Debating India


Rank uncertainty

Saturday 22 May 1999, by VENKATESAN*V.

The BJP and its allies seek to formalise an alliance, but there are dissensions in the ranks of many of its constituent parties and disagreements over the choice of campaign issues.

in New Delhi

WITH the electoral battle looming ahead, the Bharatiya Janata Party is seeking to consolidate its ranks. However, its efforts have only served to sharpen the focus on the differences among its many disparate allies who share little in terms of ideology.

On May 15, the BJP and at least 13 other parties that voted in favour of the confidence motion moved in the Lok Sabha by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in mid-April announced that they had formed a grouping called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with Vajpayee as its chairman. The allies also decided, in principle, to adopt a common manifesto, which would be a refashioned version of the National Agenda for Governance adopted by the BJP and its (then-existing) allies prior to the formation of a coalition government in March 1998. The formation of the NDA was evidently part of a strategy with an eye on the post-election scenario: the BJP perhaps reckons that in case it does not emerge as the single largest party, the NDA can claim that it must be recognised as a single entity since it fought the elections under one name, one manifesto and one leader, and therefore has a more persuasive claim to being invited to form a government than other parties or (post-election) groupings.

The leaders who attended a meeting at the Prime Minister’s residence in New Delhi, at which the alliance was formalised, were: A.B. Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Kushabhau Thakre, Sikander Bakht, Jaswant Singh, Rangarajan Kumaramangalam and Pramod Mahajan (all BJP); George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar (Samata Party); Naveen Patnaik (Biju Janata Dal); S.S. Barnala (Shiromani Akali Dal); Murasoli Maran (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam); Madhukar Sarpotdar (Shiv Sena); Ramakrishna Hegde (Lok Shakti); Surinder Singh (Haryana Vikas Party); Om Prakash Chautala (Indian National Lok Dal); Omang Apang (Arunachal Congress); Vaiko (Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam); Dr. S. Ramadoss (Pattali Makkal Katchi); Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthy (Tamizhaga Rajiv Congress); Maneka Gandhi (independent) and S.K. Biswamuthiary, who represents a Bodo party.

The significance of the show of unity was considerably diminished by the fact that the Trinamul Congress, the Telugu Desam Party and the National Conference were not represented at the meeting.

AT another level, some of the BJP’s allies were plagued by disunity and bickerings in their ranks. Kalpnath Rai, a Samata Party MP in the dissolved Lok Sabha, joined the Congress(I) on May 11, leaving Samata Party leaders somewhat embittered. Party general secretary Jaya Jaitley claimed that Rai had walked out of a party that "salvaged" his "tarnished image". "It was dishonest of him to use our party as a waiting room," she said.

Rai’s exit came close on the heels of Fernandes’ call for bringing together "all erstwhile Socialists" under one banner. The Samata Party’s national executive meeting in New Delhi on May 5 approved a plan mooted by Fernandes to form a new party of "like-minded" Socialist outfits. The parties and leaders whom the Samata Party had in mind are the BJD, the Lok Shakti, the INLD, a section of the Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Janata Party led by former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, and Menaka Gandhi.

However, the appeal evoked little positive response, with no party barring the Lok Shakti showing any enthusiasm. Some cynical observers felt that the Samata Party, which had recently been derecognised as a national party by the Election Commission, made the merger proposal in a bid to gain the status of a national party. However, Jaya Jaitley said that the objective was to provide a national platform for regional leaders and to infuse greater stability and cohesion within the BJP-led coalition.

Jaya Jaitley also refuted the suggestion that the Samata Party hoped to rope in Mulayam Singh Yadav, another Lohia-ite Socialist. She said: "We share a common ideology with Mulayam Singh Yadav, but we differ on the tactical line to be adopted. Our invitation is certainly not for him."

The BJP did not react to the proposal, but party leaders hinted that they would not favour such a merger of minor parties within the coalition as it would increase their bargaining potential vis-a-vis the BJP. The BJP was rather more concerned about the dissensions within its own ranks in Uttar Pradesh.

AS it got into the campaign mode, much of the BJP’s attention was devoted to working out the logistics of campaign tours in such a way that warring leaders did not get caught up in turf battles. For instance, the warring leaders in Delhi - Sushma Swaraj, Madan Lal Khurana and Sahib Singh Verma - were put in charge of three different States: Sushma Swaraj took charge of U.P., while Khurana was asked to win over the support of Punjabis in Himachal Pradesh. Jat leaders Verma and former Rajasthan Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat will campaign in the Jat belts of Haryana, and U.P. Chief Minister Kalyan Singh in Rajasthan rather than in the State he rules.

The party observed May 11, the first anniversary of the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, as ’Resurgent India Day’ and used it to kick off its campaign. While Vajpayee was the main speaker at a BJP-Shiv Sena public meeting in Mumbai, Advani led the campaign of the BJP-BJD combine in Bhubaneswar.

The BJP’s decision not to sever its ties with the Haryana Vikas Party led by Bansi Lal put its relationship with the INLD under great strain. INLD leader Om Prakash Chautala declared that his party would not enter into any alliance with any formation in which the HVP was a constituent. On another front, the BJP’s ties with the BJD were tested when rebel BJD leaders expressed a desire to merge with the BJP. The BJD very nearly split when party president Naveen Patnaik decided to dissolve the party’s political affairs committee, which was chaired by dissident leader Bijoy Mahapatra.

The BJP’s ally in Karnataka, the Lok Shakti, too suffered a setback when six of its MLAs, who operated under the banner of the Navanirman Vedike, joined the Congress(I). Elections to the Karnataka Assembly are likely to be held along with the Lok Sabha elections, and the Lok Shakti-BJP combine in the State is yet to evolve an electoral strategy. A section of the Janata Dal led by Chief Minister J.H. Patel, evidently wants an electoral arrangement with the Lok Shakti-BJP combine; it is not clear whom the BJP and its allies will project as their candidate for chief ministership. Lok Shakti president and Union Commerce Minister Ramakrishna Hegde is a strong contender if the combine wins a majority in the Assembly.

The precise nature of the electoral agreement that the BJP will work out with the DMK and the Telugu Desam Party is unclear. While the DMK appears to be in favour of an alliance with the BJP, the TDP has so far refrained from announcing a formal alliance with the BJP for fear of losing the support of minority communities: Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and TDP leader N. Chandrababu Naidu has all along maintained that his party would go it alone, in the Lok Sabha elections and in the Assembly elections.

In Tamil Nadu, although the DMK and the MDMK are now on the same platform, the nitty-gritty of the seat-sharing exercise may pose a few irritants. The BJP has reportedly demanded 15 Lok Sabha seats. Campaign issues too may prove difficult to synchronise. The MDMK has suggested that the common manifesto promise reservation for Dalit Christians, but the suggestion is unlikely to go down well with the BJP which has in the past organised agitations against the proposal.

The BJP’s ally in Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal is on the verge of a split. The faction headed by Gurcharan Singh Tohra, which claims the support of two MPs in the dissolved Lok Sabha, is likely to break away and launch a new party which would oppose the BJP.

AT the core of the BJP’s campaign strategy was the confusion over whether or not Sonia Gandhi’s "foreign origins" should be made a campaign issue. While senior leaders claimed that it was already an issue even though they were not in favour of it, the party’s second-line leaders have quite uninhibited in taking up the theme from time to time. On May 11, a press release from the party referred to a news report in an English daily that claimed that Sonia Gandhi had registered herself as a voter in the New Delhi constituency in January 1980 even though she had not given up her Italian citizenship at that time. The press note claimed that her name was struck off the voters’ list in 1982, and she re-registered in January 1983, again without giving up her Italian citizenship. She was registered as an Indian citizen on April 30, 1983, the note claimed. Congress(I) spokesperson Ajit Jogi, however, denied the BJP’s claim and said that she had never voted before April 1983, when she acquired Indian citizenship. If her name figured on the voters’ list before 1983, it was owing to a mistake on the part of the Election Commission, Jogi claimed.

BJP leaders who are believed to be close to Vajpayee feel that overplaying the "foreign card" will boomerang on the BJP; however, another section wants to use the issue to derive electoral advantage by projecting Vajpayee as the ’Indian Prime Minister’.

In the matter of being elected to high positions in government, the Indian Constitution does not distinguish between natural-born citizens and foreigners who have acquired Indian citizenship. Some BJP leaders concede that there is thus no constitutional bar on Sonia Gandhi becoming Prime Minister. Some leaders, however, argue in favour of amending the Constitution to bar foreigners who acquire Indian citizenship from becoming President or Prime Minister. Union Minister of State for Youth Affairs and Sports Uma Bharati made certain inflammatory remarks on the subject but subsequently claimed that she had been misquoted.

As the BJP prepares to debate its campaign strategy, many of the contradictions within the BJP and its allies are likely to come into the open.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 11, May. 22 - June 04, 1999

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