November 5, 1999

Vajpayee again

Print edition : February 06, 2015

nEW dELHI, oCTOBER 13, 1999: President K.R. Narayanan administering the oath of office to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

THE Bharatiya Janata Party and its 23 allies got off to a brisk start as the counting of votes for the general elections to the 13th Lok Sabha got under way on October 6. By midday it was clear that the BJP had completed an unprecedented sweep of all seven seats in the National Capital Territory of Delhi. Observers looking for precedents went back to 1984, when the Congress won all seven seats in Delhi as part of a nationwide sweep. Other instances were the 1977 Janata Party triumph, which was again part of a political wave that brought it an unambiguous majority in the Lok Sabha.

By evening, though, it seemed more likely that far from sweeping the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP and its allies would only be gaining a slender parliamentary majority. Early results coming from the State of Uttar Pradesh bore clear evidence of a far more serious erosion of the BJP’s position than had been predicted. From the point of view of the BJP, the day must have closed with grim forebodings of another phase of chronic political instability.

Yet by dawn the next day, the situation had once again been transformed, pointing unequivocally towards a robust parliamentary majority for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). What it had lost in U.P., the BJP was more than making good in Bihar and other parts of the Hindi belt. The BJP gained ground in Rajasthan and gave little away in Madhya Pradesh. It lost Punjab but swept Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. By the early hours of October 7, the writing on the wall was clear as far as the Congress was concerned—far from emerging as the single largest party, it was headed for its worst-ever performance in elections to the Lok Sabha.

Very much more remains to be analysed in the stunning reverses the Congress suffered in the three States it swept as recently as November 1998. Contingent political factors, such as the disgruntlement of the Jats in Rajasthan—a traditional political constituency of the Congress —explain some part of the outcome. Organisational failures and a lack of cohesion among the factions in the party have been responsible for this to some extent, particularly in Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. But ultimately, the outcome in these three States can only be interpreted as a verdict on the direct contest between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi for the prime ministerial post. Between the hoary BJP veteran with close to half a century in public life and the claims of the political novice seeking to invoke public sympathy for the sacrifices her family had made in the past, the electorate seemed quite definitively to favour the former.

There had been an intriguing possibility held out towards the end of the election campaign—that the BJP by itself would end with a lower tally and become more dependent upon its allies for sustenance. The dramatic results turned in from Andhra Pradesh initially suggested that the possibility was being realised, not to mention the strong showing of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the NDA’s senior partner in Tamil Nadu.

These in themselves would not have caused serious concern for the BJP, since the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the DMK are not prone to whimsical political conduct that could endanger the stability of the prospective ruling coalition. The newly unified socialist bloc under the leadership of George Fernandes was, however, quite a different proposition. The emergence of a new entente between the estranged sections of the Janata Dal had, first, seriously upset the BJP’s election preparations in Karnataka. Quite apart from this, there was also the prospect that once the Lok Sabha was constituted, the so-called Janata Dal (United) would be an enduring hazard to governmental stability. These apprehensions were only strengthened by reports that certain senior leaders of the Janata Dal (United) had conducted secret parleys with elements of the Third Force to explore means of turning the prospect of an indecisive outcome to mutual advantage.

The Janata Dal(U) was also the most top-heavy party in the NDA in terms of leaders with ministerial ambitions. That the NDA turned in a rather dismal performance in Karnataka, with the incumbency disadvantage of the J.H. Patel Ministry being transferred to it in full measure, could in a long-term framework be counted as an asset.

Less certain are the consequences of the rather substantial Janata Dal(U) contingent from Bihar. The senior leaders who have arrived in the BJP camp after voting against the Vajpayee government last April, such as Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, may have to set aside their ministerial ambitions for the moment. Accommodating them within the Ministry might engender serious misgivings among the BJP’s older partners; it would also involve giving the Janata Dal(U) more berths than would be warranted by its parliamentary strength. Nitish Kumar, though a BJP ally of longer standing, may also want to focus his attentions exclusively on the coming Assembly elections in Bihar. His chief ministerial ambitions have been no secret, but while assigning berths in his Cabinet, Vajpayee would have to acknowledge that the BJP would honour its tacit agreement to reserve the post for him.

Although Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, too, has her ultimate focus on the State Assembly elections in West Bengal, her regional ambitions are far more remote in terms of their realisation than those of the Janata Dal (U). Her intention to join the Ministry and secure portfolios of specific interest to West Bengal, such as Railways or Coal, could be accommodated, given some degree of indulgence from other partners in the NDA. But her uncompromising political disposition and reputation for impetuous conduct mean that Vajpayee will continually have to be on guard for the slightest hint of restiveness in that quarter.

Many of the BJP’s allies see themselves as staunch advocates of various kinds of sectional interests. Om Prakash Chautala of the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), for instance, is instinctively averse to any measure that could impinge on the fortunes of the farm sector. He has been upset by the hike in high speed diesel prices, taken in line with a policy decision to maintain parity between domestic and global price levels in the case of petroleum products. He is unlikely at this stage to press his opposition too far, both because a new government goes through a customary period of heightened public goodwill and because he is dependent on the BJP for his sustenance as Haryana Chief Minister.

The DMK and the TDP are both led by pragmatic individuals who are unlikely to dispute seriously the decisions that seem necessary on technical and administrative grounds. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and Murasoli Maran of the DMK would both want to reinforce their image as politicians who are deeply responsive to the philosophy of economic liberalisation. But Chandrababu Naidu, for one, is hamstrung by serious fiscal imbalances in his State’s finances. His anxiety to see C. Rangarajan, the economist who occupies the Raj Bhavan in Hyderabad, in the Finance Ministry was partly occasioned by this fact. Failing to win generalised assent for his demand, Chandrababu Naidu then decided not to participate in the Vajpayee government. The party is likely to ensure, nevertheless, that its nominee continues as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha.

The prospect of instability is further rendered remote by the arithmetical incoherence in the opposition ranks. Confounding early expectations, this Lok Sabha will have a rather substantial bloc of unaligned parties. The Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Nationalist Congress Party together account for 47 seats. And the Left parties, despite suffering a marginal decline in representation, still number 41 in the Lok Sabha.

The Left, for its part, is known to be seriously evaluating the options it has, after acknowledging very early on the sheer irrelevance of any effort to form a non-BJP government. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) went into a meeting of its Polit Bureau shortly after the results were declared, following which the Central Committee was called into session.

The Communist Party of India, which has been a big loser this time, is known to favour a reassessment of the tactical line that the Left parties overall have adopted since March 1998, when with the exception of the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party they tilted towards the Congress in an effort to keep the BJP out of power. The CPI also believes that the Left parties erred in April 1999 in endorsing All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Jayalalitha’s misconceived effort to pull down the Vajpayee government and put an alternative formation in its place.

All these matters are likely to provide the Left parties food for thought, particularly since the politics of the “Third Force” has been somewhat resuscitated by the performance of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party in U.P.

It has been a mortifying experience for the Congress to see three members of its top executive body, the Congress Working Committee, being defeated in Delhi. Manmohan Singh, R.K. Dhawan and Meira Kumar are all considered close in their own ways to party president Sonia Gandhi. K. Vijayabhaskara Reddy, another member of the CWC and head of the party’s disciplinary committee, was defeated at Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh.

The spectacle at the Congress headquarters must seem altogether more unseemly since the party’s relevance in Indian politics has perhaps received an impetus of an entirely new kind in these elections. Victories in the Assembly elections in Karnataka and Arunachal Pradesh, and the prospect of regaining governmental authority in Maharashtra if it follows a course of sensible pragmatism, means that the Congress’ influence in State-level politics is rapidly growing. Together with its three State governments in the northern region, which were elected to five-year terms only last year, the Congress has a more substantive position in State-level politics than the BJP can aspire to in the near future.

After a 13-day venture in 1996 and a 13-month venture beginning March 1998, Vajpayee seems to have developed a partiality for the number of supposed ill fortune. His swearing-in as Prime Minister for the third time was scheduled for October 13. He had two days to sort out a multitude of prickly matters involving the disparate parties and individuals in his coalition.

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