Debating India


The End of an Ordeal

Saturday 24 April 1999, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

Outmanoeuvred by belligerent ally AIADMK, the 13-month-old BJP-led Government is voted out. With the anti-BJP ranks still to find synergy, the contours of an alternative formation remained undefined.

in New Delhi

TWO days after the Atal Behari Vajpayee Government lost a motion of confidence in the Lok Sabha by the slenderest possible margin, the two principal members of the cast of characters met to deliberate on the shape of an alternative regime. Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi remained non-committal about her intentions. Consultations were under way, she said, and would continue till a viable political combine emerged to take up the responsibility of governance. Rather more upbeat was Jayalalitha, the erstwhile ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party whose desertion had precipitated the demise of the Vajpayee Ministry. The Congress(I) would stake its claim to form a government, she said, and the minute details of the new regime would be worked out in a span of 24 hours.

Separate consultations were meanwhile under way at different locations in the national capital. And each of these parallel processes was uncovering the kind of thorny problems that seemed to fly in the face of Jayalalitha’s optimism.

In the midst of meetings with leaders of the Congress(I), the Left parties were conducting a conclave of their own to decide how best to deploy their parliamentary strength in a situation of extreme uncertainty. The two Communist parties were known to be amenable to a course of support for the Congress(I), without the risk of participation. But the two smaller partners, the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party - which together account for a crucial bloc of seven seats in the Lok Sabha - were equally categorical that they would have nothing to do with a Congress(I) regime.


Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani outside Rashtrapati Bhavan on April 17 after submitting the resignation of the Council of Ministers. Earlier in the day the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government lost the vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha by a one-vote margin.

The Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha, an alliance between the powerful Yadav chieftains of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, made it known that it suffered from few qualms about being in power. In fact, the RLM claimed it almost as a right conferred by its numerical status as the second largest party outside of the BJP’s fold.

Elsewhere, the mood was almost sombre. The Janata Dal had overcome deep reservations and a schism within the ranks to vote against the Vajpayee Ministry’s motion of confidence in the Lok Sabha. But almost immediately it was beset by serious anxieties. Following a meeting of the Janata Dal’s apex Political Affairs Committee, Ram Vilas Paswan made it known that his party would have nothing to do with individuals or political formations that were implicated in corruption or involved in communalism. The reference was very pointed. Just in case anybody missed it, Paswan made it explicit that by "corruption" he had in mind its virtual embodiment in Laloo Prasad Yadav and his Rashtriya Janata Dal. Evidently, he did not recognise the larger grouping between the RJD and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party as a single political entity.

This is one among many problems that the alternative combine will face before it gets off the ground. Far more significant is the Congress(I)’s own disinclination to enter into a coalitional arrangement with the RLM. The reasons are partly to do with temperament, since the Congress(I) leadership has its own established mode of functioning which is not quite in harmony with that of the Yadav duo. Another consideration is the strategic one. In the long term, the Congress(I) aspires to regroup in the northern region and the constituencies it has targeted are to a large extent those that today owe their allegiance to the RLM. It may be infeasible for the Congress(I) to compete for these votes when political compulsions have forced it to seek an alliance with the RLM.

Jayalalitha again is likely to have acute problems in seeking an appropriate political slot for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The Tamil Maanila Congress, with three members in the Lok Sabha, has made it known that it will not be able to participate in or support a formation that includes the AIADMK.

Just prior to the vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha, the Left parties had similarly indicated that they would not like to see Jayalalitha occupying any position of authority, whether directly or through proxy. But that was an effort to retain the loyalty of the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) within the Third Front coalition that the Left sees as an essential component of the current political scene. It was a delicate balancing act which failed to persuade the DMK that it should keep faith with the Third Front. Given the way things went, the Left parties may have fewer reservations about entertaining Jayalalitha’s claims to a position of authority.

Two weeks prior to the vote of confidence, Subramanian Swamy, the sole representative of the Janata Party in Parliament, had served notice on the BJP-led coalition. Jayalalitha had played her final hand in demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee inquiry into the dismissal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and been rebuffed by the ruling coalition. On April 3 Subramanian Swamy was positive that an appropriate response to the affront would not be long in coming. The assumption he made was that the Vajpayee Government would be voted out by the Lok Sabha immediately after the AIADMK pulled out of the ruling coalition. And all the parties that made common cause in removing the BJP from government would then join forces to put together an alternative regime.

These connected assumptions were rather too facile for reasons that were not very obscure even before the Lok Sabha took up the motion of confidence. The aftermath has made this evident to the most undiscerning imagination. To an extent, the mere fact of a political vacuum at the Centre will impel mutually repellent political forces to forget their differences and make an effort at harmonious coexistence. But few people could say that this arrangement would be of a durable or stable character.

AN element of strategic confusion was foretold from the moment the plan to topple the Vajpayee Government moved into high gear in early April. Under the shadow of Jayalalitha’s threatened withdrawal, the BJP National Executive, which met in Goa, thought up the pre-emptive plan of seeking a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha. Speaking on behalf of Jayalalitha, Subramanian Swamy then decided to go one better. He would move a motion of no-confidence as soon as Parliament resumed its Budget session on April 15, he swore. And devoid of Jayalalitha’s backing, he reasoned, the Vajpayee Government was certain to collapse, following which the alternative would be constituted with spontaneous ease.

The decisive moment brought about an inversion of these strategic perspectives. The BJP subsequently insisted that the parties or individuals that had lost confidence in the Government were at liberty to press a no-confidence motion once the Lok Sabha resumed its sitting. Jayalalitha and Subramanian Swamy, once seemingly inclined to undertake precisely this course, now opted for its opposite. They argued that since the Vajpayee Ministry had been constituted, among other things, on a written assurance of support from the AIADMK, the new circumstances made it obligatory that it should seek a fresh vote of confidence from the Lok Sabha.

President K.R. Narayanan did not pause long to consider this point. Within hours of receiving Jayalalitha’s formal notice of withdrawal from the BJP-led coalition, he instructed Vajpayee to seek a fresh vote of confidence.

Expectedly, this stirred up a debate. If the President had instructed Jayalalitha that the appropriate place to announce her withdrawal from the coalition was the Lok Sabha and the appropriate means a no-confidence motion, he would have departed from the precedent set by R. Venkataraman in 1990 and Shankar Dayal Sharma in 1997. Venkataraman has argued that he instructed V.P. Singh to seek a confidence vote in 1990 since Parliament was not in session when the BJP withdrew support to the National Front Government. The situation in 1997 was more ambiguous. Parliament had just gone into its mid-session recess when Congress(I) president Sitaram Kesri chose, without warning and without assigning reasons, to pull the plug on the H.D. Deve Gowda Ministry.

In both cases, the President could have advised the parties that seemed inclined for a change of regime to wait for Parliament to convene and press for the adoption of no-confidence motions. That they opted instead to ordain that Parliament should convene at an early date and debate a motion of confidence established a precedent which President Narayanan thought it unnecessary to depart from.

It is in this sense rather indecorous for BJP spokesmen to seek to draw the President into a controversy, as also for an individual who held the position in the not-too-distant past to question the prudence of the current incumbent’s actions.

An element of curiosity nevertheless continues to shroud the reversal of strategic priorities once Jayalalitha’s withdrawal became an accomplished fact. Evidently, the Opposition was by then united in the perception that the Vajpayee Government should go. Moving a motion of no-confidence in the Lok Sabha in the circumstances would have raised certain tricky questions of individual and group responsibility and the viability of an alternative dispensation. It would have called for a degree of strategic unity among the Opposition not only towards the objective of toppling the incumbent Government, but also on the broad contours of the successor regime. In its eagerness to evade a motion of no-confidence, the Opposition only succeeded in postponing the harsh moment of reckoning when it would be forced to deal with the various irreconcilable differences within its ranks. It was a strategic course which, inevitably, will delay the constitution of an alternative regime and cause avoidable confusion and cynicism.

NOTABLY, all parties agreed within two days of the Vajpayee Government’s ouster that the Union Budget and the Railway Budget presented in February should be passed without amendments on April 21. This rather unprecedented decision to submerge all political differences was occasioned by the prospect of a constitutional gridlock. Under the law, the Finance Bill should be adopted by both Houses of Parliament within 75 days of its introduction. Failing this, the Government would lose its authority to tax. A vote-on-account endows it with the power to spend, but passage of the Finance Bill is essential to ensure that its authority to raise revenues is not impaired.

The decision on the Budget was a comment on both the chronic instability of the central government - its continually precarious existence irrespective of the character of the coalition running it - and the banality of current politics when survival becomes the sole and overarching purpose of administration. The Union Budget is an annual statement of policy around which political differences are normally expected to crystallise in their sharpest form. But over many years now, the Union Budget has been adopted in Parliament after the most cursory of debates. This year’s practice marks an ironic and rather disturbing culmination of that process. All political differences are submerged in an effort to prevent the polity from slipping into gridlock.

In the process, there was another unseemly effort by the BJP to drag the head of state into controversy. On being advised by the President that he should take the initiative to ensure that the Finance Bill was passed, Prime Minister Vajpayee reportedly disavowed all such responsibility. In fact, he is said to have retorted that the President should take up the onus since he had enjoined a motion of confidence on his Government when it was in the thick of obtaining parliamentary approval for its Budget.

Confrontation was quickly enough replaced by an attitude of cooperation when the stakes became apparent. But several aspects of the recent ministerial crisis will remain as a disturbing legacy for future regimes. And in seeking a resolution of the endless problems that the situation abounds in, the ingenuity of the most astute political engineers is likely to be seriously tested.

SINCE the 270 who voted against the Vajpayee Government will not spontaneously unite to form a new government, a variety of permutations would have to be tried out. One variant sees the Congress(I) forming the government with all other parties and individuals supporting it from outside. This may not be to the liking of the RLM, which feels it is entitled to a substantial segment in the division of power.

Accommodating the RLM would in turn alienate the Janata Dal and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Bringing in these two as a placatory measure would in turn raise questions from other numerically more significant parties about the equity and fairness of their exclusion.

Another possibility is that the Third Front could provide the prime ministerial candidate, with the Congress(I) maintaining a distance by lending its numbers from outside. The Janata Dal, it has ironically been observed, has among its six members in the Lok Sabha two former Prime Ministers and one other serious aspirant, not to mention a member of the Rajya Sabha who seriously fancies his chances. But such an arrangement would, on the record of the last experiment with United Front politics, be thoroughly unviable.

There is a definite prospect that certain constituents of the BJP-led coalition, notably the Samata Party and the Biju Janata Dal, could split and contribute some numbers to an alternative regime. But the numbers involved are modest, and could only marginally compensate for the elements that will have reservations about participating in or supporting a disparate coalition under the Congress(I)’s leadership.

Election aversion remains a constant underpinning in all these equations. If the difficulties of working out a new regime prove as insurmountable as they appear in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Vajpayee Government, then that could be the factor that yields. The country could then witness general elections before the year is out, coinciding in all probability with a round of State Assembly elections scheduled for November. It would be the third parliamentary elections in just over three years. On current reckoning, few would seem willing to wager that it is likely to produce a more stable dispensation at the Centre.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 9, Apr. 24 - May. 07, 1999

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