THE way in which political parties are realigning themselves is bringing the day closer when the Congress may shed its inhibitions and makes a bid to topple the Vajpayee government. Old Congressmen are returning to the fold. The caste-based populists, who suffered a crushing rejection by the electorate when they were part of the United Front, are in search of new allies: Laloo and Mulayam Singh Yadav have not only forged an alliance with each other but also with the Congress. Earlier this week, Smt Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party decided to back the Congress despite the presence of Mulayam Singh in its fold. And with the DMK getting palpably closer to the BJP, the Left Front has overcome its scruples about supporting the Congress if it consorts with the AIADMK. The stage is, therefore, set for a challenge to Mr Vajpayee.
There are many in the party who are urging precisely this course of action. But Mrs Sonia Gandhi would do well to follow her own instincts and resist their blandishments. Toppling the Vajpayee government now would be a disaster not only for the Congress party, but also for the country. First, there is no certainty that the Vajpayee government will, when faced by a no-confidence motion, wait to be defeated on the floor of the House. Mr Vajpayee has made it clear that in such a circumstance he would far rather recommend a dissolution of Parliament. Will the President accept?
Constitutional theorists have argued both ways about whether a prime minister faced with the loss of his majority has the right to make such a recommendation. But one suspects that the correct position is that the President will be bound by his advice so long as he has not actually lost a vote on the floor of the House. Sir Ivor Jennings, the great British constitutional theorist, had explicitly recognised the right of the prime minister to threaten dissolution as the ultimate weapon for enforcing discipline in a party. Mr Narayanan will most likely adhere to this norm.
Should there be a fresh election, the BJP will go into it as martyrs, and may, therefore, well end by increasing their lead. At any rate, as the party that will have pushed India once again into political turmoil, the Congress is unlikely to gain in strength and may well lose some of the seats it holds today. Even if the Congress noses ahead of the BJP, the government it forms will be no more stable or coherent than that of the BJP. In fact, given its fractious and ideologically blinkered partners, it might be a good deal less so.
Its plight will be no better if Mr Vajpayee does not recommend dissolution but simply resigns. For, to use a baseball metaphor, the Congress will form a government with two uncommitted middle voters (mostly made up of young people) who are increasingly determining the outcome of the elections these days, but it will soon prove itself to be as divided on policy issues, and therefore as impotent, as the United Front turned out to be.
In domestic politics, the first issue the government will face will be Smt Jayalalitha's demand to oust the DMK government. The BJP managed to avoid this disastrous action because it had powerful leverage over Jayalalitha. The two parties had fought the last elections as a coalition. So Jayalalitha could never be sure of how much of her vote came from sympathisers of the BJP. That made her reluctant to face another election, and Mr Vajpayee skillfully capitalised on it. But there will be no such bonds tying her to the Congress. The Congress too has virtually committed itself to punishing the DMK for its supposed role in creating circumstances conducive to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. It will, therefore, find it almost impossible to refuse Ms Jayalalitha's demand. That will put the ball in the President's court, and Mr Narayanan has made it abundantly clear that he will view a recommendation for the dissolution of a government under Article 356 only in the light of the interpretation that has been given to this power by the Supreme Court. That means that he would send the recommendation back to the Cabinet for reconsideration, as he did when the UF tried to oust the Kalyan Singh government in UP. The end product of the Congress-Jayalalitha entente could, therefore, be months of sound and fury that achieve nothing.
The Congress will also be totally hamstrung in its economic policy. It has already received an early warning from the CPI(M)'s boy wonder, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, who said in a televised interview on Monday last week (September 1) that the Left would back the Congress, "only we would like to get a few things clear first about its economic policy". With friends like Surjeet, and that other doughty champion of mindless populism, Ram Vilas Paswan, the Congress will need no enemies—for it will have replaced a government that has the power to do things but does not know what to do, with one that knows what to do but does not have the power to do it.
Let us now examine the consequences of a change of government for India. The first thing to go on hold would be the talks with the US over India's security and global nonproliferation. These have been extraordinarily constructive so far. Only days ago the US Assistant Secretary of State, Karl Inderfurth, gave India the signal it had been looking for when he told a Congressional committee that the US would lift its sanctions if India signed the CTBT. This has cleared the way for an Indo-US agreement which, although no one will say so explicitly, will accept India's de facto nuclear status by recognising the legitimacy of its security concerns. If the Vajpayee government falls now, it will at least delay an agreement by several months. That delay will abort President Clinton's visit to India in November. Once that happens, the US' terms for reaching an agreement will most certainly harden. The sanctions will continue, and the economy will remain depressed.
That is not all. Pakistan is in the midst of an all-out effort to convince the world that Kashmir is a dangerous nuclear flash-point, which the international community can only defuse by imposing a solution on India. The key element in this strategy is to build up the military confrontation in Kashmir till the countries come to the brink of war. A sudden power vacuum in Delhi could tempt the hawks in its national security apparatus to go a step too far. In this context, Mrs Sonia Gandhi would do well to look at an article in the latest issue of Jane's Defence Journal, which quotes unidentified western military sources who estimate that of the 300,000 or so committed Islamic guerrillas and terrorists trained in the CIA-ISI training camps set up in Pakistan and Afghanistan, more than 100,000 are earmarked specifically for operations in Kashmir. What would be a better time to send in this invasion than when there is no government in Delhi?