Gloomy in Goa

Print edition : April 10, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

IF the Bangalore meeting of the National Executive of the Bharatiya Janata Party in January 1999 saw the surfacing of tensions between the organisational and parliamentary wings of the party, the April 2-4 National Executive meeting in Panaji, Goa, brought to the fore the strains between the BJP and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). This meeting was planned to coincide with the completion of the first year of the BJP in office, and was to have been an occasion for self-congratulation. The celebratory mood was dampened by the ultimatum presented by AIADMK leader Jayalalitha. The will-she-won't-she question on whether and when Jayalalitha would quit the alliance hung over the Panaji meeting. For the BJP leadership, this came as a painful reminder of just how critical her support is to the survival of the Government.

By sticking to her demands for the reinstatement of the dismissed Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, and the transfer of George Fernandes from the Ministry of Defence, Jayalalitha virtually closed whatever little space for negotiations that existed for a compromise to be reached with the BJP leadership. It became clear from the views that emerged at the National Executive that the BJP, which will not accept the reinstatement of Bhagwat under any circumstances, is preparing for what it considers inevitable - a test of confidence when Parliament resumes. "Let the Opposition bring a vote of confidence in Parliament," Vajpayee said after the meeting. "We welcome it. It is yet another opportunity for us to prove our strength in the House." An even more optimistic view aired by some leaders at the meeting was that the BJP Government could even continue as a minority government as there were very few MPs or parties prepared for another general election at this stage.

"Her demands are absurd and unimplementable," M. Venkaiah Naidu, general secretary of the BJP, told Frontline. "The Bhagwat issue was discussed threadbare at the Coordination Committee. The collective decision was that it was a necessary decision." The demand for the reinstatement of Bhagwat was not the "real issue", he said. "The real issue is the destabilisation of the Government."

At the National Executive meeting of the BJP in Panaji on April 2, (from left) L.K. Advani, party president Kushabhau Thakre, A.B. Vajpayee and Murli Manohar Joshi.-VIVEK BENDRE

In his concluding remarks to the National Executive, Vajpayee rejected the demand "made by one of our allies for the reinstatement of the sacked naval chief." Such a move, he said, would "seriously violate national security".

There was, however, a perceptible softening of the earlier stance of the BJP as regards the Opposition demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee to be set up to probe the Bhagwat affair. Several leaders who attended the National Executive meeting expressed the view that the Government could concede the demand for a JPC, provided there is a discussion on it in Parliament and the "Opposition presents a prima facie case on the veracity of allegations of corruption in defence deals," as a senior party source said.

COALITION problems apart, the most significant development in the internal politics of the party between the Bangalore meet and the Panaji one is the consolidation of the leadership of Vajpayee, and the foregrounding of the interests of the Government over those of the party. The Bangalore meeting witnessed a strong attempt by a section led by party president Kushabhau Thakre to establish the supremacy of the party and its right to involve itself in matters of governance. This section felt that the ideological purity of the party could not be sacrificed for the compulsions of office. The blame for the setbacks suffered by the party in the Assembly elections in November 1998 was laid at the door of the BJP Government.

The two issues on which serious differences of opinion surfaced was the 'non-swadeshi' thrust of the Government's economic policies and the failure of the Government to rein in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, the two organisations from the Sangh Parivar that were directly involved in the attacks on Christians in Gujarat's Dangs district and elsewhere. At the end of a stormy session, the parliamentary wing gained the upper hand in Bangalore and the meet closed with Vajpayee emerging stronger.

In sharp contrast to the tenor and content of his last presidential address, Thakre's opening remarks in Panaji were devoted almost wholly to singing the praises of the Vajpayee Government and its performance during its first year in office. It was a subdued Thakre who spoke here, taking upon the party organisation the blame for the poor performance in the Assembly elections in November. He also underlined the importance of the next round of State elections, beginning with Goa in May and Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka at the end of the year, for the Government's image and the party's growth.

The political resolution adopted at the National Executive meeting was a more detailed version of Thakre's speech. The four Bs, the resolution stated - Bomb, Bus, Budget and Bihar - have increased the popularity of the BJP government bu such an extent that the Opposition, comprising the Congress(I), the Left parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal reacted by trying to disrupt governance and destroy the foundation of parliamentary democracy.

The resolution made a mention of the Bhagwat issue, defended its use of Article 356 in Bihar and termed the attacks on Christians part of an "externally-aided, orchestrated campaign" by those who are "trying to exploit communal sentiments for electoral gains." The Government was committed to true secularism - "sarva panth samabhav" - the resolution stated. It made the rather questionable claim that for India, 1998 was a "riot-free" year with "the least number of communal incidents in the past decade."

The economic resolution praised the 1999 Budget of the BJP-led Government - no more hiding behind the fig-leaf of "swadeshi". It endorsed the various measures undertaken to speed up the opening up of the economy, the cutting of subsidies (described as "control over unproductive expenditure"), and the new Exim policy. It commended the "calibrated globalisation" policy of the Government, in contrast to the "thoughtless globalisation" of the previous Congress(I) regime.

A range of economic issues, however, found no mention in the economic resolution. For example, there was no mention of public sector disinvestment, of the Insurance Regulatory Authority Bill, of the increases in the administered prices of nearly every single essential commodity, and of the adoption of the Patents Amendment Bill.

If the rhetoric of Hindutva did not find the prominent place in the resolutions and speeches of the BJP that it used to, it is hardly because the long-term goals of the BJP have, in any sense, been redefined. One reason why party "hardliners" such as Thakre have been silenced is perhaps that there is a realisation that being in power helps the party and its ideological agenda grow. A year in office has given the BJP the opportunity to use the levers of government to implement its cultural and ideological priorities. The re-writing of textbooks and the reconstitution of research and educational bodies have been ways of doing this. The coming elections in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are critical for the survival of the Government at the Centre as well as for growth of the party.

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