Debating India


Terminal Crisis

Saturday 10 April 1999, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

With the BJP setting its face against giving in to the demands made by coalition partner Jayalalitha and the AIADMK leader deciding to look for new political partners, the Government at the Centre faces the toughest test in its year-long career.

in New Delhi

Just a fortnight into its second year, the Atal Behari Vajpayee Government was witnessing the script of its demise being authored from three different directions. In Chennai, All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Jayalalitha was preparing to take her bloc of 19 in the Lok Sabha out of the ruling coalition. Although willing to grant the Prime Minister a reasonable length of time in which to concede her demands, she was fairly categorical that the gravity of her warning this time around was of a different order compared to previous instances.

At several points of time in the past the reluctant partners have gone to the verge of parting ways, only to retreat in an air of feigned mutual goodwill. But things are clearly different this time around. A meeting of the Union Cabinet on April 5 saw the entire AIADMK contingent staying away. At his customary media briefing following the Cabinet meeting, Union Minister Pramod Mahajan refused to be drawn out on the issue. It is for the AIADMK members to decide whether any useful purpose would be served by their continuance in the Cabinet, he said.

Meeting concurrently in Panaji, the Bharatiya Janata Party National Executive set its face against making the slightest concession to its truculent ally from Chennai. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Rangarajan Kumaramangalam was particularly obdurate. After having precipitated the confrontation through a sharp jibe against Jayalalitha, he insisted that he saw no cause for contrition. The ultimatum that the AIADMK chief should either conform or quit was made in his personal capacity and hence called for no apology.

It is of course an inherent curiosity of the situation that Kumaramangalam thought little of putting the future of the ruling coalition at stake in the cause of expressing his personal opinion. But then, the BJP-led coalition at the Centre has been nothing if not a curious amalgam where personal proclivities acquire a disproportionate political moment.

As the principal belligerents in Goa and Chennai were preparing for their climactic engagement, a supporting cast in Delhi was being primed for the drama that will inevitably ensue. The BJP made known its intention to seek a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha as an effort to counter Jayalalitha’s threat of withdrawal of support. But Subramanian Swamy, a one-time bitter opponent who transformed himself into a loyal strategist and factotum of the AIADMK boss, was already launched on his strategy of preemption. A no-confidence motion would be introduced as soon as the Lok Sabha resumed its Budget session on April 15, said Subramanian Swamy. Speaking with the fervour of a man recently restored to political relevance, the Janata Party leader affirmed that the AIADMK’s withdrawal from the BJP-led coalition would lead not merely to the collapse of the Vajpayee Government, but also the constitution of an alternative formation which would be far more stable and efficient.

For the BJP-led coalition, the reckless and ill-considered dismissal of an armed forces commander in December seemed to be inexorably leading to the outcome that the more perceptive observers had predicted right then. Having ventured out early to do battle against a man he chose to portray as a mutinous Admiral, Defence Minister George Fernandes was forced to retreat for fear of suffering mortal injury from the sense of outrage he had stirred up. He then chose to initiate a sustained campaign of attrition through the media, again emerging distinctly the loser.

The moment of reckoning came when Parliament met for its Budget session. The initial recourse was to the strategy of evasion. The Government would not concede the demand for a parliamentary discussion on the matter of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, said Fernandes, because of the sensitive national security issues involved.

In the desperation of the moment, Fernandes was clearly prepared to economise on the truth and run perilously close to inviting charges of misleading Parliament. But every effort to dodge the norms of parliamentary accountability only seemed to accelerate the pace of events. By persistently rebuffing the minimal demand for a debate on the Bhagwat issue, the Vajpayee Government only succeeded in eliciting a maximal set of demands from within its own ranks.

Jayalalitha began with the observation that a Joint Parliamentary Committee inquiry into the Bhagwat affair seemed both appropriate and necessary. She then proceeded to put two other options before the Government, either of which would seemingly have satisfied her - that Bhagwat be reinstated in command of the Navy or that Fernandes be moved out of the Defence Ministry and given a less sensitive portfolio.

Further stonewalling by the Government led in quick time to the compounding of these demands. Jayalalitha’s minimal requirement today is that all three conditions be met - the constitution of a JPC, the dismissal of Fernandes and the reinstatement of Bhagwat. There is no escape hatch visible, since the consequence of accepting any one of these demands would be to invite a withering assault on the Vajpayee Government from another flank.

Apologists for the Government are trying to cast the current crisis in a continuum with Jayalalitha’s established record of whimsical behaviour. This has failed to carry any conviction. Reasonable opinion seems overwhelmingly in favour of Jayalalitha on the Bhagwat issue. Indeed, the indications are that the Government quite deliberately raised the pitch of confrontation in its latest skirmish with Jayalalitha, precisely because it could not conceive of submitting to any form of inquiry on the circumstances leading up to the dismissal of Admiral Bhagwat.

Unmindful of his status as the man whose conduct in office was under scrutiny, Fernandes was designated as the official spokesman for the ruling coalition’s Coordination Committee meeting of March 27. As was to be expected, he sought to put a gloss of unanimity over the committee’s deliberations. This was another instance in a consistent record of misrepresenting facts, since the Coordination Committee was by no means unanimous on the Bhagwat question. Jayalalitha had endorsed the demand for a further inquiry, and was overruled by the rest of the committee, but clearly affirmed that she did not share the opinion of the majority.

THERE was obviously an unseen hand controlling the orchestrated reactions of outrage at Jayalalitha’s subsequent public utterances. Rangarajan Kumaramangalam came up with his justly famous "conform or quit" ultimatum. Digvijay Singh of the Samata Party deprecated the AIADMK’s persistent breaches of coalition decorum. More provocatively, Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee called into question Jayalalitha’s entire record in politics, pointedly drawing attention to the multiplicity of corruption cases against her.

The reaction from the AIADMK headquarters was swift. The BJP leadership only needed to drop the slightest hint and the party’s representative would be at the gates of Rashtrapati Bhavan to inform the President that the Vajpayee Government no longer enjoyed its confidence. There was no solace to be gained from the belief that no alternative coalition could be worked out within the prevailing calculus of the Lok Sabha. The AIADMK seems altogether more positive about an alliance with the Congress today, or as its formal response to the Kumaramangalam ultimatum puts it - the traditional ally which was cleansed of its undesirable elements in 1996 offers more constructive options in political cooperation today than the BJP.

Finally it is the chemistry between two women politicians - Jayalalitha and Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi - that seems to be driving the new phase of political engagement. Their meeting at a tea party hosted by Subramanian Swamy in New Delhi was brief. Little of substantive political import could have been discussed, though Jayalalitha chose in rather poor taste to describe the event as a "political earthquake", trivialising the tragedy that had affected a vast swathe of northern India just the previous day. But for all the sense of anticipation that had been generated in the preceding days, the actual meeting between the two leaders seemed rather inconsequential.

A degree of coordination, though, is apparent in the manner in which the two leaders have chosen to focus their attack on a point of extreme vulnerability for the BJP-led Government. Yet it remains to be seen how far they will be able to work out mutually acceptable rules of engagement, beyond their common endeavour to hold Fernandes accountable for the Bhagwat affair. Jayalalitha has repeatedly shown over the past year that without a bailiwick in Chennai to keep her occupied, she can be a persistent threat to the political dispensation at the Centre. If they want to work out a viable arrangement among themselves, the Congress(I) would have, if anything, to be even more attentive to her multiple insecurities than the BJP has been.

Political modesty has seldom been an attribute that could be applied to Jayalalitha. Since she arrested what seemed an irreversible plunge into electoral oblivion to emerge as the most important prop of the BJP-led Government at the Centre, the whimsical and imperious chief of the AIADMK has been the focus of much speculative psychological analysis. It seemed for long that deep political insecurities were her only motivation. She had ample reason to worry. Her five years at the helm in Tamil Nadu had ended in the most ignominious rout ever of an incumbent Chief Minister. And the successor Government led by bitter rival M. Karunanidhi had set in motion legal proceedings in a clutch of corruption cases, in the evident belief that summary conviction was the only way to quell any possible challenge she may pose in future.

The dismissal of the elected State Government in Tamil Nadu is obviously the outcome that Jayalalitha has sought, though the curbing of its lawful authority to punish gross financial malfeasance would have been a satisfactory stop-gap arrangement. In having coerced the BJP-led Government at the Centre to trample upon judicial proprieties and its own sense of morality, Jayalalitha seemed, not long ago, to have achieved her main purpose. But just when the law officers of the Central Government were putting their efforts into rationalising the disbanding of the special courts that the Karunanidhi Government had constituted exclusively for cases relating to her, Jayalalitha has chosen to open another front in her battle with the Vajpayee Government.

TO those who believe that politics is all about rational calculation and the careful evaluation of all possibilities, this must seem a rather wild and impulsive pattern of behaviour. But an innate sense of shrewdness is evident in the manner that Jayalalitha has mounted pressure on the BJP and its other allies over their most obvious administrative misdemeanours. First it was the transfer last September of the upright and energetic Director of the Enforcement Directorate, M.K. Bezboruah - a decision the BJP had to rescind under the pressure of judicial stricture, but not before suffering a stinging rebuke from its ally in Tamil Nadu. Now it is the dismissal of a Chief of the Naval Staff for reasons still unclear, but known to be unsavoury in the extreme.

Further movement would depend upon the inclinations of the Congress(I), in particular upon its willingness to enter into a coalitional arrangement that would be replete with the potential for threats and blackmail. The Left parties would be key players in the emerging scenario, but they are yet unwilling to discuss any specific commitments. Before doing so, they would need to sort out several dilemmas related to their participation in the revival of the Third Force. The Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha (or the alliance of the two Yadav chieftains of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) is likely to have fewer compunctions, though in the long term, the Congress(I) strategy for reinventing itself designates their traditional constituencies as the prime focus of attention.

Whatever contours the new alignments take, there is no denying that they will be as laden with the potential for conflict as anything seen till now. This is part of the reason the Congress(I) has been noticeably reticent about forcing the pace of events. Between dealing with the cumbersome arithmetic of the 12th Lok Sabha and starting life anew after a fresh round of elections, the Congress(I) clearly prefers the latter. For this and a variety of other reasons, it would seem a safe bet that India could witness another round of elections before the end of the year and the turn of the century. And yet, it may be not quite so safe a guess that the new century will bring a new paradigm of politics or the prospect of greater stability.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 8, Apr. 10 - 23, 1999

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