Debating India


Vajpayee again

Saturday 23 October 1999, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

The Bharatiya Janata Party gets power in New Delhi again, this time along with almost two dozen allies. And there is not a cloud of instability in sight - not at least for now.

in New Delhi

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 s even seats in the National Capital Territory of Delhi. Observers looking for precedents went back to 1984, when the Congress(I) won all seven seats in Delhi as part of a nation-wide sweep. Other instances were the 1977 Janata Party triumph, which was aga in 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 pivotal 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. It seemed the most likely outcome of general electio ns 1999 that the third Vajpayee Ministry would be no more secure than the first two.

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 Bih ar and other parts of the Hindi belt. Till the evening of October 6, the Congress(I) had held the belief that it would retain the position it had taken in the November 1998 Assembly elections in various northern States, and make a breakthrough in Uttar P radesh. The latter half of the wish-list was fulfilled, though on a manifestly partial basis. The first assumption, though, proved thoroughly misdirected.

Apart from its gains in Delhi, 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(I) 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(I) 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 politica l constituency of the Congress(I) - explain some part of the outcome, though not all of it. Organisational failures and a lack of cohesion among the factions in the party have also 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 Behari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi for the prime ministerial post. Between the hoary BJP veteran with close to half a centu ry 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 in consequence 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 ’s ocialist 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 senio r 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(United) was also the most top-heavy party in the NDA in terms of leaders with ministerial ambitions. An accretion to its strength would have brought forth a number of demands on the indulgence of its alliance partners. 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(United) 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(United) more berths than would be war ranted 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 assignin g berths in his Cabinet Vajpayee would have to acknowledge that the BJP would honour its tacit agreement to reserve the post for him. Bihar has been in part responsible for the NDA’s comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha. But it is also the arena where t he NDA is an alliance of equals, where disputes over who should enjoy primacy in a state-level contest are likely to be the most intense.

The Janata Dal(United) remains the most likely source of instability for the new government under Vajpayee. Other partners like Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress pose a different set of problems. Although MamataBanerjee too has her ultimate focus on th e State Assembly elections in West Bengal, her regional ambitions are far more remote in terms of their realisation than those of the Janata Dal(United). 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 th e farm sector. He has been upset by the recent 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 hi s 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. But the "tough decisions" that Vajpayee warned of immed iately after his election as leader of the NDA parliamentary contingent could cause some strains with INLD.

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 wo uld 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. Rangara jan, 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 d ecision was arrived at after the careful deliberations and consultations that have become part of the TDP’s style. 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 Sama j 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.

Defections from the ranks of the NDA are likely to be deterred by the paltry numbers of the Congress(I) and its allies. And even if any party should make bold to part company with the BJP and team up with the Congress(I), there is little likelihood of th e unaligned parties joining the effort in order to form an alternative government.

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 Bur eau shortly after the results were declared, following which the Central Committee was called into session. In retaining its strength, the CPI(M) has increased its relative influence within the slightly diminished ranks of the Left.

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 Soci alist Party they tilted towards the Congress(I) 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 p ull 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 performa nce of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party in U.P..

THE Congress(I) seemed, in the immediate aftermath of the election results, to be too deeply shocked to respond in a sensible manner. Party morale had suffered a perceptible dent on Day One of counting, as the reality of Manmohan Singh’s defeat in South Delhi began to sink in. In the scheme of political revival that had been crafted by Congress(I) strategists, the former Finance Minister played the role of standard-bearer. His unique appeal as a competent, enlightened and totally untainted politician wa s expected to give him an easy passage to the Lok Sabha, and subsequently a crucial role in the refurbishment of the Congress(I)’s identity.

Former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh’s defeat, according to a senior spokesman of the Congress(I), reflected poorly both on the party’s organisational readiness and its level of factional cohesion. At customary meetings with the media, the party’s offi cial spokesman, Kapil Sibal, affirmed that appraisals of its entire election strategy would be carried out, particularly with respect to the alliances it concluded in Tamil Nadu and Bihar.

It has been a mortifying experience for the Congress(I) 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 par ty 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.

Expectedly, the performance of the Congress(I) has given a new impetus to younger elements who have never been convinced of the credibility of the party’s top leadership. Expectedly again, there is an effort to protect the party president from any form o f public interrogation. The Congress(I)’s triumph in the Assembly elections in the northern region last year was unequivocally hailed as Sonia Gandhi’s. Defeat, though, has no parents. As long as Sonia Gandhi seemed capable of delivering the goods, there was little enforcement of accountability on the coterie that surrounds her and counsels her on every important political matter. Defeat today has changed all that, though the coterie is fighting a desperate rearguard by orchestrating a sequence of resig nations by all the top office-bearers who were involved with planning for these elections.

The spectacle at the Congress(I) 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 a nd Arunachal Pradesh, and the prospect of regaining governmental authority in Maharashtra if it follows a course of sensible pragmatism, means that the Congress(I)’s influence in State-level politics is rapidly growing. Together with its three State gove rnments in the northern region - which were elected to five-year terms only last year - the Congress(I) has a much more substantive position in State-level politics than the BJP can aspire to in the near future. This is a prospect that is further underli ned by the waning fortunes of the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh.

It is a new situation for the Congress(I) to enjoy growing authority in the States even as its influence in the Centre fades. It compels a reappraisal of the centralising tendency that has always been a powerful force in the Congress(I). In the process, it would seem that the authority of the Central leadership - which inevitably means the influence of the coterie that surrounds the party president - must yield to a principle of collective or federated leadership.

ON the afternoon of October 11, Atal Behari Vajpayee called on President K.R. Narayanan and secured an invitation to form a new government. After a 13-day venture in 1996 and a 13-month venture beginning March 1998, Vajpayee seems to have developed a par tiality 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 . Soon afterwards he would have to get down to the substantive issues of policy formulation and governance.

The possibility of a new round of negotiations under the World Trade Organisation, the appropriate attitude to adopt towards the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the resumption of dialogue with Pakistan - the number of areas awaiting consensual and purposi ve action is limitless. Overarching above all this is the reality of an economy that is badly out of joint and needs some novel ideas to retrieve it from a headlong plunge towards insolvency.

At the same time, the extremist fringe that the BJP cultivated and nurtured through the years of its ascent to power are unlikely to sit quiet. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has already begun stoking the flames of religious extremism in Gujarat. Its leader G iriraj Kishore has virtually laid out a charter of demands that the Roman Catholic pontiff, John Paul II, would have to meet before he is allowed to visit India in November. Clearly, there are few signals yet that Vajpayee’s second tenure as a Prime Mini ster who has secured the confidence of Parliament will be any less turbulent or uneasy than his first.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 22, Oct. 23 - Nov. 5, 1999

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