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A Matrimony In Discord

For now the NDA allies sit uneasily with the BJP line, but TDP-led rumblings within do not portend well for the government

A Matrimony In Discord
THE day after the Rajya Sabha debate on the Ayodhya issue was over, Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee walked across to the parliamentary party office of the TDp. As TDp parliamentary party leader Yerran Naidu put it, "Sister" (who also happens to be the Union railway minister) had come to discuss some railway projects for Andhra Pradesh—yet another sign of the recent bonding between the "brother-sister" duo so anxious to retain their secular credentials. Also joining in this filial bonding are various other brothers-in-arms: Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi, Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala and Janata Dal (United) president Sharad Yadav. The awkward arithmetic of the 13th Lok Sabha may compel them to be with the bjp rIGHt now, but a political churning has definitely been set into motion.

Former prime minister V.P. Singh and the CPI(M) have opened channels of communication with the NDA allies. Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu is also talking separately to Karunanidhi. He may not want to bring down the Vajpayee government but he knows that politics in the era of coalitions is the art of the possible. With 29 MPs, the TDP (never formally part of the NDA but practically an ally of the Vajpayee government) is the big brother of the NDA Family, bar the bjp. And big brother has proved smarter than little sister (who has just eight MPs) in handling the bjp once it raised the Ayodhya issue. Even as the issue was debated in the Rajya Sabha (where the nda is In a minority) on December 18 and put to vote the next day, the tdp played hardball with the government.

As the debate began, the PM received a letter from Naidu, listing his nine demands (see box) on paddy procurement. The state agriculture minister V.S. Rao and civil supplies minister N. JanarDHAn Reddy arrived in Delhi to thrash out the issue with Union consumer affairs and pds minister Shanta Kumar and Food Corporation of India officials. As some of Naidu's demands were clearly preposterous, the talks broke down. Later, one of the Andhra Pradesh ministers hinted to the media tHAT "at this rate we may see the end of this government".

THAt evening, the tdp MP C. Ramachandraiah made a hard-hitting speech against the bjp in the Rajya Sabha. Attacking the PM "for kicking up this unnecessary controversy", he said, "We had to choose between the devil and the deep sea and we choose the deep sea because we know how to swim ashore...." Warning the government against deviating from the common agenda, he warned: "It's not that we're helpless or have no other option...we extended support on the condition that controversial issues be put on the backburner."

THE threat was implicit in his words. The PM heard it loud and clear. Instructions were given that "all" Naidu's demands be conceded. The next day, all the tdp MPs in the Rajya Sabha voted with the government. A grinning Yerran Naidu declared: "By and large all our demands are met. Only small details have to be thrashed out."

CHAnDRAbabu Naidu had once agAIN shown himself as a master of coalition politics. The wily manipulator had been in constant touch with his MPS in Delhi, choreographing every move. Yerran Naidu played his role as Chandrababu's eyes, ears and voice in Delhi.

THERE Is another complexity in the bjp-tdp relationship. The AP bjp state unit would like to raise the issue of a separate state of Telangana. They have been reined in by the bjp's central leadership. An agitation for Telangana would be a huge headache for Chandrababu. So would any upping of the ante on the Ram mandir. Chandrababu has considerable Muslim support which would definitely prESSure him to pull out if the mandir issue hots up.

Mamata Banerjee too is looking for a mantra to regain some popularity with the Muslims of West Bengal where assembly polls are due in March-April. Some of her MPs now say it may "already be too late for Mamata". Her frequent tantrums and threats about quitting the government—which are never carried out—have made her lose some face in Bengal. As of now, she appears outmanouevred by the bjp.

ALL along Mamata has been hoping that either the Congress will accept her as a leader IN Bengal or the STate Congress will split and a faction attach itself to her. But the anti-Left secular political groups who were beginning to rally around Mamata ARe now backing off. Former cpi(m) leader Saifuddin Chaudhary, FOR instance, had seen Mamata as a rallying point. He is now believed to be having second thoughts. ThougH MAMAta remains unpredictable, heR MPs suggest that she may wanT To stick around long enough to announce the railway budget in February—presumably Bengal will again be gifted with her largesse.

KARunanidhi also faces assembly elections in March-April. In response to the PM's statement that allies show restraint, last week the Tamil Nadu chief minister snapped back: "It is not jUST for the allies to show restraint. The bjp must also show it." He went on to say that should there be any deviation from the nda agenda, the dmk would pull out.

The signals from Tamil Nadu suggest thaT Political realignments cannot be ruled out. Rajya Sabha MP Cho Ramaswamy, one of the bjp's key handlers in the state, has been making overtures at aiaDMK leader J. Jayalalitha. At the grassroots level, there has always been a greater synergy between the aiadmk and the Hindu Munnani, the rss' front in Tamil Nadu. The bjp's national leaders, however, prefer to deal with Karunanidhi than with the temperamental Jayalalitha.

What the allies do next will depend on what the bjp does with its Ram card. Even small players like Haryana chief minister Chautala are nervous. He recently organised an iftar where his guests of honour were the Muslims of Mewat. The jd(u)'s Sharad Yadav is so unhappy that he refuses to speak on the record these days. With his party splitting, Yadav is in no position to tackle the bjp right now.

The allies will be watching. When the bjp's national executive meets next month, they will carefully analyse every speech and read every nuance of the political resolution. That's why the bjp is working hard to fine-tune its art of speaking in two voices—it must keep the cadre happy even as the allies are given enough room to stay in the government.

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