Debating India


Disintegrating Coalition

Sunday 13 February 2005, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

Conflict within the Bharatiya Janata Party-led ruling coalition is clearly sharpening. And as the contradictions ripen, they are likely to impinge deeply on the inner mechanisms of the Sangh Parivar.

in New Delhi

THE Bharatiya Janata Party had spent years priming itself in the belief that Congress rule was only an interlude - that it was only a matter of time before its own manifest destiny as the vehicle of cultural nationalism and the natural ruling party of India would be realised. Once in power, however, it has taken less than a year for the pretence to unravel.

Two days after the BJP called a meeting of all its partners to defuse the crisis over administered prices that had beset the ruling coalition, Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi made her most definitive statement yet that the days of the Atal Behari Vajpayee Government were numbered. At the same time, Defence Minister and Samata Party leader George Fernandes, presenting the picture of a man whose responsibilities have been reduced to safeguarding the security of the ruling coalition, was on a visit to Chennai. His mission was to persuade the BJP’s truculent ally, Jayalalitha, that she should append her signature to the joint statement that the Coordination Committee of the governing coalition had arrived at on February 2. He came away with the mission unfulfilled but played down the magnitude of differences within the coalition in a style that has become uniquely his.

Fernandes’ nonchalance, it turned out, was only intended to mask a deal of far-reaching political implications. Three days after his mission, it was revealed that the Central Government had, through an extraordinary gazette notification on February 5, reallocated the cases of corruption pending in three specially designated courts in Chennai to different Sessions Judges in the city. Although worded in the neutral tones of an administrative decision, the notification was suffused with the BJP-led Government’s survival imperatives. It overrode a ruling of the High Court, which upheld the constitution of special courts to hear the cases of corruption that had been made out against Jayalalitha, and preempted an appeal on the matter before the Supreme Court. It was issued without even the courtesy of a reference to the Chief Justice of the High Court. It was a manouevre of stunning disingenuousness by a ruling coalition that had just two days earlier been congratulating itself for a record of supposed probity in office.

As the leading party of the coalition, the BJP is stretched on a rack. Its attentions are focussed on keeping together an alliance of diverse political elements united only by the exigencies of the 1998 elections. Incumbency has, at the same time, sharpened the conflict within its ranks between the pragmatists and the ideologues. The pretence of good governance has collapsed, and in Maharashtra, the Hindutva alliance has had to effect a precipitate change of leadership for reasons that remain shrouded in the rather opaque political and pecuniary interests of the Bal Thackeray family.

The weakening of central authority has led to an upsurge of social strife and especially of atrocities against minorities. Ideological diehards within the BJP’s ranks, when not stoking these fires, would seem to advocate a policy of non-intervention, further eroding the authority of the state. Conflicting ideological pulls have, at the same time, led to a paralysis of administration and policy formulation. In being the first to walk out of the Government in protest at its patently untenable situation, Madan Lal Khurana has sharply focussed public attention on the incoherence in thinking that has beset the BJP.

The joint statement embodied a significant concession to popular sentiment by the BJP - an acknowledgment of its culpability for the excesses of its political affiliates. On behalf of the BJP, the statement was signed by Prime Minister Vajpayee, party president Kushabhau Thakre, Home Minister L.K. Advani and a few others. As the "core" of the ruling alliance, the BJP pledged itself in the agreed pact with its allies to make "every effort to ensure that the prestige and cohesiveness" of the ruling alliance were not jeopardised by "organisations belonging to its ideological fraternity".

In an earlier day, it would have been inconceivable for the BJP to admit that there was anything untoward in the agenda that its associates in the wider fraternity of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh were pursuing. This concession could not have been an easy one to make for Home Minister Advani, whose primary identity remains that of the man who spearheaded the Ayodhya movement - the man who was so unrepentant as to disavow last month any link between his ideological fraternity and the latest excesses against the minorities.

BUT if this element of sobriety and political responsibility was induced by the pressure of the BJP’s allies in governance, its ideological partners were indicating quite a different course. Indeed, events in Ahmedabad seemed to mock at the BJP’s effort to don the mantle of a party responsive to its coalition partners’ sensitivities. At a meeting of the Dharma Sansad which commenced on February 5, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) ventilated a diversity of views on the further pursuit of the agitational programme over a temple at Ayodhya. One section was wary of jeopardising the stability of the Central Government over an issue that seemed devoid of further potential for political mobilisation. But the alternative view also gained currency - that temple construction should be pursued to its logical conclusion, considering that a quarter of the work was already completed. If past is prelude, then the most extreme view is finally likely to prevail. For in the competitive radicalism of the VHP, voices of relative moderation have often been known to be quickly isolated.

Further trouble seems inherent in the items that the VHP has added to its agitational programme for the near future. Among other things, the trumped-up religious parliament of the VHP has demanded a White Paper on religious conversions effected by Christian missionaries, which supposedly threaten the unity and integrity of the country. "Conversion" is to be banned, since it violates the basic spirit of the Constitution, though "re-conversion" should be encouraged since that was a way to win the flock back to the original faith of the nation.

The additional demands - that the construction of churches be restrained, that the "Christian conspiracy" to infiltrate the nation be thwarted and that autonomy be granted to all Hindu temples - promise the BJP little respite from the agenda of ideological extremism that it used as a convenience in its own ascent to power.

IN thrall to the demands of the extremist fringe, the BJP today seems to have little inclination to engage with the justified requirements of its partners in governance. The process of dialogue and consultation has been the first casualty. Indecision was read as the principal cause of the BJP’s massive erosion of electoral goodwill between two rounds of electoral trials in 1998. In the effort to remedy this impression, the party has tilted so strongly in the direction of arbitrariness that the coalition has itself been unsettled.

It is difficult to believe that the BJP leadership could have been so oblivious to the political sensitivities involved in the administered price changes it announced at the end of January as to decree them unilaterally without a discussion within the consultative forum of the coalition. The consequence was the expected storm of outrage from the coalition partners, with some of them making it evident that they would not hesitate to review the question of support to the Ministry if the prices were not rolled back.

Interests within the coalition itself were deeply torn by the price increases. In Punjab, the Akali Dal was perturbed over the sharp increase in the price of urea, though it could possibly have been mollified by a compensating increase in the grain procurement price. The attitude of Om Prakash Chautala’s Haryana Lok Dal (Rashtriya) in Haryana was similar. But the formula to buy peace with the coalition partners from Punjab and Haryana in turn, necessitated the raising of issue prices of foodgrains through the public distribution system - a formula which touched upon the interests of all the regional parties that were in alliance with the BJP.

When the issue prices of foodgrains were themselves raised, the coalition virtually erupted in discord. Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerji sharply criticised the disdainful attitude towards the BJP’s coalition partners and swore to begin an agitation against the price increases. And from Andhra Pradesh, Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu demanded the immediate reversal of course.

The Government’s immediate reaction was defiant. Finance Secretary Vijay Kelkar made an appearance before the press - itself an extraordinary step for an official who should be entering the seclusion of the budget formulation process - to reject any notion that the price hikes would be reversed. It took just two days for the bravado to vanish. At the Coordination Committee meeting on February 2 it was decided that the food prices effective for the Targeted Public Distribution System - meant for the population below the poverty line - would remain at pre-existing levels.

THIS retreat by the BJP leadership coincided with the turmoil that had erupted with the resignation of Minister for Tourism and Parliamentary Affairs Madan Lal Khurana from the Union Cabinet and the National Executive of the party. His grievance was quite simply that the Government was being hobbled by the ideological fraternity of the RSS. For one who had been for all his adult life a member of the RSS, it was an extraordinary act of self-indictment. But it highlighted the growing conflict within the Central Government between the pragmatists who would like to proceed with the job of governance and the ideologues who insist that there should be no yielding on the programme of social engineering that the RSS has nurtured its constituency on.

Riven by internal dissensions and unable to maintain the basic civilities of political association with its coalition partners, the BJP and its principal apologists, such as Fernandes, have been reduced to a desperate rearguard action. Each action of the Central Government is interpreted as an effort to remedy a situation inherited from many years of Congress misrule. Thus, the joint statement issued by the Coordination Committee talks of the economic policy measures taken by the Government as an effort to repair the "gravely damaged economy" which was in itself the result of "wrong policies and gross mismanagement by previous governments". It overlooks the fact that this Government has been devoid of any new initiatives in this realm, and has instead confined itself to the reiteration - in a particularly gross form - of all the failed recipes of earlier regimes. In this context, the obligation that the joint statement enjoins on all coalition partners, that they will support this "remedial action plan and propagate it effectively among the people", is hardly likely to win their durable allegiance.

The statement seeks to make every constituent of the ruling coalition an equal partner in the task of implementing the National Agenda for Governance that was agreed upon soon after the Vajpayee Government was sworn in. But it evades the responsibility of evaluating the recent record of the Government and bringing to account the BJP Ministers who have repeatedly chosen a unilateral course of action, unmindful of the sensitivities of the coalition partners.

Unable to elicit the applause of its partners, the BJP has been reduced to the role of the single hand clapping. The nuclear tests of May 1998, which have engendered a conflict-ridden aftermath, have been upheld as a triumph of the Government’s tenure. Yet few of the partners of the ruling coalition are willing to go along with the strategic perspectives that the BJP has laid down as the logical culmination of the nuclear tests. The otherwise faithful Fernandes is himself at odds with the perspective that has been authored by Vajpayee and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh. And even Jayalalitha, whose concerns are normally limited to regional issues, debunked the approach of the Government as a hazard for national security.

Add on the motivated agenda that Murli Manohar Joshi has been implementing as Minister for Human Resource Development, and Advani’s exculpation of the Bajrang Dal for the recent acts of violence against Christians even as Mamata Banerji was laying the moral responsibility right at his doorstep - and there is little room to believe that an established pattern of discord among the coalition partners will give way to more harmonious mutual engagement. While yielding nothing in terms of its own conduct, the BJP leadership has sought to enjoin a degree of restraint on its coalition partners. A critical clause of the joint statement of the Coordination Committee stipulates that no constituent of the alliance would "publicly voice (its) differences and/or opposition to any policy or action of the Government." As a reciprocal concession, the statement commits the Government to strengthening the Coordination Committee to "facilitate regular interaction and dialogue" aimed at resolving differences among the partners in governance.

Considering its authorship and underlying motivations, it was appropriate that the statement won few signatories. Union Law Minister M. Thambi Durai attended the meeting of the Coordination Committee on behalf of Jayalalitha’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, but left the onus of signing the statement to his leader. Jayalalitha, in her turn, brusquely turned down Fernandes’ effort to obtain her accession to the new pact of mutual association that the BJP has drafted for its political allies. Other partners have been partly mollified by the partial rollback of administered prices, though they remain equally disinclined to sign away their latitude for future action by signing the new compact.

This leaves the BJP as the sole votary of the model of coalition management that the joint statement embodies. The obligations it has taken on are onerous - to control the obstreperous elements of the RSS constellation and to engage the political allies in a constructive process of dialogue. Both these run contrary to the grain of the Hindutva proponents. Conflict within the ruling coalition is clearly sharpening. And as these contradictions ripen, they are likely to impinge deeply on the inner mechanisms of the Sangh Parivar. On encountering the inflexible inner core of the Hindutva ideology, they are further likely to recoil, leading to the rapid and acrimonious unravelling of the ruling coalition at the Centre.

See online : Frontline


Vol. 16 :: No. 04 :: Feb. 13 - 26, 1999

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