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Dramatis Personae

Outlook's political bureau raise the curtain on a running farce called Indian politics

Dramatis Personae
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TANTRUM RANI

WHATEVER might be Jayalalitha's weaknesses, none can accuse her of altruism, or of being trapped in an ideological jacket. She is a woman of indeterminate politics, with a one-point programme of serving herself. While she accuses the BJP of behaving like Big Brother, she has been dictatorial towards her minor allies. But big sister is allowed to behave differently. That's perhaps why she is tolerating Sonia Gandhi's "inordinate delay" in announcing a formal understanding with the AIADMK.

The inherent contradictions that make up Jayalalitha are legion. She is a Brahmin but she heads a non-Brahmin political party; she's a spinster who conducted a mega wedding for her foster-son. No political or psychological theory can explain her utter selfishness; all the excuses about political compulsions and maltreatment of the AIADMK do not hold water with respect to Jayalalitha's latest "knock-out punch" on the BJP. She's milked the BJP cow to the maximum. Now it's time to move on.

The BJP leaders point to the long list of demands made by Jayalalitha that have been fulfilled. It includes the transfer of special secretary Ashok Kumar from the home ministry, appointment of AIADMK members as central government counsel in Tamil Nadu; transfer of income tax officials; a central government order stalling the special courts that are trying cases against Jayalalitha and her aides; special priority to give her a transponder in the new INSAT-2E satellite for her proposed TV channel; and the sacking of Justice Shivappa. But Jaya wants more. Few have crossed and double-crossed the tenuous political Lakshman-rekha quite this blatantly. Jayalalitha attends a tea party hosted by a BJP MP to ensure the survival of the government; the very next day she shows up at Subramanian Swamy's tea party to oust the government. On the day of the BJP's national conference in Goa, she produces a new set of demands, which includes the sacking of George Fernandes and the reinstatement of Admiral Bhagwat. At the same time she orders her nominees in the cabinet to be in Chennai.

Working to Jayalalitha's advantage has been the BJP's willingness to tolerate any humiliation. Jayalalitha has come down hard on L.K. Advani and has slighted BJP leaders 60 times in the last 15 months. She has openly clubbed the general secretary of the BJP, Pramod Mahajan, with "every Tom, Dick and Harry" to whom she is not answerable. She told the state unit of the BJP that it has no leaders of stature.

To be fair to Jayalalitha, she has been consistent in her intemperate behaviour. Her latest tantrums should be no surprise.

KING OF COMPROMISE

THE BJP may describe him as a "very reasonable, liberal prime minister" but Atal Behari Vajpayee is proving that when it comes to survival, he has learnt his lessons from "old friend" Narasimha Rao. Even at the cost of self-humiliation, he bet on hope in the face of belligerence from Jayal-alitha and criticism from within. Preoccupied as he has been over the past two weeks with saving the prime ministerial gaddi at any cost, the feeling in political circles is that he would have cut a deal with Jayalalitha this time too. But his party took over and forced Amma's hand.

A patient man, Vajpayee gave the two AIADMK ministers as many as 48 hours to reconsider before forwarding their resignations to the President. He refused to sack Jayalalitha from the coordinating committee till she quit herself.He thinks on his feet, does Vajpayee. When the Jaya durbar moved to Delhi for five days his party indulged in pyrotechnics against her, but his son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya spent half-an-hour closeted with Jayalalitha. And after her seven-minute summit with Sonia, Vajpayee responded with: "There is nothing wrong in political leaders meeting each other in a democracy."

Close associates insist this only proves that here is a man who's followed "coalition dharma" even as events hurtled inexorably towards confrontation. It's got nothing to do with desperate battles for survival. These were just "tactical ploys" used by the patriach from Madhya Bharat. It follows that Om Prakash Chautala and his four MPs who were chased away a couple of months ago were being wooed. By M.L. Khurana, no less, a man so "humiliated" by his party leadership that he quit the government in disgust.

Vajpayee will quit if the numbers are stacked against him in Parliament. But it doesn't mean he won't use every trick in the book to prevent this. Given the current political scenario that means an extended bout of—in Vajpayee's favourite phrase when he was in the opposition—"tod-phod ki rajniti" (politics of defections). More politely referred to these days as a "realignment of political forces". And Vajpayee, we are told, is an honourable man...

BACKSEAT DRIVER


THE Red Baron adores playing kingmaker. After a lifetime of anti-Congressism, Harkishen Singh Surjeet is now its most ardent supporter. After decrying dynasti-cism in politics, he's laying out the red carpet for Sonia Gandhi. Surjeet's main ideological bugbear is now communalism, his strong opposition to Manmohanomics now forgotten. He has undertaken the ouster of the BJP as a Marx-given mission with supreme confidence.

The Left Front, for whom coalition politics has been a godsend, would again play a pivotal role if the BJP is supplanted, whether by the Congress or the UF. It may not be fair to describe Surjeet as a power-junkie or a control-freak, but he has a generous dash of both traits. His hallmark has been exercising power without responsibility.

Congressmen admit that Surjeet has been mandated by their party chief to garner the requisite strength to first topple the BJP and then form an alternative government. He could deliver on the first but gets snappish when questioned about the second.

With the topple mantra on his mind, Surjeet, despite ill health, is willing to talk to any and all 'secular' parties to ensure the end of the BJP government. 'Secular' here means all those who are anti-BJP, even if they're anti-Congress. In fact, he's been telling them to be nice to the Congress.

Surjeet's claim that any alternative to the BJP would be Congress-led lacks conviction. Every so often, his pal Jyoti Basu's name pops up as a prime ministerial candidate. So far, Surjeet has insisted on a single-party Congress government supported from outside by the Left Front, RLM and smaller parties. Having been pulled down twice by the Congress on flimsy grounds, the UF could then stay outside the government, criticise Sonia and destabilise her at will.

In a classic triple-cross, Surjeet is trying to sell this scenario to the RLM. But Mulayam Singh Yadav's RLM wants a share of power, and feels that unconditional support to the Congress at the Centre will compromise regional interests. The RLM hopes the Congress will consent to a UF-led government.

Surjeet would not mind seeing his disciple, Mulayam Singh, installed on high. That would give him as much clout as he had during H.D. Deve Gowda's tenure—to whom, also, he would not be averse. But Congress leaders would, and Surjeet's priority is to see that the party does not back out.

Surjeet is treading more cautiously than he did when the 12th Lok Sabha election results were announced. He had then immediately declared unconditional support to the Congress on behalf of the UF, which precipitated the departure of the TDP from the front. Powered by copious doses of dry fruit, he continues to add, subtract and most of all, divide.

FLIP-FLOP QUEEN

FOR Congress president Sonia Gandhi, it's been the season of flip-flops. She started as the patron saint of principled politics but jettisoned her halo when power beckoned. She promised a constructive opposition, but wooed J. Jayalalitha to destabilise the government. When an alternative government seemed dicey, she U-turned.

The graceful acceptance of the people's verdict that it sit in the opposition is a thing of the past as the Congress lays siege to the treasury benches. She decried coalitions and sneered at the casteist Yadav duo, but is willing to join hands with them to form a khichdi sarkar. She reviled the politics of opportunism but now has no objections to power-brokers.

It won't do to appear as power-hungry spoilers uncertain of their political future. So, the party's tack is that if its hand is forced by the BJP's incompetence, it will reluctantly fulfill its "constitutional responsibility" and form an alternative government. Nobody's fooled. Sonia's five meetings with CPM leader H.K.S. Surjeet and her tete-a-tete with J. Jayalalitha sig-nalled that the jod-tod exercise had her tacit approval.

Until January, things went according to plan: the BJP fumbled and bumbled, the party made gains in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and the South and nary a squeak of dissent was heard from within. Sonia appeared certain of leading her stormtroop-ers to victory in the 13th Lok Sabha. In a rapid volte-face, she has let them loose in the 12th Lok Sabha itself.

While the Congress is pretty sure of phase one of its programme, toppling the government, phase two—forming an alternative government—is a problem. The INLD, DMK, BSP, RSP and Forward Bloc would rather face elections than back a Congress government, though the TMC now says it will. But other allies may not want Sonia in the top job.

One reason why the party refuses to deal directly with its potential allies is to preclude negotiations. "The minute you talk, you have to compromise, because everyone will have terms and conditions," observed an MP. The first hint of political blackmail would be slapped down with the brahmastra of elections. And if somebody actually calls the party's bluff—well, pollward ho! That's fine by some Congressmen, especially those in the Rajya Sabha, but not by relatively poorer Lok Sabha members who have to face the music in the electoral arena.

NEMESIS MAN

ONCE Vajpayee's frontline trouble-shooter, George Fernandes has become the government's biggest liability. Hounded by the Bhagwat controversy, a desperate defence minister is finding it hard to pull himself out of the tailspin. The sacking of Vishnu Bhagwat was his New Year's gift to the government. But the 'masterstroke' could become the rag-tag coalition's Waterloo. Fernandes handed the opposition sufficient ammunition.

Once he'd taken the plunge, Fernandes had to justify the dismissal of the erstwhile chief of the naval staff. "National security risk, indiscipline, insubordination and wrecking the armed forces' ethos," he declared. Bhagwat hit back hard: "Destabilising the Northeast by allowing gun-running, fraternising with arms dealers, promoting officers with suspect credentials."

It was clear that the affair wouldn't die easily. It hasn't. Jayalalitha made it an integral part of her strategy. Her demand for the institution of a JPC, Bhagwat's reinstatement and George's head was a tall order. Fern-andes spent 90 minutes trying to convince Amma of Bhagwat's role. He left crestfallen.

The "friendlies" in the media were also part of George's strategy. Bhagwat was painted as an ogre, whose continuance would sound the death-knell of the forces. But Bhagwat's defenders in the press swung into action as well. "If he actually was a security risk, why not try him for treason?" George had no convincing answer. With the alarm bells sounding, George resorted to mega press conferences and television interviews, but the story has only becomes murkier.

Almost 70, Fernandes, whose political career has swung to extremes, knows that he is sinking. He could take the Vajpayee government down with him as well.

IRON CARDINAL

FOR the wannabe Iron Man of India, the survival of the Vajpayee administration the contrary, that Advani has been at odds with the Vajpayee Plan For Survival. The past fortnight has only confirmed suspicions that Advani has his own, very distinctive agenda for the BJP.

The cost of running the government is too high for Advani if the party suffers, though he'd be pleased if the Vajpayee administration lasts despite chasing away Chautala and Jayalalitha.

On the face of it, Advani's actions and words are perfectly justifiable. Why shouldn't he show the "3-4 MP parties" who's boss? Or an 18-MP party, as he proved during the BJP national executive meet at Goa, even as Vajpayee was at his most conciliatory. Advani taunted Jayalal-itha by telling the media that even after an ally's withdrawal of support, the government would be able to prove its majority.

The plan to jettison Jaya may have borne fruit: Advani hopes that the government will survive, the party hopes the public will forget the times it prostrated itself before Amma in order to hang on to power.

What's important, and unsaid, is the hardline view, which sees the experiment with coalition politics and a watered-down agenda as a temporary necessity. The electorate couldn't have been allowed to think that the BJP was incapable of coming to power after the 13-day sarkar of 1996. Now, hardliners want to clean up party ideology, complete the sidelining of the moderates, stick to allies who do not have ideological aversions to the BJP's distinctive agenda. The hierarchy is staffed with functionaries groomed by Advani in the Hindutva-inspired growth of the party over the past decade.

This control may now become absolute. For all his personal regard for Vajpayee, Advani has clearly been uncomfortable with the PM's attempt to nudge the BJP down the Congress-minus-the-corruption path. He'd rather not relinquish the politics of identity that he believes has made the party what it is.

DESPERATE DUO

UNTIL yesterday, Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav described the Congress as his "enemy no 1" in Uttar Pradesh; his brother and SP MP Ram Gopal Yadav called Sonia Gandhi an "agent of the West". Today, she is Mulayam's ticket to power. RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav contemptuously termed Congressmen 'vote-katuas' in the last poll. Now, he can't do enough for the party that bailed him out of a tight spot in Parliament.

Mulayam, who missed prime minister-ship by a whisker in the last Lok Sabha, hopes that he might make it this time if the Congress decides not to form a government. Having launched a common front along with Laloo Yadav, he now has a sizeable bargaining bloc of 37 RLM MPs in the 12th Lok Sabha. And the Rashtriya Janata Party could add another in the shape of Anand Mohan.

Unfortunately for Mulayam, his compulsions and those of his Yadav comrade-in-arms are different. While Laloo has little to fear from the Congress, Mulayam certainly does. Privately, SP MPs fear that if Sonia Gandhi becomes prime minister, the upper castes in UP—sick to death of chief minister Kalyan Singh—might defect en masse to the Congress. In that event, the minorities might also decide to quit the SP fold. Off the record, SP MPs are vituperative about Sonia, and would not want her as prime minister.

So, while vote-bank politics precludes Mulayam from being seen to stand with the BJP, it also means he cannot back a Sonia-led government without hurting himself, perhaps even mortally. This has prompted a subtle shift in the RLM's stand—it reiterated its commitment to bringing down the BJP government, but it no longer offered unconditional support to the Congress.

And Mulayam has conditions aplenty. The Congress president would have to rein in UPCC chief Salman Khursheed—who has made no bones about the fact that he intends to wipe out Mulayam—and leave the UP arena to him. Just as it has, in effect, left Bihar to Laloo.

AMBITIOUS FARMER

IT was the Congress that booted him out from prime ministership in 1997. But the humble farmer from Haradanahalli, having left after show-Gowda has been mixing statements to the effect that "Congress will head the new coalition" with the forced optimisim of when the Vajpayee government falls.

The humble farmer's first meeting with Soniaji was held last December and Gowda followed this up with a few brainstorming sessions with Subramanian Swamy. He even sent former aviation minister C.M. Ibrahim to meet Jayalalitha. The message to Amma was that all secularist forces must come together. He would be only too pleased to help in any such effort. Even to stand at their head, if asked. Or even if he wasn't asked, actually.

The usual suspects have been roped in to help him regain the gaddi. His old guru and United Front master strategist, CPI(M) leader Surjeet, has been briefing him daily. In case the Marxists don't do the trick, Gowda is propitiating the gods with a 40-day yagna in Kerala.

That Gowda at the head of a six-MP party (including another former PM I.K. Gujral and Ram Vilas Paswan who is nearly out of the party) can even harbour ambitions of becoming prime minister, is perhaps the perfect illustration of the charade that contemporary Indian politics has been reduced to. Sonia has hardly spent the past one-and-a-half years following a punishing schedule on the road in order to install Gowda as PM! Try telling him that, though.

WANNABE PM

THE satrap who would be king, Sharad Pawar has never held a brief for dynasticism, but of late sings clipped praises to Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

Clearly, he would like Sonia to remain Congress president—not that he has a choice—while he becomes prime minister. Trouble is, he lacks a basic qualification—sycophancy—for the number two slot in the party. Unlike Manmohan Singh and other senior leaders, he couldn't bring himself to queue up at 10, Janpath to fawn on Sonia when she completed her first year in office.

But he's been doing the best he can: opposed to the party's over-the-top line on Bhagwat, he's become the most vocal spokesman for a JPC. Though opposed to a bid for power, he's now predicting the demise of the BJP government.

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