"The BJP leadership treated us like second-class citizens." — Jayalalitha in Chennai on March 14
IT was the BJP’s worst nightmare come true. After its assiduously negotiated electoral alliances took it to the threshold of power, it was being held to ransom by AIADMK chief J. Jayalalitha even before its government could be sworn in. So much so that even her apparent climbdown on giving a letter of support—with all its attendant bluster—has left the BJP leadership in a bit of a quandary.
The initial snub was administered by Jayalalitha by making the BJP leadership wait for nearly three days for her letter of support. When it was finally sent on March 14, at the last possible moment, it went straight to President K.R. Narayanan, with the BJP leadership at the receiving end of only the sharpest criticism and a strongly-worded attack questioning both its attitude and intention.
This was so despite Atal Behari Vajpayee having tried to seize the political advantage and what is left of the moral high-ground in the current scenario—by giving Narayanan evidence of the support of just 240 MPs on March 12, he had effectively called her bluff and forced her hand. The upshot: unless the president takes a bleak view of the shenanigans and name-calling that preceded the submission of the letters of support by the BJP’s "allies" in Tamil Nadu, Vajpayee is bound to be sworn in as prime minister sooner rather than later.
It is, perhaps, symbolic of the state of the alliance that at the end of a 72-hour wait on Saturday afternoon, it was the BJP’s bete noire and Janata Party chief Subramanian Swamy who led a group of the party’s Tamil Nadu allies to the President to submit the letter announcing ‘outside’ support. But given the numbers game in the 12th Lok Sabha, the matter is far from resolved—notwithstanding Jayalalitha’s affirmation of support of 27 MPs to the BJP in the "national interest" because she "did not want to be a hurdle in government formation".
This was more than evident from the reaction of BJP president L.K. Advani, who interrupted his meeting with senior BJP leaders and alliance partners at Vajpayee’s residence on hearing of Jayalalitha’s decision. He told reporters that he was "gratified that Ms Jayalalitha has announced her support and hopeful that all hurdles would be overcome by addressing her concerns though not bowing to any conditions. But we are not staking any claim. Let the invitation come from the president as he has initiated the process of government formation."
CLEARLY, the BJP leadership, more than aware of Murphy’s law, is advancing with caution. As Advani told Outlook: "We are aware of the fact that those opposing us would like us to form the government and then attempt to bring it down." The BJP’s central leadership is palpably apprehensive of the Jayalalitha-Swamy duo’s next move. Indeed, nobody is willing to put money on their continued support during a prospective motion of no-confidence against the BJP.
But for now the AIADMK alliance’s choices are limited. Sonia Gandhi’s takeover as Congress president and the accompanying acrimony in her party have made the Congress a less attractive alternative. Besides, the DMK-TMC combine is still an integral part of the United Front, whose support is crucial to any Congress-led government. And as a BJP general secretary notes, "Once a government is formed, incumbency offers many advantages." An attempt to muster up numbers in Parliament and the threat of dissolution, which no sitting MP would want, among them.
Says a senior BJP leader: "It is understandable that Jayalalitha is letting off steam since she has had to make an inglorious climbdown in the face of our resolve not to agree to any conditions. Her anger, though, would be better directed at those who wanted plum positions in the Union cabinet and obviously misled her into believing that we were prepared to make any sacrifices to achieve power."
Still, the AIADMK’s aggressive posturing has put a question mark over a BJP coalition’s longevity. Jayalalitha’s decision to call back all her MPs to Chennai and her announcement that she would not attend Vaypayee’s swearing-in ceremony have already set off warning bells. But neither the BJP nor its allies can afford to be seen as not trying to form a government after getting so close. That is why the party has deftly thrown the ball into the president’s court, "without agreeing to any conditions and thereby keeping our image intact".
The mood among BJP leaders in Chennai is less conciliatory. Says one of the senior-most leaders in the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit: "Never before were we humiliated like this. Even Mayawati treated us with much more respect. If this is realpolitik, then most of us may have either to transform ourselves fully or opt for RSS-related social work."
HE is equally clear about the dilemma before his party: "I don’t have an honest answer to the question whether she will support us during the confidence vote. But our problem is, we can not reject Jayalalitha’s support because we don’t have the numbers. And we can’t accept her because she has cast aspersions on Advani and Vajpayee. What will stop her from getting up one fine morning and pulling down a Vajpayee-led government just because, say, George Fernandes addresses an international socialist congress or S. Gurumurthy says something pungent about corruption!" It is significant, however, that the AIADMK is not as solidly behind Jayalalitha as is made out. Some party leaders concede that Jayalalitha has bent over backwards for Cabinet positions for Swamy and V. Ramamurthy to get out of the corruption cases against her "at the cost of the party cadre".
But at the national level, while her ‘conditions’ have been rejected, her ‘concerns’ have been taken into account to give her a face-saving sop. BJP sources said Advani had conveyed to Jayalalitha that the proposed alliance’s "national agenda" would address her "concerns about a package for Tamil Nadu wherever possible". Accordingly, it was announced on March 14 that the final draft of the agenda had been delayed to incorporate the AIADMK’s suggestions. Among the issues under discussion:
The final draft will contain a commitment to explore all legal and constitutional means to allow more reservations for Tamil Nadu (she has demanded 69 per cent and asked that this power be transferred to the state list). This may be linked to an over-all examination of the demand from other southern states like Karnataka which too want over 70 per cent reservations.
- Thirty-three per cent reservation for women in legislatures though a quota for OBC women could be somewhat problematic.
On the Cauvery waters dispute, the formulation of "an appropriate mechanism", the final wording for which is open to discussion. This could also be applied to other intra-state disputes such as the one on Chandigarh between Haryana and Punjab.
While raising the height of the Periyar dam "can be looked into", the demand for Tamil to be declared an official language is considered impractical but it may be mentioned that Tamil, like other Indian languages, is a "national language".
Even so, this may well be the beginning, not the end, of the BJP’s troubles. Swamy and Jayalalitha are not known for their capacity to forgive and forget. In fact, Vajpayee was more than aware that he was dealing with an unpredictable ally even before the alliance was struck. During the BJP’s national executive meet at Bhubaneshwar a few months ago, the usually wordperfect leader was distinctly uncomfortable while trying to fend off questions relating to his party’s deal with the "corrupt" Jayalalitha on the one hand and criticism of Laloo Prasad Yadav on the other.
Later, addressing delegates at a private session, Vaj-payee reportedly used an analogy from the Mahabharata to explain his predicament: "The moment Yudhishtira took upon himself the responsibility of lying to Dronacharya during the battle that Ashwatthama was dead, as that was the only way to prevent the triumph of evil over good, the wheels of his chariot, that were always four inches above the ground, came to the ground with a thud." What Vajpayee probably hadn’t bargained for was that Jayalalitha would prove to be the sort of ally who is not only difficult to defend but against whom the BJP would have to defend itself.