Debating India


Politics of compulsions

Saturday 8 May 1999, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

The Samajwadi Party appears to have resisted the idea of a Congress(I) minority government out of a desire for self-preservation.

ON April 20, even as party leaders were involved in hectic parleys to work out an alternative government in place of the deposed Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition Ministry, Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader Mulayam Singh Yadav rushed to Lucknow on an urgent political mission. He was closeted with prominent S.P. activists of Uttar Pradesh for one day. The die was cast at this meeting: it was decided that the Congress(I) would not be allowed total control of the proposed new government.

The party directive was that the Congress(I) should not be permitted to form a minority government that was supported from outside by other Opposition parties. S.P. activists were clearly inclined towards a coalition that would be led either by the Congress(I) or by a non-Congress party, preferably the latter. Another acceptable scenario was a breakdown of the endeavours to form an alternative government, which would lead to a general election under the Vajpayee regime.

Central to the discussions at the S.P. meeting was the perception that the basic objective of a Congress(I) government would be to hold Lok Sabha elections by the year-end or early next year. S.P activists were asked: what should the party do in such a situation? Contrary to media speculation that the S.P. was concerned mainly about losing Muslim votes to the Congress(I), the focus of the meeting was more on assessing the ability of the Congress(I) to attract Brahmin and other upper-caste votes in Uttar Pradesh.

State and district-level S.P. leaders unanimously concluded that the Congress(I) would be more successful in attracting upper-caste votes if it had greater control of the government at the Centre. If it were in a coalition government or out of power, its chances would be relatively slim. From a position of strength, the Congress(I) could defeat the BJP in at least a few seats at the cost of the S.P. Given that Muslim voters would resort to tactical voting as a way of neutralising the BJP, S.P. interests would be harmed further, the meeting concluded.

The meeting noted that Brahmins and other upper caste members, including prominent BJP leaders and legislators, were upset with the backward class orientation of the Kalyan Singh regime, particularly its tilt towards the Lodh and Kurmi communities. This factor is what partly motivated the open dissidence in the BJP against Kalyan Singh before and after the collapse of the Vajpayee Government. The meeting concluded that as this process was bound to accelerate, it would ultimately benefit the Congress(I) if it had monopoly at the Centre.

S.P. activists conjectured that if the Congress(I) ran a coalition government or if it supported a Third Front government from outside, the upper castes would not return to the Congress(I) in significant numbers. And they further believed that if the Vajpayee Government remained in power, only negligible numbers of upper caste voters would move towards the Congress(I). In a coalition arrangement, they concluded, there could be checks on the Congress(I) and a Ministry led by the Third Front would in fact help bolster the S.P. rank and file.

A senior S.P. leader from Uttar Pradesh told Frontline that these calculations were not fundamentally different from the party’s position when the Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha (RLM) was formed in June 1998. The RLM, which comprises the S.P. and Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal(RJD), was essentially formed to create a political entity that would help the Congress(I) and the United Front (U.F.) come together in order to dislodge the BJP Government.

At that time the BJP was playing up the differences between these entities, and it looked unlikely that they would openly support each other, especially because the Congress(I) had pulled down the U.F. Government on the issue of the Jain Commission report. The impasse necessitated the formation of a third entity which was acceptable to the U.F. and the Congress(I). The RLM constituents had a perceived advantage because the S.P. was part of the U.F. and the RJD was an ally of the Congress(I) in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections.

The S.P. leader confessed: "We wanted to share power when we exhorted the Congress(I) to take the lead to overthrow the Vajpayee Government." In fact, Mulayam Singh reportedly told the Congress(I) that if it did not want to be held responsible for "bad governance" and for "running a bad coalition", the S.P. was willing to lead the proposed alternative and shoulder the blame for all its shortcomings. However, the Congress(I) refused to take the bait. This time around the S.P. hit back by refusing to help Sonia Gandhi achieve her objective, the leader said.

There have been suggestions that Mulayam Singh was motivated by factors other than the political prospects in Uttar Pradesh. His alleged meetings with Samata Party leader George Fernandes and representatives of business groups have been mentioned in this context. However, S.P. leaders, including Mulayam Singh, deny this.

The S.P. is apparently satisfied with the situation in Uttar Pradesh. Mulayam Singh believes that the S.P. will emerge as the major secular force in the State. The S.P. leadership scoffed at suggestions that the Muslim masses resented its reluctance to instal a Congress(I) minority government. Reports from various sources, including the State intelligence agencies, corroborate these assertions. While urban Muslim voters appear to have shifted loyalty to the Congress(I), the rural Muslim vote is still steady with the S.P. Rural voters account for more than 70 per cent of the Muslim vote in the State. A senior leader of the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC) said that some urban Muslim voters may be disenchanted with the S.P. but they would vote for the Congress(I) only if they were convinced that the party could defeat the BJP.

There are indications that the S.P. is making moves to win over recalcitrant upper caste BJP legislators. Several MLAs have responded positively to the overtures. A senior S.P. leader told Frontline that the party’s game plan was to cause the holding of Assembly elections along with Lok Sabha elections. The S.P. would like to focus on local and regional issues rather than on issues such as stability, which would be the Congress(I)’s plank.

Another advantage that the S.P. has is that its organisational machinery is superior to that of the Congress(I). Notwithstanding stupendous efforts by Uttar Pradesh Congress(I) president Salman Khurshid, the Congress(I) is yet to restructure its organisational machinery. The S.P. has committees in almost every panchayat ward. By denying the Congress(I) an opportunity to rule on its own and regain its strength, Mulayam Singh and his supporters played a shrewd game. However, in the final analysis, both the Congress(I) and the S.P. could be the losers because any division of the secular vote would translate into gains for the BJP and its associates.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 10, May. 08 - 21, 1999

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