Debating India

Back to the polls

Saturday 8 May 1999, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

At the end of a week of intense political activity aimed at shaping a new governing combination to replace the defeated BJP-led coalition in New Delhi, the numbers favour none, and the 12th Lok Sabha is dissolved. The nation faces the third general election in three years.

in New Delhi

AN alternative dispensation was of course an arithmetical possibility once the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition Government headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee was voted out of office on April 17. Yet it proved impossible to surmount mere arithmetic and establish a congruence of political interests among a diverse set of players.

Showing quick reflexes, Sonia Gandhi promised after her first meeting with President K.R. Narayanan on April 21 that she would soon have the committed support of 272 members of the Lok Sabha. Since the Congress(I) leader came up with this precise figure shortly after being told that the BJP-led alliance had claimed the support of 270 members, her assumption, it seemed, was clear - all those who were not with the BJP would be with the Congress(I). A spontaneous fusion of political forces, it seemed, had taken place to unseat the Vajpayee Government. And the bonds created in that task would be sustained through the mission of putting together an alternative government, it appeared.

This calculation was underpinned by an element of conjecture. More seriously, it went by a rather gross misreading of precedent. With one government having been voted out, the Congress(I)’s political managers were convinced that their claims as the second largest party in the Lok Sabha were virtually axiomatic. And the occupation of power, it was argued, would be the best means to unify the diverse proclivities of the 270 MPs in their distinct orbits who voted to bring down the Vajpayee Government. Once in authority, the Congress(I) would exert a sufficiently strong gravitational pull on all those of infirm convictions and perhaps even induce a minor exodus from the BJP alliance.

The figures had been worked out well in advance of the withdrawal of support to the Vajpayee Government by Jayalalitha’s AIADMK. Subramanian Swamy, who has functioned for the last year as Jayalalitha’s principal strategic adviser, was convinced that once the BJP was ejected, the momentum towards the formation of an alternative would be inexorable. Again, the prognosis was dependent almost entirely on the arithmetical agglomeration of parties rather than the coalescence of political interests.

TROUBLE began first with Rashtrapati Bhavan discretely communicating to all the parties that it would follow convention and insist on formal and credible commitments of support that would put a prospective ruling arrangement beyond the threshold of 272 seats in the Lok Sabha. Then, a meeting of all the potential non-Congress(I) participants on April 21 seemed to run into a new obstacle. Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) had taken the initiative to convene this gathering and, in a clear indication of his concerns, invited the former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar to attend. In a context when he was under pressure to go along unconditionally with the move to install a minority government led by Sonia Gandhi, he was seeking to recruit Chandra Shekhar’s well-known aversion to the Congress(I) leader to a partisan political cause.

The meeting often descended into acrimony. Mulayam Singh and Chandra Shekhar, in defiance of the majority opinion that the erstwhile constituents of the United Front should go along with a minority Congress government, insisted on a role reversal. The United Front would provide the leadership through Jyoti Basu, the Marxist veteran from West Bengal. The Congress(I) could then be drafted in, either as a coalition partner or an external prop of the new regime.

For Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, this was akin to reneging on a compact that had been implicitly sealed prior to the Vajpayee Government’s fall. And it also involved the reversal of his own party’s position, reaffirmed at the Calcutta congress last year, that it would not participate in a ruling arrangement in which it did not have an overwhelming strength in numbers.

This early discord was rapidly amplified on two accounts. Chandra Shekhar was in continual touch with George Fernandes of the Samata Party, ironically the very man whose administrative misdemeanours had been the immediate and stated provocation for the AIADMK’s withdrawal from the BJP-led coalition. The idea was to work towards a new formation which would bring together the estranged allies of the two earlier experiments in Third Front politics. With the Samata Party, the Biju Janata Dal and the Telugu Desam Party provisionally being amenable to this concept, Mulayam Singh and Chandra Shekhar were working on reversing the onus. It would be this incipient "fourth front" that would take the initiative to form a government. In the interests of safeguarding secular politics, it would then place on the Congress(I) the responsibility of sustaining it through a passive external role.

The Congress(I), of course, was not listening. Even as the Third Front leaders were grappling with the permutations that would make a "fourth front" possible, Sonia Gandhi was meeting the President to affirm, quite definitively, that she would cross the magic threshold of support in the Lok Sabha within two days. Her own consultations within the Congress(I) had seemingly endowed her with an abundance of confidence. But parallel conclaves elsewhere in the national capital were throwing her calculations out of gear.

The Left bloc of 49 members in the Lok Sabha had been taken for granted by the Congress(I) leadership all through its exertions. But meetings of the four parties involved in the Left Front had thrown up an unexpected divergence. The CPI(M) and the CPI had few reservations about deploying their numbers to bolster a Congress(I) minority government. But the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) - together accounting for seven seats - proved recalcitrant. This point was put across quite firmly at a meeting on April 20. Long having conducted their politics on the premise that the BJP and the Congress(I) were equally undesirable elements, neither the RSP nor the AIFB was inclined to embrace what they tended to view as an act of apostasy. Rather, they were inclined to view a government led by a stalwart of the Left like Jyoti Basu as the only feasible option. Between the relative merits of Basu and Sonia Gandhi, the RSP and AIFB clearly saw no scope for the slightest argument.

Within the expected base of 272 MPs, a bloc of intractable elements had begun to coalesce around Mulayam Singh. Although he himself had direct influence over only 20 S.P. members, Mulayam Singh was by now clearly the pivotal figure. If he had shown any sign of relenting, the others too could have been persuaded to alter their rigid stances. And once the S.P., the RSP and the AIFB fell in line, the tide would have quite decisively shifted in favour of a Sonia Gandhi-led government.

Even as Sonia Gandhi began a series of personal interventions, Mulayam Singh was conducting a hurried meeting of his party faithful in Lucknow. The Congress(I) leader’s social calls on the day her efforts peaked included those to Jyoti Basu, Laloo Prasad Yadav, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. But Mulayam Singh remained aloof and disdainful, pointedly asking a questioner in Lucknow whether he was any less a leader than Sonia Gandhi.

Jayalalitha and Laloo Yadav were key mediators in a second phase of dialogue, oriented towards obtaining Congress(I) sustenance for a Ministry led by the Third Front. The proposal was summarily rejected. Arjun Singh, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) member who seemed all through the ministerial crisis, to exercise an influence disproportionate to his known political base or acumen, was categorical: the new government would be led by none other than Sonia Gandhi and it would quite decisively be an exclusively Congress(I) affair. All the intractable elements would be won over and the requisite strength proven within two days, said Arjun Singh on April 22.

The basis of his optimism were the letters of support that Laloo Yadav and Jayalalitha had handed over to the President that day. With a strong current of political opinion supporting a Congress minority government, it seemed that Mulayam Singh and the two smaller Left parties would have no option but to soften their stand.

In placing its exclusive reliance on these seeming inevitabilities, the Congress(I) was proving grossly inattentive to the tasks of dialogue and consensus-building. As speculation mounted and the BJP began to seek recourse to techniques of rumour and innuendo, the President took a rather unusual step. On April 22, Rashtrapati Bhavan put out a press release, detailing all the consultations that the President intended to have the following day. Once these were concluded, a final decision on Ministry formation would not take much longer, said the Rashtrapati Bhavan release.

THE turning point came on April 23. First, the RSP and the AIFB went to the President with like messages - that they would have nothing to do with a Congress(I) government. Then, Mulayam Singh administered the final blow, informing the President that his bloc of 20 MPs would not vote in support of a Congress(I) minority government. Upon emerging from Rashtrapati Bhavan he evaded all questions and remained incommunicado for the rest of the day, leaving the detailed articulation of his party’s position to two general secretaries - Amar Singh and Mohammad Azam Khan.

Harkishan Singh Surjeet was clearly exasperated at the turn of events. He was unable to understand what was behind the sudden qualms that Mulayam Singh had suffered about supporting the Congress(I), after repeatedly having called on that party in the preceding months to take the initiative in constituting an alternative regime. And as far as an administration led by the Third Front was concerned, he was plainly dismissive: "First tell me where is the Third Front." In his estimation, this was a deliberate attempt to fudge the central issue, which was that the only option open other than a Congress(I) government was mid-term general elections. Although he was still committed to supporting the Congress(I) in its effort to form a government, he plainly thought it wrong to rule out a coalitional arrangement: "We do not want to join any government. But we do not think it right that a party that wants to join should have the door shut on it."

On April 23, Sonia Gandhi went for another audience with the President, with the chastening admission that she had managed to obtain commitments of support from no more than 233 MPs. She asked for more time. While granting the Congress(I) leader this courtesy, the President also put out a formal message, assuring the public that the exercise of constituting a Ministry would be concluded "shortly". There was no cause to rush into a "hasty decision", said the message from Rashtrapati Bhavan, since the President was considering "all the valuable comments from persons across the political spectrum" and would have to reckon with "past precedents as well as new circumstances, some of which are altogether without earlier paradigms in India".

IT was one of the more unfortunate aspects of the ministerial crisis that senior leaders of the BJP had no qualms about casting aspersions on the President’s neutrality and impartiality. Disregarding his formal message of April 23, Union Minister for Human Resource Development Murli Manohar Joshi came forth with an outburst that was remarkably consistent with his pattern of churlish behaviour. The BJP alliance, meanwhile, was conducting a conclave of its own to reaffirm faith in Vajpayee’s leadership. With the alternative exertions seeming to meander into a political void, hopes were awakened that Vajpayee might well be reinstated in office.

These hopes were buttressed when a delegation from the BJP alliance, with a newly won friend in Murasoli Maran of the DMK in tow, called on the President the following day. The upshot of the consultations was that the BJP alliance would be in the reckoning if no other credible claim to Ministry formation could be established. But since Vajpayee had just been voted out by the Lok Sabha, he would need to prove an "accretion of strength" to his ranks since the vote was taken.

A FINAL attempt at an alternative was meanwhile under way, with a "draft Basu" programme. Somnath Chatterjee, the leader of the CPI(M) in the Lok Sabha, took the initiative in this campaign, winning the West Bengal Chief Minister’s assent for his candidature. The CPI(M) Polit Bureau, reluctant to frustrate prematurely what seemed the only way of retrieving the situation, reserved its counsel on the question. Jayalalitha and Laloo Yadav were enthusiastic in their endorsement of Basu’s claim. But this time it was the Congress(I) that baulked. After having beguiled themselves with visions of untrammelled power, the Congress(I) bosses were not about to accept a passive role.

On April 25, with the Congress(I) formally vetoing Basu’s candidacy, the President summoned Vajpayee from a rally organised to denounce the "betrayal" he had suffered. He conveyed his finding that no alternative government seemed feasible and that the BJP’s own claims for reinstatement had not been backed by a demonstrated "accretion of numbers" to its ranks. In the circumstances, fresh general elections seemed the only realistic way out of the impasse. The Prime Minister promised to discuss the matter with his Cabinet and to report back to the President the following day.

The Cabinet met the following day. Where an objective admission of its failure to demonstrate an accretion of strength would have been unexceptionable, the BJP alliance sought, for no evident reason, to put the onus for the dissolution of the Lok Sabha on the President. The wording of the Cabinet resolution is curious and may unfortunately exert an influence as a precedent on future eventualities: "In deference to the President’s assessment of the situation, as conveyed by him to the Prime Minister on April 25, the Cabinet decides to recommend to him that he may dissolve the House."

With that last act of ill grace, the 12th Lok Sabha passed into history. The BJP in the following days insisted that the next general elections should be held at an early date, evidently with an eye on the possibility of a strong tide of public sympathy in its favour. Other parties were just as keen that the elections should not be a hurried affair which could be disrupted by adverse climatic conditions, whether of peak summer or the monsoon. The Election Commission, for its part, made it clear that it was keen to conclude a round of electoral rolls revision before going into the massive exercise of elections.

THE process of concluding alliances had meanwhile begun, with the BJP alliance seeming intent on sticking together and perhaps adding on a few additional members. Spokesmen of the ruling alliance are convinced that they will carry the momentum of these days into the electoral contest and successfully capitalise on the incoherence of the opposite camp. But that may be an unduly facile view. The sympathy factor, even if it does exist to a limited degree, has never outweighed hard considerations of political performance. The BJP has now given notice that it intends to observe May 11, the anniversary of the Pokhran nuclear tests, as "National Resurgence Day". The Pokhran blasts figure prominently in recent publicity material issued by the BJP as one of the many solid achievements of the party in office. Realities of the electoral fray may well render another judgment - that Pokhran was a symbol of the BJP’s tendency to rush into ill-considered decisions with no thought to the possible consequences.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Volume 16 - Issue 10, May. 08 - 21, 1999

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