IT may not be a 'quick clean death', but the endgame for the BJP-AIADMK alliance seems to have begun. Despite a deliberate let's-not-rush-into-action attitude adopted by prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, and stray talk of a last-minute compromise, Jayalalitha's incessant attacks continue. From accusing the PMO of corruption to slamming Vajpayee for selling out Tamil Nadu's interests by cutting a deal on Cauvery.
A significant chunk of the BJP leadership and its allies are building up pressure to sack Jayalalitha from the ruling coalition. The North-South "allies" now seem to be waiting for the other to blink first.
As the BJP went into its three-day national executive at Jaipur on August 21, Vajpayee's tactic to stand his ground on the Cauvery pact and allegations of corruption in his office but resist advice to "sack Jayalalitha" drew flak. Despite the official "everything-is-not-over-yet" line mouthed by sundry party leaders at Jaipur. It is an open secret that many in the BJP would prefer a far more pro-active stand vis-a-vis the "impossible woman".
Vajpayee's associates say that though he knows a break with the AIADMK may only be a matter of time, he would rather let her take the final step. His aides emphasise that "despite perceptions to the contrary" the prime minister has not been kowtowing to Jayalalitha's whims. According to them, his attitude has been to respect the opinions of the BJP's largest coalition partner but take a firm stand when needed. "But we are, after all, interested in running this government," says senior BJP leader Pramod Mahajan.
That Vajpayee has been hesitant to make the final break with Jayalalitha is also thought necessary to send out the "right political signals". With the numbers in the Lok Sabha being what they are, only coalitions can be formed, and a mid-term poll may throw up a similar situation.
"Why should we do it? Let her continue to make unreasonable demands to which we won't give in, till she decides to withdraw support. Then the sympathy will also be for us—that we tried our best to play the accommodating role of the bigger party but she had fixed her own plans with the Opposition and was only waiting till the Congress agreed to join an alternative government," explains a Vajpayee aide. What is left unsaid, of course, is that the PM has a perfectly justifiable interest in playing the statesman as he wants his government to continue. The breather also gives the BJP time to make up the numbers when the break does come.
But top-level BJP sources indicate that the party leadership, including Union home minister L.K. Advani, are in favour of getting rid of the AIADMK immediately. "But Advaniji is extra-cautious about his relationship with Atalji, so he will not push this line too hard," says a senior BJP leader. For the party leadership, however, the dividing line between sending out the "right political signals" and facing daily humiliations to hang on to power seems to be wearing thin.
Perhaps best illustrated by BJP president Kushabhau Thakre at Jaipur when he claimed that the relationship with the AIADMK "had not yet reached a point of no return". But he let his instincts take over when asked for his reaction to Mamata Banerjee's demand for the AIADMK's expulsion—"I think she may be right." In fact, through last week, BJP general secretary Venkaiah Naidu articulated the line that the BJP "wants all its allies to remain together". So, does the BJP want the AIADMK to stay on board despite its fulminations against the government? "That is the question everybody in the party is asking," was his cryptic reply.
Party sources also point out that general secretary Govindacharya, who on the eve of the Jaipur meet took a hardline regarding the daily bickering with the AIADMK was singing a different tune the next day under pressure from the Vajpayee camp—"a compromise can still be worked out". A BJP leader told Outlook: "Though I am pessimistic about the alliance because of Jayala-litha's continuing tirade on Cauvery and pressure from the party, she herself has said the way to put the controversy to rest is the reinstallation of ex-enforcement director M.K. Bezbaruah. While there is no way the government will issue an executive order to this effect, if the court orders it we may have to comply. That is the only possibility of a last-minute compromise I can think of, apart from a climbdown on Jayalalitha's part and a Cabinet expansion."
For Jayalalitha, on the other hand, there seems to be no going back. Yet, she too is holding back on the final parting. Says a senior AIADMK leader: "She would rather force Vajpayee to throw her out by making direct attacks." According to him, getting sacked from the ruling coalition rather than leaving it will (a) take the sting away from the charge that she caused the government to fall; (b) make it easier for the 'secular front' to convince the Congress to step in as the Vajpayee government will fall due to "internal contradictions" and not through "destabilisation" and (c) drive a wedge between party hardliners who do not want to be seen hanging on to power at all costs and Vajpayee, who would naturally like to save his government. "But in the end, it could just be that Amma is waiting for the right date her astrologers have predicted or a more positive signal from the Congress," he adds.
Significantly, while Cauvery and dismissal of the DMK are touted as factors which may have led to Jayalalitha's disenchantment with her northern ally, the real problem lies elsewhere. In the persistent efforts of BJP managers to try and break the Jayalalitha-led coalition (see 'The Friend is an Enemy') while adopting a moral high ground that the alliance has conferred "respectability" on Jayalalitha.
BJP leaders concede that while Jayalalitha's other fulminations were met with Union ministers taking the evening flight to Chennai, when it came to a corruption charge against the PMO, the BJP which has long prided itself as a party leading the charge on corruption issues, was rattled. Forced into a corner, Mahajan had no option but to help bring the endgame closer by daring Jayalalitha to back her charges that he was the "gentleman who recently left the PMO" and had taken bribes from a leading media house to effect Bezbaruah's transfer. Says BJP leader K.L. Sharma: "The time to prove the charges is here. The ball is in Jayalalitha's court."
And after five months of nearly nonstop bickering, Vajpayee is under pressure from his party to act and not to give in to the politics of blackmail. Says Mahajan: "There is no price high enough to pay for self-respect. This is no way for an ally to behave. If we were willing to take all this just to stay in power, I wouldn't have written her the letter." Others such as S. Gurumurthy and the party's Tamil Nadu unit have also been saying in private that the AIADMK must be jettisoned. Sources claim that even Mahajan admits that snapping ties with Jayalalitha "may be a risk, but a risk worth taking".
But the BJP wants to continue in power, at least "for a year", to justify its 'stable government, able leader' slogan. While some leaders understand the PM's keenness to let Jayalalitha take the final step, they feel the options are few considering her attacks.
Despite the numbers scenario, Naidu claims "there will either be a BJP government or general elections." His assumption is based on the fact that with 277 MPs on its side (including AIADMK MPs) if Jayalalitha withdraws her 18 MPs, it will still be in a "good position" to form the government though short of a majority.
The BJP is looking at the six DMK MPS for "outside support", and banking on a couple of JD members. The party is also looking at effecting strategic abstentions from within the Opposition by playing up the scare of a midterm poll. In fact, the strategy is to put out the story that Sonia Gandhi "is not ready for an alternative government". Jayalalitha willing, the denouement seems round the corner.