Debating India

Coalition constraints

Saturday 11 September 1999, by VENKATESAN*V.

With the BJP leadership sending out mixed signals on contentious issues, the NDA appears to suffer from a problem of cohesion.

in New Delhi

IN the election campaign, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee tried to score a point over his rival, Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, on the matter of the dharma of coalition governance. While Sonia Gandhi clearly preferred single-party rule, Vajpayee indicated that he would form a coalition government even if the Bharatiya Janata Party got a majority on its own. His message to the electorate was that the BJP was more willing to share power with its alliance partners than the Congress(I), which would consider a coalition arrangement only if it failed to get a majority.

BJP leaders say that the era of coalitions is here and that only the BJP is honest enough to accept this reality. With the Third Front in disarray and the Congress(I) refusing to share power, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance sees itself as the on ly formation capable of forming the next government.

However, does the BJP mean what it professes? The NDA does not include many parties with which the BJP has seat adjustments, for instance, the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh and the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal. Although the TDP has seat adjust ments with the BJP in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, it is not a party to the NDA manifesto. TDP chief and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, who campaigned jointly with Vajpayee and praised his leadership at public meetings, has not indicated whether the TDP’s post-election ties with the BJP would extend beyond issue-based support from outside.

Vajpayee admitted that he will have to apply a "little pressure" on the TDP to join his Ministry, if the NDA returns to power. If the Congress(I) is unwilling to share power with friendly parties, the TDP is equally reluctant to be seen to share power wi th the BJP. After the Vajpayee Government collapsed last April, Chandrababu Naidu said that the TDP’s ties with the BJP were over. Electoral compulsions forced him to renew the ties even though the BJP State unit demanded more Lok Sabha and Assembly seat s than what he was willing to spare.

Even as it backed Vajpayee’s leadership, the Trinamul Congress released its own manifesto. Its leader Mamata Banerjee did not challenge Sonia Gandhi’s leadership qualifications; nor did she endorse the NDA’s declaration that it would bring an amendment t o the Constitution in order to deny high constitutional posts to naturalised citizens. In her campaign, unlike that of the other NDA partners, Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins were not mentioned.

The NDA is a loose formation. Its constituents have the option to walk out of the alliance when it suits them. The BJP, by virtue of its dominant status, can bring in any new party to the NDA without consulting other allies, a privilege that other consti tuents of the NDA do not have. This was obvious when the Samata Party and the Lok Shakti sought to force the entry of the Janata Dal (United) led by Sharad Yadav into the NDA. Senior BJP leaders resisted the move at the behest of its Karnataka unit, even though Vajpayee was inclined to admit the party into the NDA.

The BJP finally gave in and agreed to seat adjustments with the JD(U) in Bihar and Karnataka, even though it left open the question of admitting JD(U) leaders Sharad Yadav, J.H. Patel and Ram Vilas Paswan into the NDA. BJP leaders in Karnataka are not wi lling to share power with JD(U) leaders, despite the seat adjustments that are in place. When it replaced the Haryana Vikas Congress with the Indian National Lok Dal as its alliance partner in Haryana, the BJP did not find it necessary to consult its par tners in the NDA.

The BJP’s new ally in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), withdrew its nominees in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in favour of other NDA candidates to help the BJP form a stable government at the Centre. The Communist Party of Ind ia (Marxist) questioned the DMK’s move in view of the Shiv Sena’s history of "anti-Tamil jingoism" in Mumbai. However, the Shiv Sena did not show any such gesture towards the BJP. The party has fielded candidates against the BJP in States other than Maha rashtra.

The BJP-Biju Janata Dal alliance in Orissa also suffers from inconsistencies. The BJP State unit is not willing to oblige the BJD’s quest for dominant status in the alliance. As per the formula worked out in the 1998 elections, the BJD is contesting 12 s eats and the BJP nine. The BJD has allowed nine JD(U) MLAs to enter the party without conceding their demands for the Lok Sabha ticket. The BJD did not heed the BJP’s request to change candidates in two constituencies, Dhenkanal and Jajpur. The BJD was a verse to George Fernandes’ move to bring together the splinter groups of the Janata Dal within the NDA under the JD(U) umbrella.

In Bihar, the BJP made no major sacrifices to accommodate the JD(U). The BJP decided to contest 29 of the 54 seats, three less than what it contested in 1998 in alliance with the Samata Party. Though the JD(U) demanded 27 seats, the BJP spared only three in addition to the 22 that the Samata Party had in 1998. The Samata Party had spared two for the Janata Dal out of its quota in 1998.

Even as the other NDA partners have to live with the BJP’s dominant status, it is doubtful whether the BJP has given up its stand on core issues, such as building the Ram temple at Ayodhya, abrogation of Article 370, which confers special status on Jammu and Kashmir, and the enactment of a uniform civil code. Govindacharya, BJP general secretary and a key member of the party’s think-tank, remarked that the party remained committed to the core issues which are missing from the NDA’s manifesto.

Lok Shakti leader and Union Commerce Minister Ramakrishna Hegde has threatened to walk out of the ruling coalition if the BJP revived its stand on these core issues, which would weaken the secular fabric of the nation.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 19, Sep. 11 - 24, 1999

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