BJP as big brother

Print edition : June 20, 2003

Yet another round of ministerial changes at the Centre, and a large share of the posts go to the BJP reflecting the latest power equations within the ruling coalition.

in New Delhi

The newly inducted Union Ministers with President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani at the Ashoka Hall in Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.-

IN July 2002, when Home Minister L.K. Advani was named Deputy Prime Minister as part of a major reshuffle of the government and the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership, some sections of the media described it as the beginning of the end of the Atal Behari Vajpayee era. The reshuffle that was carried out on January 29 this year that saw Arun Jaitley and Pramod Mahajan swapping their roles in the party and government respectively, strengthened this impression. This embarrassed Prime Minister Vajpayee, who in the subsequent months sought to convey, through subtle gestures, the impression that he continued to wield authority despite the pressures of leading a multi-party coalition and a ruling party reeling under the Hindutva brigade's bombardment. But in the absence of any substantive moves by the Prime Minister, these moves hardly convinced observers that his authority had been restored.

One such signal has been the Prime Minister's so-called desire to rise above what are merely the party's interests and acquire the stature of a statesman during his remaining period in office. Knowing that this would require his keeping a distance from, or maintaining a position of ambivalence on, the BJP's divisive agenda, Vajpayee once expressed the need to carry the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) experiment beyond the next Lok Sabha elections. Vajpayee hinted that the BJP wanted to contest the next elections by itself, without any tie-up with the NDA partners, but that his own view was that the party should opt for a coalition government at the Centre even after securing a majority of its own.

If the allies found this reason enough to continue to repose their confidence in Vajpayee's leadership of the coalition, they probably had no better alternative. Again, Vajpayee's announcement on May 8 favouring a resumption of dialogue with Pakistan put him at odds with the stand of the BJP and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Striking a posture that was out of sync with the position of the BJP, he said in Parliament that India's insistence on the cessation of violence in Kashmir as a prerequisite for the resumption of a dialogue with Pakistan may not be realistic.

Political observers were quick to describe Vajpayee's peace initiative as a sign of his growing assertiveness within the BJP and the government. Therefore, when he announced in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, where he had gone for a holiday after the Budget session of Parliament, that he intended to undertake a reshuffle of his Ministry in order to accommodate Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee and relieve certain "over-burdened" Ministers of the additional portfolios that they held, many people assumed that this time he would really and truly exercise his prerogative as the Prime Minister.

Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee at a rally in Kolkata.-GAUTAM SINGH/AP

However, even as preparations for the swearing-in of the new Ministers on the evening of May 24 were under way, Vajpayee was kept in the dark. The handful of leaders - Advani, party president M. Venkaiah Naidu and Finance Minister Jaswant Singh - whom he consulted with regard to the reshuffle, apparently misinformed him on whether Mamata Banerjee had been consulted about the portfolio being offered to her (the Prime Minister all but admitted this fact to mediapersons after the swearing-in ceremony) and on her party's second nominee for inclusion in the Ministry, Sudip Bandopadhyay.

The BJP's choice of Bandopadhyay for the position of a Minister of State, without consulting her, forced her to refuse the invitation to join his Cabinet. She stayed back in Kolkata to register her protest against the failure to fulfil the norms of coalition dharma. Vajpayee had no option but to agree to include her in his Cabinet in the next reshuffle, after due consultations with her on a second nominee. Vajpayee also withdrew the invitation extended to her bete noire, Bandopadhyay, to join the Ministry.

The episode raised questions about the intentions of the group of leaders the Prime Minister had consulted. Did the Advani-Venkaiah Naidu duo want to block Mamata Banerjee's re-entry by choosing Bandopadhyay without consulting her? While the leaders of all the other allies had the freedom to name their choices for inclusion in the Ministry, there was no convincing reason why Mamata Banerjee was denied this privilege. For instance, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray was duly consulted before Subodh Mohite was inducted as Minister for Heavy Industry and Public Enterprises.

If the intention was to split the Trinamul Congress, this was hardly achieved as the party rallied around Mamata Banerjee with regard to her decision not to join the Cabinet. This situation forced Venkaiah Naidu to promise the maverick from West Bengal that she would be consulted by the Prime Minister before the next set of changes in the Ministry, which would be carried out after Vajpayee returned from his overseas trip. However, Vajpayee himself appeared to make light of the episode by attributing her failure to make it to the Cabinet to ""troubles created by the Samata Party'', although the real reason appeared to be resistance within the BJP itself to her reinduction. A relatively mellowed Mamata Banerjee later reiterated that her party would remain in the NDA. And, realising that her protest had had its impact, she attributed the episode to a communication gap. The uncertainty over the portfolio that she is likely to be given eventually, however, continues. It is unclear whether she will settle for the Coal portfolio that was being offered to her.

Vajpayee could not fulfil his second objective behind the reshuffle either. Although he wanted to relieve Ministers Arun Jaitley, Arun Shourie and Sushma Swaraj of some of their portfolios (each of them held more than one key portfolio), none of them appeared to be ready to agree to it. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) would have liked the key Commerce portfolio, held by Murasoli Maran before he took ill, to be allotted to another of its nominees. However, Jaitley, who held the Commerce portfolio along with Law and Justice, was unwilling to let go of it. The DMK had to be satisfied with a promise that Maran could continue as a Cabinet Minister without portfolio.

The BJP's obsession with keeping key portfolios with its nominees limited the Prime Minister's choices outside the party. Vajpayee, it appears, wanted to bring in National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah, but with Advani and Venkaiah Naidu unwilling to let him deprive any BJP Minister of key portfolios, Abdullah could not be offered one that matched his stature.

Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Ajit Singh, who resigned as Union Agricultural Minister, speaks to mediapersons in New Delhi on May 24.-DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP

The reshuffle is significant for the price the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) managed to extract from the Prime Minister for its Ayodhya campaign. The inclusion of the BJP MP from Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, Swami Chinmayanand, as Minister of State for Home, was a signal that the Prime Minister was hardly in a position to resist the demands of those advocating the pursuit of a divisive communal agenda. Swami Chinmayanand's induction under Advani suggested that the Deputy Prime Minister wanted to give the VHP a say in the running of his Ministry, which is responsible for the maintenance of internal security. This step has also cast a shadow over perceptions of the Centre's objectivity in dealing with communal issues.

Swami Chinmayanand had figured prominently in Advani's rath yatra as it travelled through Uttar Pradesh in 1990. He was a founder-member of the Ramjanmabhoomi Mukti Yagya Samiti that was set up in 1984 to lead the movement for a Ram temple. He continues to be on a VHP committee that seeks to facilitate the construction of a temple at the disputed site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Vajpayee's response to apprehensions about Swami Chinmayanand's inclusion in his Ministry was enigmatic. Asked by mediapersons whether it signified the return of hardline Hindutva, he did not deny it, but said it was up to them to read any meanings in his decision to induct him.

The reshuffle was preceded by the resignation of Agriculture Minister and leader of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, Ajit Singh. He quit, refusing an offer from Vajpayee to take another portfolio. Ajit Singh had resorted to public criticism of the NDA government's functioning. His refusal to accede to the demands of Andhra Pradesh for a greater quantum of calamity relief than what had been offered, made matters worse for him. Ajit Singh, the RLD's lone MP in the Lok Sabha, was inducted into Vajpayee's Cabinet last year to facilitate the support of the RLD's 14 MLAs in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly to the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party-BJP government. However, the Mayawati government is no longer dependent on the RLD's support for its survival, as it has since gained the support of a splinter section of the Congress(I) and some minor parties, and consequently has a comfortable majority in the Assembly. The BJP pretends that Ajit Singh's exit from the Ministry does not matter to it, but fears that it would increase the party's dependence on the BSP, and also erode the party's support among Jats, whose loyalty Ajit Singh claims, in Rajasthan. Rajasthan is due to go to the polls soon.

Vajpayee inducted BJP general secretary Rajnath Singh as the Agriculture Minister. He had left the Ministry in July 2002 as part of an exercise intended to revamp the party. His return suggests that the BJP wants him in the government in order to retain the support of Rajputs in U.P., who are apparently displeased with the BJP's continued support to the Mayawati government. It is also true that the BJP wants Rajnath Singh to be in the government rather than in the party, as he is being seen as an impediment to efforts to strengthen ties between the BJP and the BSP ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.

The occasion of the reshuffle was marred by the resignation of Minister of State for Finance Ginjee Ramachandran, a nominee of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), following the arrest of his personal assistant in a case of alleged bribery on May 23. The BJP leaders forced him to quit, following an uproar by the Opposition, even as the Prime Minister offered to induct another nominee of the MDMK in Ramachandran's place. The MDMK lost no time in reminding everyone that as in the case of Defence Minister George Fernandes, who quit in the wake of the Tehelka expose but returned to the Ministry later, Ramachandran could return to the Ministry even before absolving himself of wrong-doing.

Among the other changes that Vajpayee made, the shifting of Shahnawaz Hussein from Civil Aviation to Textiles was one whose rationale was unclear. If he was inefficient as the Civil Aviation Minister, how could he be moved to an equally important Ministry? Kashiram Rana was shifted from Textiles to Rural Development, while B.C. Khanduri, the Minister of State for Surface Transport, was given the Cabinet rank, apparently as a reward for good work he had done. This raised the question whether there was only one Minister of State who deserved to be promoted among 50 Ministers of State.

The BJP now has a disproportionate share of positions in the Ministry - 22 out of 31 Cabinet berths, four out of seven positions of Ministers of State who hold independent charge of a Ministry and 35 out of 42 positions of Ministers of State. BJP Ministers hold all the important portfolios - except Defence and Railways that are held by the Samata Party's George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar respectively.

With 79 members, the Ministry has nearly exceeded the limit on the maximum size of a Ministry, 10 per cent of the strength of both the Houses, that is proposed to be imposed by the Central government through legislation. With the promised induction of the Trinamul Congress nominees, the size of the Ministry could cross 81. That will perhaps go to make it the biggest Union Ministry since Independence.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor