The BJP's trauma

Print edition : May 08, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

The BJP lost the Lok Sabha vote and faced the prospect of further erosion of support, but barely managed to hold its alliance together in preparation for another harrowing round.

THE countdown to the dissolution of the 12th Lok Sabha brought much anxiety for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Soon after the Vajpayee Government lost the vote of confidence on April 17, the BJP launched efforts to stem any erosion in the coalition's numerical strength as allies such as the Samata Party and the Biju Janata Dal were seen as being vulnerable to split. Although senior BJP leaders were in favour of the dissolution of the House, they refrained from demanding it lest their poll-weary MPs look for safer alternatives. Hence the alliance leaders maintained that Vajpayee could be called again to form a government if the BJP-led coalition showed an accretion of strength. Samata Party leader George Fernandes urged President K.R. Narayanan to reinstate Vajpayee if the Opposition failed to cobble together a viable alternative.

A meeting of MPs of the coalition, held on April 19 in New Delhi, resolved that the only viable political combine was the one led by Vajpayee. The meeting, which was attended also by representatives of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), was the first display of solidarity of the alliance after the confidence vote. The following day, at a dinner hosted at the Prime Minister's residence, the MPs reiterated that they were with the BJP-led front.

The BJP secured letters of support from all its allies. The Haryana Vikas Party's sole MP, Surender Singh, initially expressed reservations about backing the Vajpayee Government, which had the support of the HVP's rival, the Indian National Lok Dal led by Om Prakash Chautala. He later changed his stand.

The BJP and its allies sought to ensure that the President did not invite anyone from the opposite camp to form a government. Home Minister L.K. Advani, leading a delegation to the President on April 21, told the President that 270 MPs supported the Vajpayee Government. He also submitted to the President letters of support from the BJP's allies, who together with the BJP, accounted for 270 MPs. The BJP did not stake its claim to form another government; it only wished to prevent other parties from being invited to form a government.

Despite the letters of support there were murmurs in certain quarters. Samata Party MP Kalpnath Rai who voted in favour of the confidence motion, met Sonia Gandhi and offered his support to a government led by her. Although a few individual MPs in the BJP camp were inclined to support a Congress(I) government, they could not muster the required one-third support in their respective parties to cause a split without attracting the provisions of the Anti-Defection Act. The strategy adopted by the BJP and its allies was to tell their MPs that they were not for mid-term elections and that they hoped that the President would invite Vajpayee again to form the government. This was effective in stalling realignments and at the same time using to their advantage the MPs' overwhelming desire to avoid the dissolution of the Lok Sabha.

The fears in the BJP camp came out into to the open when the President gave Sonia Gandhi on April 21 two days' time to prove her claim of support of 272 MPs. BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi described the claim as bogus and criticised the President for giving her more time to prove her support. The BJP denied reports in a section of the media that the President refused to invite Vajpayee again. Some reports suggested that the leaders of some of the allies of the BJP had mooted the idea of electing another leader in place of Vajpayee, if possible one from the alliance partners, who could then be invited to form a government with the support of the BJP and seek a fresh confidence vote in the Lok Sabha. The names of George Fernandes of the Samata Party and Surjit Singh Barnala of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) did the rounds as possible choices, as some Opposition parties were willing to back a government led by a non-BJP leader.

However, the idea was squashed by the BJP and some of its allies, mainly the Trinamul Congress. Sensing the mood in the coalition, Vajpayee offered to step down from the leadership of the alliance if anyone could muster more support than he could. At a meeting on April 23, MPs of the alliance rejected Vajpayee's offer and reaffirmed their faith in his leadership.

A delegation led by Jaswant Singh, which included DMK leader Murasoli Maran and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko, met the President on April 24 and requested him not to keep the Vajpayee-led coalition out of the consultation process and to complete his discussions with the political parties within a specified time-frame. The President expressed his readiness to complete the talks with the various political parties at the earliest and also involve the BJP and its allies in the consultation process. This helped the coalition revive in its MPs hopes of the Vajpayee Government getting another chance.

Rajya Sabha member and constitutional expert L.M. Singhvi suggested that the President invite Vajpayee again to form the government in the event of the other camps failing to muster the necessary strength. Since the Vajpayee-led coalition enjoyed greater numerical support, the President should give Vajpayee another chance before a decision is taken to dissolve the House, he argued.

The BJP, however, did not press the point further as there was no real accretion to the strength of the coalition. The Prime Minister appealed to his partymen not to view the President's action with suspicion as there was nothing wrong in his approach although the protracted process of consultations caused anxiety. Vajpayee's remark was intended to repair the damage done by Joshi's criticism of the President's action. After Sonia Gandhi admitted on April 25 her failure to muster enough support, Vajpayee met the President. Narayanan suggested that he be given the Cabinet's recommendation to dissolve the Lok Sabha.

At the BJP National Executive meeting in New Delhi on May 2, Vajpayee with M. Venkaiah Naidu, Kushabhau Thakre and Murli Manohar Joshi.-V. SUDERSHAN

Offers of support were made at this stage by certain individual MPs from the other camp, but Vajpayee and Advani did not want to take the risky course of forming another government with their unreliable support. Sources in the BJP said that certain Congress(I) MPs from the South and also Buta Singh, who had left the coalition,offered to help the Government and requested Advani to take their letters of support and inform the President about the accretion of strength. However, Advani reportedly told them to approach the President directly. Buta Singh tried in vain to convince the President about his change of mind.

THE BJP made a belated attempt to split the six-member Janata Dal group in the Lok Sabha by wooing Ram Vilas Paswan, I.K. Gujral and a member from Karnataka owing allegiance to Chief Minister J.H. Patel. Advani met the SJP's lone member and former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, who played a key role in persuading Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav against backing a Sonia Gandhi-led Government. However, support from the Janata Dal and Chandra Shekhar was not forthcoming, and the BJP leadership decided that elections were preferable to heading a government with a slender majority, which was bound to collapse under the slightest pressure from the constituents.

Thus the BJP decided to use the opportunity provided by the President's advice and make the collapse of the Government a campaign issue. The Cabinet, which met on April 26, made it clear in its communication to the President that it recommended dissolution of the Lok Sabha in deference to his wishes. What it left unsaid was that had the President not advised the Government to send such a recommendation, Vajpayee could have staked his claim to form the government as there was a rethinking among some of the parties that had voted against the confidence motion.

In a sense, the Cabinet recommendation was a compromise between the views of the hawks and the moderates. The hawks in the alliance held the President responsible for the dissolution of the House as he did not consider the option of inviting Vajpayee again after the Opposition had failed to muster the requisite numbers. They felt that the President erred in asking Vajpayee to seek a vote of confidence after the AIADMK withdrew its support on April 14. The President should have asked Jayalalitha to explore the option of moving a no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha, they argued. In fact, Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee gave expression to this view in a letter to the President; she said that Vajpayee should be invited again.

IMMEDIATELY after the Lok Sabha was dissolved on April 26, the BJP was gearing up for the next round, by launching a search for new allies and campaign issues. Although the sympathy factor was a major consideration behind the BJP's demand for early polls, L.K. Advani, the chairman of the party's election campaign committee, said: "Rather than sympathy, I find a lot of anger against the Congress(I) and non-Congress(I) Opposition parties for their role in pulling down the Government." Speaking to mediapersons at the conclusion of the party's National Executive meeting in New Delhi on May 2, he said that the five 'B's - Bomb (national security), Bus to Pakistan (peace with neighbours), Bihar (protection to Dalits and ending the politics of criminalisation), Budget (sound pro-people and pro-India economic policy) and Betrayal (the Congress-led Opposition's disregard for the 1998 mandate) - would ensure a positive vote for the BJP. With a view to making political capital out of the nuclear tests and related developments, the alliance decided to celebrate May 11, the first day of the Pokhran-II tests of last year, as 'Resurgent India Day'.

That Advani will lead the party's campaign is significant, as it was under his leadership that the party registered a 'phenomenal' growth in terms of numerical strength in the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies. The laid-back approach of Kushabhau Thakre, the party's national president, was resented by many people in the party. The party suffered severe reverses in the elections held in November last when Thakre led the campaign. Besides Advani, the committee includes Jaswant Singh, Pramod Mahajan, M. Venkaiah Naidu, K.N. Govindacharya, Jana Krishnamurthy, V.P. Goyal, Sushma Swaraj, Bangaru Lakshman, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Arun Jaitley and Arun Shourie.

AMAJOR decision taken at the National Executive was to highlight the theme of "one leader, one alliance and one programme" for the coming elections. The party endorsed the proposal of George Fernandes that the alliance face the elections with a joint manifesto and under a single banner. For the BJP, giving up its own manifesto for the sake of cohesion in the alliance was not a pleasant experience. However, other members of the Sangh Parivar may not be able to resist the BJP's move in view of the compulsions of coalition politics. The BJP expressed its willingness to subscribe to a common manifesto based on the National Agenda for Governance (NAG), which was adopted after the last general elections. Advani said that the views of new allies such as the DMK would be included in the modified NAG.

The BJP's move to abandon its own manifesto did not stem from its desire to dilute its ideology or give up its position on issues such as Ayodhya, Article 370 of the Constitution and a uniform civil code. The decision is born out of the need to accommodate the views of its allies. It would indeed be embarrassing for parties such as the DMK to have an alliance with the BJP if the latter decides to stick to its original manifesto.

BJP leader Jaswant Singh with DMK leader Murasoli Maran after meeting the President on April 24.-KAMAL KISHORE/ REUTERS

Mamata Banerjee has reiterated her desire to have a separate manifesto, based on the 'Bengal package', apart from subscribing to the common manifesto.

The BJP does not see the possibility of a clear majority on its own steam. As Advani said, the BJP's growth, although considerable over the last decade, has not correspondingly matched the decline of the Congress(I). As other parties too have filled the vacuum created by the Congress(I), the BJP's search for allies to bridge the shortfall was justified, Advani said.

The BJP has renewed its support for Vajpayee as the Prime Minister and indicated that he will also be the allies' candidate for prime ministership. Vajpayee, who had expressed his reluctance to contest an election again during the debate on the confidence motion that he moved last year, has bowed to the party's wishes to seek re-election from Lucknow. The party's rationale is that as Vajpayee did not complete his term, he ought not to stick to his promise not to contest again.

The party seemed to suggest that a debate on Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's nationality would help the BJP and therefore it would go all out to sell Vajpayee as a "patriotic answer" to the "foreigner" Sonia. However, the moderates in the party scored a victory when Vajpayee remarked that such a debate would not be healthy although it cannot be avoided. Advani also said that "there is no need to debate this issue further."

In his concluding address to the National Executive, Vajpayee said: "I personally believe that our campaign should not be too personality-centred. Rather, we should focus on issues and on our achievements." Perhaps the BJP's bid to project the personality of Vajpayee embarrassed him.

However, Advani persisted that there was nothing wrong in projecting Vajpayee as he personified all the goals of the BJP and its allies. "Above all, the contrast between the BJP-led alliance and the Opposition is sharply reflected in the issue of leadership. Our greatest asset is our leader, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee," he said.

By convening the party's National Executive at short notice, the BJP has tested its poll-preparedness. By launching a frontal attack on the parties opposed to it, particularly the Congress(I), the AIADMK and the Left, the BJP has identified its enemies too. The political resolution passed at the meeting is silent on the role played by the Samajwadi Party in blocking the Congress(I)'s ascent to power.

The BJP hurled its choicest abuses at parties opposed to it, except the S.P. However, Thakre described the S.P. as casteist and said that there could be no alliance with that party. Advani too ruled out the possibility of an understanding with the S.P.

That apart, there has been no admission on the part of the BJP that the Government fell primarily because the AIADMK withdrew its support. "The Congress is the one which has directed the conspiracy and manoeuvres to bring down the Government. The Left parties provided the Congress destabilisation game plan with an ideological cover. The casteist and criminal forces as symbolised by Laloo Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav provided the numbers. The AIADMK, by betraying the Government of which it had throughout been a part, also betrayed the people of Tamil Nadu," the political resolution read.

Thus the BJP is ready to hit the campaign trail well ahead of the rest.

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