Debating India


The countdown to collapse

Saturday 24 April 1999, by VENKATESAN*V.

A series of manoeuvres by AIADMK leader Jayalalitha and her ally, Subramanian Swamy, ensured a nail-biting finish to the political drama that unfolded at the Centre.

in New Delhi

WHEN All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary Jayalalitha arrived in New Delhi on the night of April 12, the purpose of her visit was all too evident. Her parting of ways with the Bharatiya Janata Party was on the cards, and she went about the operation in a measured fashion, weighing the responses from the BJP and Opposition camps before taking the decisive step. She had tested the waters during her sojourn in the national capital from March 26 to 30. Her aim of provoking the BJP further was achieved through calculated outbursts on the Vishnu Bhagwat issue. Her demands were that the former naval chief should be reinstated; Defence Minister George Fernandes should quit or be relieved of his portfolio; and a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe should be ordered.

Close on the heels of the BJP National Executive meeting in Goa, the Union Cabinet met on April 5, and rejected all her demands. The Cabinet met sans the AIADMK Ministers, M. Thambidurai and M.R. Janarthanam, who were in Chennai. The Cabinet decision marked a triumph for the hardliners in the BJP, who wanted Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to call Jayalalitha’s bluff. Only two days earlier, Vajpayee had distanced himself from Rangarajan Kumaramangalam’s remark that the AIADMK could withdraw from the ruling coalition if it did not agree with the Government’s stand. The AIADMK wanted Vajpayee to disapprove of Kumaramangalam’s remark, but he merely termed it Kumaramangalam’s personal opinion.

The BJP hardliners who urged Vajpayee to take a harsh line against the AIADMK included L.K. Advani, Pramod Mahajan and party president Kushabhau Thakre. The view in party circles was that Kumaramangalam had done nothing wrong and that he had only underlined the Cabinet principle of collective responsibility. It appeared likely that Kumaramangalam, who hailed from Tamil Nadu, was chosen to make the remark with the approval of the party’s senior leaders in order to isolate Jayalalitha in the coalition. The remark also stemmed from the perception in the party that she had no option but to continue to support the BJP-led coalition.

The Cabinet decision came as a shot in the arm for Jayalalitha, who held an emergency meeting of her party in Chennai the same day. She decided that Thambidurai and Janarthanam would resign from the Cabinet the next day. She said that the party noted with pain that a Cabinet meeting was hurriedly convened although it was known that the AIADMK Ministers were out of Delhi. "In the 50 years of our democracy, never has a Cabinet met with the single-point agenda of slighting an ally that is responsible for the majority that the Government has thus far enjoyed in the Lok Sabha," she said.

Jayalalitha added that she would discuss with political leaders in Delhi the possibility of creating "structures that will protect national interest and ensure that all Indians feel safe and (are) able to make progress in all spheres of endeavour."

At the AIADMK general council meeting in Chennai on April 5, members spewed venom at the BJP and the AIADMK’s erstwhile allies in Tamil Nadu, such as Vaiko, Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthy and S. Ramadoss. At the AIADMK meeting, the prospect of Jayalalitha becoming the future Prime Minister was also discussed.

On April 6, Subramanian Swamy met Jayalalitha in Chennai and reportedly apprised her about the Congress(I)’s reluctance to strike at that point. The Congress(I) leaders felt Sonia Gandhi was averse to taking the initiative to topple the Government until Jayalalitha withdrew support to it. Swamy also told her that the Congress(I) might hesitate to move a no-confidence motion against the Government when Parliament met on April 15. She could set the ball rolling by withdrawing support at the earliest, he indicated.

In the event of a trial of strength, Subramanian Swamy told her, the Government was bound to collapse. The AIADMK, the Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha, the Left parties and the Congress(I), and a few smaller parties, would together be able to muster a strength of 271 members in the Lok Sabha, whereas the BJP-led alliance would have only 254 seats - so went the calculation. Parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which had not made up their mind, had a total of 16 MPs together, and even if this figure was added to the strength of the BJP and its allies, the Opposition would outnumber the ruling alliance by one vote.

Subramanian Swamy thus persuaded Jayalalitha that withdrawal of support before Parliament met would force Vajpayee to seek a vote of confidence. Swamy also apprised Jayalalitha about the confusion in the Congress(I) on whether it should try and lead a coalition government or support from outside an alternative government.

Subramanian Swamy’s meeting with Jayalalitha coincided with yet another attack on the ruling coalition by her. She said that Advani and Fernandes were lax in protecting national security. While she flayed Fernandes for allegedly preventing the interception by the Navy of vessels carrying suspected terrorists, she termed as unpardonable Advani’s inattention to the developing security threat. She also said that Advani failed to act on vital information about intensified terrorist activity in Tamil Nadu.

Specifically, she claimed that she had informed Advani and Fernandes on October 9 last year that some operatives linked to Osama Bin Laden (the Afghan millionaire who has been accused of masterminding terrorist acts in various parts of the world) had infiltrated Tamil Nadu. Around 200 terrorists, trained in camps in Afghanistan, had entered the southern States, she claimed. The information was suppressed and follow-up action was not taken, she added. She further alleged that emissaries of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had access to senior Cabinet members, and that an individual who was an LTTE agent in Tamil Nadu had recently met a senior Cabinet Minister in Delhi.

THE Prime Minister delayed the acceptance of the resignation letters of the two AIADMK Ministers, leaving open the possibility of a patch-up. At the same time, on April 7 the BJP challenged Jayalalitha to withdraw support to the Government and accused her of extracting a promise from the Congress(I) that the DMK Government in Tamil Nadu would be dismissed if the Congress(I) formed a government at the Centre. Vajpayee forwarded the resignation letters to the President after two days.

Subramanian Swamy met West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu on April 8 in Calcutta, to "seek his wisdom and guidance" on forming an alternative government. Basu made it clear that he was not a candidate for the Prime Minister’s post, while Subramanian Swamy said he carried no such request to Basu. The objective of the meeting appeared to be to pave the way for him and the AIADMK to participate in the new government.

On April 9, the AIADMK announced its decision to withdraw from the coalition’s Coordination Committee. Party chairman V.R. Nedunchezhiyan and senior office-bearers, in a joint statement, said that the decision was in "furtherance of Jayalalitha’s goal of speedily ensuring a political structure that treats all citizens equally irrespective of region, religion and caste, so that all feel secure and safe."

In a sharp attack on BJP hardliners, the AIADMK accused them of taking the country back to the medieval era, and claimed that their abuses and attacks would not deflect her party from its resolve to give India a government that was both just and effective, in the shortest possible time. The AIADMK repeated Jayalalitha’s allegation that the Government was promoting terrorism and accused Advani and Fernandes of patronising the LTTE in Tamil Nadu. It said that the BJP hardliners were not pleased with the condition that the AIADMK had put at the time of forging the alliance that its support would depend on the BJP giving up sectarian demands such as building the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the repeal of Article 370, and the enactment of a uniform civil code.

The AIADMK insisted that the dismissal of the DMK Government was not the issue. National security was the issue, especially the demoralisation in the armed forces following the shabby treatment of senior officers and the denial of the best quality equipment.

The BJP dismissed the AIADMK’s resignation from the Coordination Committee as being of no consequence. Apart from the ’unauthorised’ request of Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi to Jayalalitha over the phone to continue her support to the Government, the party did not send any emissary to Chennai, as it had done in the past, to placate her. Instead, Vajpayee and Advani publicly sought the DMK’s support, indicating that all doors of negotiations with Jayalalitha were closed.

See online : Frontline


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

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