in Amritsar on November 2 and 3. Krishnamurti had to deny a remark attributed to Advani by Law and Justice Minister Arun Jaitley that those who did not support the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) would "wittingly or unwittingly be appeasing terrorists". Although Advani later denied having used these words, he seemed to have agreed with its substance by suggesting that the Opposition, by opposing POTO, would only please terrorists. Advani's position was seen to be in contrast with that of Vajpayee, who favoured a political consensus on the issue. Who authorised Jaitley to brief the media on Advani's speech at the meeting continues to baffle the party.

Again, Krishnamurti said in an interview that the party's changing Chief Ministers in three States was akin to players changing batons in a relay race. Asked whether the party would apply the same principle to the post of Prime Minister, Krishnamurti was clearly embarrassed. His reply embarrassed the Prime Minister too. He said that the party would take up the question when the need arose, and that at the moment there was no question of replacing the Prime Minister. Although Krishnamurti later clarified that he did not intend that the principle would apply to the Prime Minister, it was clear that he conceded that the party was superior to any individual, including the Prime Minister. In his speech, Vajpayee, probably alluding to Krishnamurti's indiscretion, asked the leaders to exercise restraint while speaking to the media.

The differences between the party and the government on the agriculture policy became explicit in Amritsar. A party committee headed by former Rajasthan Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat argued strongly for a healthy balance between the interests of farmers and consumers to avoid a situation in which 60 million tonnes of grain lies in godowns even as 30 crore people do not get a full meal a day. While the Centre appeared to blame the State governments for not lifting adequate quantities of food stocks, the committee sought the removal of controls in the movement of grain and an effective strategy to counter the feared ill-effects of World Trade Organisation on Indian agriculture. The Shekhawat Committee's criticism of the pricing strategy of the Central government, which favoured rich farmers, was seen as an indictment of the government.

Krishnamurti explained to Frontline: "The party is supreme as far as policy is concerned. The government is supreme in running the government. There is no clash." However, even as both the party and the government seek to clear the apparent misgivings about each other, the race for supremacy continues.

An immediate beneficiary of the perceived differences between the party and the government appears to be the RSS. Vaidya's views, inasmuch as he sought to advise the BJP and its government, are a clear indication that the RSS no longer pretends that it is apolitical. Krishnamurti, conceding the RSS' right to advise, said: "Vaidya is not in the BJP. Let him advise, we take note of it." Krishnamurti, for all his independent views, is unlikely to confront the government on any issue and will be content with whatever little role Vajpayee might envisage for the party. For instance, Krishnamurti's demand that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) frame norms for the re-entry of parties that left it in the recent past has not been taken seriously by the NDA even though it set up a four-member committee for the purpose. The Trinamul Congress and the Pattali Makkal Katchi were admitted into the NDA in the absence of such norms, and Vajpayee is likely to induct their representatives into his Cabinet during or after the winter session of Parliament.

Clearly, with senior party leaders in the government, the RSS sees a vacuum in the BJP. It seeks to fill this by issuing statements meant for its course-correction and influencing decisions on whom to induct into the posts vacated by those who had moved to the government recently. The induction of Sanjay Joshi, an RSS pracharak and BJP secretary in Gujarat, to the central office as the national secretary, and the appointment of Sukumar Nambiar as the party treasurer are pointers that the RSS continues to have a major say in the BJP's functioning. With the BJP organisation reduced to a secondary position vis-a-vis the government, it seems that Vajpayee has, as a concession to the RSS for giving him some degree of autonomy, let it influence the BJP's affairs.

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