February 21, 2020
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A Coalition In Fetters

The BJP struggles to come up with a strategy to deal with unpredictable allies like Jayalalitha

A Coalition In Fetters

THE past fortnight has probably been the most trying for the weeks-old Atal Behari Vajpayee government. Inimical allies, unreasonable demands, unfettered name-calling. Despite the fact that on Saturday Jaswant Singh's peace mission to Chennai resulted in Jayalalitha finally agreeing to attend a meeting of the hastily revived coordination committee in the first week of May. Meanwhile, the Samata Party and Mamata Banerjee joined the list of peeved allies.

And so, prime minister Vajpayee continues to be in the hot seat. Commentators have begun using reams of newsprint urging him to 'act', even as some in his own party wonder whether his much-publicised friendship with Narasimha Rao extends to a commonality of views on statecraft. While a senior leader of the United Front points out that the BJP policy of using "half a carrot and half a stick to deal with its allies will not only do nothing for the proverbial horse, but will eventually leave them with an ass".

But Vajpayee's perceived lack of action and the signals he has been sending out—everybody must be taken along, BJP allies too have a responsibility towards the coalition—is probably the only option left open for the BJP. Unless, of course, their most unpredictable ally, Jayalalitha, decides to change course once again.

The thinking among those close to Vajpayee—which is not exactly shared by others in the BJP, especially those owing allegiance to home minister L.K. Advani—seems to be that they simply do not have the numbers to adopt a hard line. "We can, and have, made many concessions but we will not be seen to be doing anything unconstitutional such as dismissing the DMK government. Unless, of course, there is irrefutable evidence to justify sacking M. Karunanidhi. Advaniji has made it clear that if the authority of the government is undermined, even a justified move in that direction over the coming months will become contentious," says a BJP leader.

This implies that while it may be understandable for ministers like Ram Jethmalani and Ramakrishna Hegde—who have been the 'tactical' targets of the Jayalalitha-Subramanian Swamy duo—to speak of "calling her bluff", it is not something Vajpayee is likely to consider seriously. That is, short of Advani's head and immediate dismissal of the DMK, Vajpayee is willing to consider "various issues".

Significantly, the position of AIADMK allies like the PMK and the MDMK vis-a-vis the BJP if Jayalalitha pulls out is far from positive. "Why shouldn't we support her? Whatever Jayalalitha asks for, she gets," says PMK minister of state Dalit Ezhamalai. Sources point out that while both MDMK leader Vaiko (V. Gopalsamy) and PMK supremo Ramdoss are willing to go along with Vajpayee's attempts to keep Jayalalitha on board, they are emphatic that "attempts to break us will not succeed". As for Swamy, V.K. Ramamurthy and AIADMK MPs, they seem to be too much in awe, critics say fear, of Jayalalitha to even think of defying her. Still, BJP managers are looking for any additional support they can pick up in the Lok Sabha in case of a 'contingency'.

BJP sources concede that an attempt is being made to play up the differences between Vajpayee and Advani on the Jayalalitha issue, but point out that both are agreed that it would be in the interest of the BJP to keep the alliance intact despite Advani's reservations on being overtly accommodative. It was Advani, remember, who helped work out the AIADMK-BJP alliance, brushing aside questions on the corruption charges against Jayalalitha by pointing to the 'symbolism' of the "north and south coming together in this historic alliance".

On another front, the BJP is apprehensive that after its disastrous alliance with Mayawati, an acrimonious parting with Jayalalitha could give it an "anti-women" tag. Especially as they are having trouble with Mamata Banerjee as well.

But even as Vajpayee is immersed in another fire-fighting operation, the results of which should be apparent in the coming days, the BJP's spin doctors are simultaneously making a not-so-subtle attempt to portray the party as a victim of 'immature and irresponsible' allies—the 'good' party and prime minister caught in the crossfire. Perhaps to use as a selling point in the next elections, whenever they happen to come along.

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